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Le Tigre celtique en question

Catherine Maignant

Économie et société

Refugees in Ireland: a Case of Social Closure

Michel Peillon (1999)


Résumé : Michel Peillon analyse cet effet immédiat de la prospérité en Irlande qu’a été l’afflux soudain d’immigrants dans un pays au solde migratoire traditionnellement négatif. Il distingue différentes catégories d’« autres » désormais présentes sur le sol irlandais afin d’évaluer discours et comportements à leur endroit. Il défend l’idée que l’intégration varie moins en fonction de la provenance de « l’autre » que de son aptitude à apporter une contribution réellement positive à sa société d’accueil. Il est ainsi erroné, selon lui, de lier manifestations d’hostilité et d’intolérance au sentiment que l’identité irlandaise serait aujourd’hui menacée. Écrit en 1999, cet article porte témoignage des tout premiers effets de l’immigration des années quatre-vingt-dix.

Texte intégral

1In the late summer of 1998, a Tullamore doctor announced that he was offering a reward of IR£ 10,000 to trace the origin of rumours which circulated about him in this small town in the Midlands. The rumours related to the unexplained disappearance of a young mother from the town. Not only was the doctor alleged to be involved in this disappearance, but all kinds of sinister crimes and practices were mentioned. The doctor’s announcement hit the headlines and he was interviewed on the main television news programmes. When the image of this mild-mannered individual with his wife and children appeared on screen, the real issue in this episode became obvious. As an Eastern Muslim family in the middle of a culturally homogeneous small town, they had become the target of a nasty rumours campaign. Whatever the motives or interests of those who started these rumours, a sufficient number of people were willing to believe or half-believe this story, to carry it around and spread it, to uphold its plausibility within the collectivity. For a brief time, one glimpsed the uglier side of Irish provincial life.

2This case illustrates in quite a vivid way the negative attitude which has developed of late in Ireland towards “foreigners”, or rather towards some categories of foreigners. Some of them are now perceived as a threat and they trigger mechanisms of social closure. We are concerned in this paper with answering the question of why and how this happens.

The other within

  • 1 Micheál Macgréil, Prejudice in Ireland revisited, Maynooth, St Patrick’s College, 1996.

3Micheál Macgréil in his study of prejudice in Ireland1 has measured the attitudes of Irish people towards a wide range of social, ethnic and national categories. No great social distance is recorded for English, North Americans, Scots and Welsh; their rating is explained by the author in terms of ethnic propinquity. This category includes those nationalities which, culturally very close, have been the traditional destination of Irish emigration. Let us call them the “Proximate Others”. It has been estimated that 1% of the population living in the Republic enjoy American citizenship. English, Welsh and Scots residing in Ireland are numbered with difficulty, as a long-standing agreement between the UK and Ireland grants to nationals of both countries reciprocal rights of travel, residence and work. In any case, the otherness of this category of people is hardly registered; accent sets them apart, but they still share a language and many cultural traits.

4Nationals from West European countries attract a little more social distance. They come close to what Georg Simmel has called the stranger. They do not belong to the group, at least initially, and bring qualities which are not indigenous. At the same time near and remote, they exist within this peculiar tension of nearness and distance. Ireland has moved quite close to Western European countries in political, economic and even cultural terms, and they now constitute the “Acceptable Others”. A figure of 100,000 EU nationals residing in Ireland has been put forward as a rough estimate.

  • 2 Refugee Resettlement Research Project, Report of a Survey of the Vietnamese and Bosnian Communities (...)

5Irish people do not feel particularly close to a range of nationalities or ethnies: less than half of them, for instance, would accept Jews, Greeks, Russians, Africans, etc. in their family. Chinese, Blacks, Indians, Israelis, Nigerians, Black Americans, Pakistanis, Moslems, Arabs and Travellers, all attract a high score of social distance. Most contemporary nationalities and ethnies outside the English speaking world and Western Europe are included in this category of the “Different Others”. Some of these people have found their way to Ireland. The door was open in 1979 to a limited number of refugees from Vietnam. Two hundred and twelve Boat People, as they were then called, were allowed in as refugees, and about 600 of them have now settled here. The recent dismantlement of Yuguslavia and the ensuing civil war led to another wave of refugees: 178 refugees from Bosnia arrived in 1992. More than 800 Bosnians now live in Ireland, half of them in Dublin 15, which is sometimes labelled “Little Bosnia”. All these refugees do not tell a story of success and integration, as only a quarter of the adults have obtained full-time employment. Language problems and the difficulty of obtaining recognition for their qualifications continue to exclude them from mainstream Irish society.2

6An increasing number of Muslims reside here: officially recorded at 3,875 in the 1991 Census, their numbers have rapidly increased to 6,000. Several Halal butchers have set up shops in the Camden Street area of Dublin. A mosque has been built in Clonskeagh, adding a distinctive architectural feature to this well-to-do suburb. With the wearing of the hijab, many Muslim women are very distinctive. The first Chinese arrived in Ireland in the 1960s and they now form a community of 11,000 people. Most of them work in Chinese restaurants, and a few herbal medicine shops have opened. Harcourt Street in Dublin has become a centre of Chinese culture and it may not be long before the Chinese New Year is added to the calendar of Irish celebrations. Five hundred Hinduists are also registered in Ireland, not to mention the growing number of Buddhists.

7Concern has emerged more recently about the increasing number of people seeking asylum in Ireland. Practically nobody sought refuge in Ireland a few years ago. In 1992, only 39 individuals applied for refugee status. In 1995, the figure remained low at 424 applications. In 1997, the number of applications rose to 3,883, it reached 4,626 in 1998, and 7,724 in 1999. Applicants for refugee status typically come from countries such as Congo, Nigeria, Algeria, Somalia, and a high proportion of these applications have been rejected. More recently, refugees from Eastern Europe have appeared on the Irish scene, most of them Romanian gypsies attracted to Ireland by rumours of prosperity and generosity. Many of them children, they have travelled across Europe in the back of containers to reach Irish shores. They have brought to Ireland their Tsigane lifestyle and the sound of the accordeon from gypsy buskers now resonates on Grafton Street.

8The “Different Others” live according to norms and habits which deviate from those of the host country; they retain in their appearance and demeanour something of the place they came from. They are judged in the light of their distance from the host cultural standards and inevitably fare badly in the exercise. They now exist through their difference: or, rather, their difference represents their way of belonging. For this reason, the “Different Others” attract like a magnet practices of rejection, hostility and intolerance. In fact, these “Others” do not have to come from elsewhere. The 22,000 Irish Travellers have attracted extreme hostility; yet, they have been here all the time. Their hybrid lifestyle, half sedentary and half nomadic, has marginalized them.

9Finally one finds a radical otherness, which covers those differences which can hardly be imagined and which do not in a sense belong to the same world. They have lost any kind of relevance. The “Radical Others” only exist, if at all, as exotic figures. As they have no bearing on our life, they do not have to be gauged, rated according to the cultural standards of the group. There exists no plausible reason to feel negative or hostile about the Pygmies of Congo or the inhabitants of Western Pacific islands. They do not enter our field of relevance: they can remain as different as they like, and the more different they become the more interesting they appear. Until, of course, a desperate Pygmy seeks asylum in Ireland and passes into our frame of reference.

Discourses and practices about the Other

10Images of refugees queuing outside the Department of Justice, in the rain and for hours on end, simply scandalised the nation. They publicly displayed the unsympathetic attitude of officialdom towards asylum seekers. A lack of resources was blamed for the failure to deal with the problem in a swift way: but the uncaring treatment of refugees was more deeply rooted. Amnesty International has denounced as cruel the complexity of procedures according to which refugees are processed. The Department of Justice has been picketed in protest at its handling of refugees. The failure to implement the Refugee Act 1996 and the lack of statutory basis or independent authority for adjudicating on refugees’ applications have not escaped notice. The Minister for Justice responded in quite a chilling manner to the developing crisis. He suggested the removal of social welfare support for asylum seekers and mooted the idea of accommodating them in disused army barracks.

11At the height of the influx of Romanian gypsies, reaching Ireland hidden on board freight containers, the mass media were publishing numerous articles and editorials on this topic. A few of them were pointing out the dire conditions in which gypsies lived in Romania, as well as the perilous circumstances of their travelling. It was also widely claimed that Ireland had been targeted by Mafia-types gangs which, at a price, organised this trans-European crossing. It was even contended, quite plausibly, that such gangs had discovered on the Internet the rights of refugees in Ireland and the benefits to which they are entitled. The coverage of the media turned increasingly negative. In August 1998, the Wexford People published an editorial on the growing issue of the refugee influx in the town. It talked about refugees in designer clothes, eating in fine restaurants and being accommodated in top-of-the-range residences. Rumours had it that they were receiving an entertainment allowance!

12Official and media reaction to the influx of refugees are both feeding on popular perceptions and contributing to them. If refugees are getting a bad press, they are also in their daily life feeling the full brunt of hostility. Displays of hostility are becoming not only more frequent but also more violent. The nasty comments may come at any time, from anybody: in the street, on the bus, in the shop, in the pub, from passing cars, from neighbours, from children and, to the despair of a refugee, even from prostitutes. And feelings run deep. Mary, a street-trader, lives in a building in which many refugees are lodged and she complains bitterly about them:

They just walk in and get everything I don’t get: a medical card, free rent, £64 in the pocket. They are bad neighbours: they throw their waste on the balcony, leave their children unattended. In the evening, men arrive and keep late hours.

  • 3 Sunday Independent poll, December 8th, 1998.

13Hostility is activated by the small details of daily life, by the difficulties of cohabitation, by the different rhythms according to which different cultures live. But cost constitutes the most recurrent complaint. Even the homeless resent the “foreigners” being granted welfare and rent allowances. A nearriot developed when refugees and homeless were made to queue in the same welfare office for their benefits. Seventy per cent of Irish people think that the majority of asylum-seekers are not refugees at all and that they simply come here for economic reasons.3 They are widely perceived as “scroungers, layabouts”. The fact that asylum seekers in 1998 cost the Irish state more than fifty million pounds is endlessly repeated.

14When the Immigration Control Platform held its first meeting in Ennis in January 1998, it claimed to represent the silent majority. The meeting in Ennis had attracted only a handful of followers and was soon abandoned when faced with the vocal opposition of around seventy protesters. The Immigration Control Platform was started by a school teacher from County Cork. She had stood in the 1997 general election on an anti-immigration platform, and she polled 290 votes. She had also in the past campaigned against the European Union, against New Age Travellers settling in County Cork, and regularly denounced the invasion of beautiful West Cork by EU national blow-ins. “Immigrants are destroying the traditional fabric of rural Ireland”, she complained, pointing to the fact that the population of West Cork now comprises close to 10% of foreigners. But hers was not an effective voice and she found it difficult to articulate in a coherent way this attitude of rejection.

15A large number of organisations have emerged to denounce the intolerance towards ethnic and racial minorities. Powerful groups and individuals have added their weight and expressed their concern at the widespread hostility towards refugees and minorities. Intolerance and racism, on the other hand, have not been the object of a coherent discourse in Ireland. This does not mean that they are not expressed or more significantly practised. When, as long ago as March 1996, the National Youth Council organised an anti-racism campaign, it received numerous abusive phone calls and letters for its efforts. Graffiti too have been used to express hostility and abuse at ethnic and racial groups. Black people are routinely subjected to verbal attacks. Besides such primary forms of expression, racism manifests itself in discriminatory door policies in bars and clubs, in physical attacks, etc. Asylum-seekers living in some parts of Dublin inner-city have been advised by Gardai not to go out at night. Prejudice and intolerance are openly expressed and form a language of kind. But racism inhabits a world of practices more than of words. A discourse of prejudice, rejection and intolerance is articulated only with difficulty: prejudice and intolerance exist at a more primary level. They find their strength in being protected from the dissolving effects of discourses and counter-discourses. They operate at the level of emotions, beyond the power of words. They are shaped at a level which reaches deeper than that of discourse and ideology.

  • 4 Michel Maffesoli, La Contemplation du monde: figures du style communautaire, Paris, B. Grasset – Fa (...)

16Rejection crystallises at the point where those who are “different” become an image. Michel Maffesoli4 has insisted on the importance of the image as what he calls a “vector of communion”: the image matters not by the message it carries but by the emotion it produces. He develops the idea that communities exist through images and styles. But if images contribute in a powerful way to social cohesion, they also produce the reverse effect: exclusion too is intensified through the use of image, when the “Other” is visualised in a vivid way. The “Other” is always someone who in a fundamental way looks different, dresses differently, adopts a different demeanour. We all now have images of gypsy women in long skirts, carrying a young child in their arms while begging at busy crossroads. But the argument runs far deeper than the simple assertion that rejection requires a visible “Other”. Inclusion or exclusion are not prompted or strengthened by images of difference. They are constituted around such images, which produce a powerful reservoir of feelings and emotions. The “Other” is not the one who differs, but the one who can be made into an image of difference.

Citizens and others

17Although conventional, the explanation of the increased hostility towards foreigners in terms of a threat to an Irish identity does not appear particularly convincing. It is not clear which features of Irishness are threatened by the presence in Ireland of people with different ways? Furthermore, only specific groups of “Others” attract such hostility. Finally, some categories of “Others” who, like the Travellers, attract much hostility are long-standing Irish. This does not mean that the cohabitation of different cultures does not produce its daily tensions, or that foreign practices do not deeply offend the group. But the root of rejection is to be found elsewhere and another explanation is developed here.

18In May 1996, the Master of a Dublin maternity hospital considered it his duty to alert the nation about a problem he was now encountering. Pregnant women from outside the European Union were finding their way to Ireland to have their baby delivered here. Six hundred such babies had been born in this particular year. The doctor was expressing his concern about the high rate of infectious diseases such women might carry and also about the cost this practice entailed. But more was implied in this episode, for it stressed the abuse of the citizenship rule. Irish citizenship, and consequently a right of residence in any country of the European Union, is automatically granted to those who are born in Ireland. The same story was revived more recently. The Masters of Dublin’s three main maternity hospitals reported increases in births from non-EU nationals: about 600 women from Russia, Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa had in the previous year come to Ireland to have their babies delivered. Citizenship was also on the mind of some commentators of the Romanian gypsies episode. It was reported that Romanian men were hanging around girls’ secondary schools, hoping to impregnate schoolgirls: the fathering of an Irish baby would bring a right of residence!

19All citizens of the nation-state enjoy the same rights and face the same obligations. Citizenship renders all particular identities irrelevant: those of gender, race, age, religion, etc. But the universalism of citizenship is undermined in two ways. The implementation of rights and the upholding of entitlements significantly differ according to the particular groups one belongs to. But, more essentially perhaps, citizenship identifies those who enjoy rights, to the exclusion of all others. While citizenship was supposed to institutionalise all key universal values, it is now used to exclude, to reject, to particularise. It becomes the wall, the barrier which protects this new abstraction: the community of citizenship. Citizenship grants privileges to those who belong at the very same time as it denies them to the non-citizen.

  • 5 Bryan Turner (ed.), Citizenship and Social Theory, London, Sage Publications (Politics and culture (...)

20Bryan Turner5 argues that citizenship should not be defined as a set of legal rights and obligations, but in terms of practices. Citizenship involves rights and duties, entitlements and obligations, all of which are fulfilled through activity. It does not simply indicate a status, but refers to a mode of participation to the group. It demands activity and achievement. Some effort is implied by political participation: the citizen endeavours to be well informed and assumes a role in the public sphere. As autonomous and self-reliant individuals, citizens perform their economic role and contribute to the common weal, as well as ensuring an adequate living for themselves.

21Many people have come to reside in Ireland and they have made their home here. They have been by and large tolerated, although to very different degrees. Hostility emerged with the influx of Romanian gypsies seeking asylum. Some anthropologists have identified a principle which underlies a great deal of social life. They have pointed to rules of reciprocity according to which individuals or groups relate to each other. Any breach in this principle of reciprocity will produce rejection, hostility and enmity. In his time, Marx stressed that merchandises, heterogeneous in their concrete forms and functions, lose their differences when exchanged and converted into the common medium of abstract labour and money. When refugees enter a form of commercial exchange, they too lose their differences: or rather their concrete differences cease to matter. The five million tourists who visit Ireland every year are not perceived as a problem or a threat, however un-Irish their demeanour may actually be, probably because they contribute to the economy in a fundamental way. Neither are the numerous foreign students sojourning here to learn English. EU nationals participate in a global exchange which integrates Ireland within a European political and economic framework. Most foreign groups have found their place: Chinese have created an economic niche for themselves in providing exotic food; many Muslims work as medical doctors in Irish hospitals.

22But not the asylum-seekers, and certainly not the Romanian gypsies who are not so easily integrated. There was, from the start, a sense that such people were doomed to join the already excluded category of long-term unemployed. Their command of the English language, their lack of relevant skills, their cultural association with nomadism, bode badly for their future integration in Irish society. They could not realistically balance their claims to residence in Ireland with the promise of meaningful participation. Their exclusion was simply mirroring, in a sharper light, the exclusion of other social categories in Ireland, all those who are barred from the meaningful participation which goes with citizenship. Whatever claims refugees make by residing in Ireland cannot be matched by the fulfilment of duties and obligations; or only with great difficulty.

23It may be concluded, then, that the asylum seekers, particularly those from Romania, attract a great deal of hostility because they are not perceived, in the Irish context, as participants in a relation of reciprocity. A debate has actually opened about the interdiction of gainful employment which refugees face. Many voices have been raised, calling for the removal of such a rule. The organisations representative of small businesses have jumped at the opportunity and have suggested that such people would constitute a useful addition to the labour force, at a time of potential labour shortages. Their economic participation would establish a better balance between their entitlements and contribution, and considerably ease the hostility which they attract – as long as economic growth continues. If not, they would soon be perceived as taking the jobs of the Irish, and hostility towards them would intensify with the first signs of economic slowdown. In most European countries, hostility has increased dramatically when immigrants found it difficult to obtain work, when they had to depend on welfare, when they could no longer participate in a positive way to the life of the group.

A refusal of pluralism?

  • 6 Dermot Keogh, Jews in twentieth century Ireland. Refugees, Anti-semitism and the Holocaust, Cork, C (...)

24Only a little more than 2,000 non-nationals resided in Ireland in 1939.6 By 1999 the figure had risen, according to some estimates, to 160,100, that is to say close to 5% of the population in the Republic of Ireland. This opening up of Irish society has accompanied the slow and uneven transformation it underwent during this time. How has Irish society responded to this growing pluralism? None of the scenarios which enjoy wide currency in the relevant literature holds much validity. Intolerance, it has been contended by some, is the natural inclination of modern societies. They are now organised according to universal norms, which produce cultural unity, certainties and consequently intolerance. That Ireland is becoming culturally more homogeneous is very much a matter for debate. More essentially, rejection is directed not at otherness in general, but at very specific forms of it. The second, more optimistic scenario, assumed that faced with a plurality of coexisting cultures and identities, the collectivity would generate a framework which would encompass them all. Advanced societies have most definitely experienced an increasing pluralism of ethnic, racial, religious or even cultural categories: but they have not produced this integrative framework. And Ireland shows few signs of moving in that direction.

25One is left, instead, with an uneasy coexistence of cultural groups, punctuated by breakdowns. The grand ideological crusades against intolerance will have little effect, for this phenomenon is not primarily constituted in discourse. This kind of prejudice is not related, in a fundamental way, to an Irish identity which would feel under threat. The lack of tolerance and even the violent rejection of the “Other” erupts every time the reciprocity of social relations is breached in a significant way. The refugees, and more particularly the Romanian gypsies, have triggered hostility and rejection because they did not or could not enter into reciprocal relationships. They have, in this way, pushed the delicate balance of tolerance over the edge.


1 Micheál Macgréil, Prejudice in Ireland revisited, Maynooth, St Patrick’s College, 1996.

2 Refugee Resettlement Research Project, Report of a Survey of the Vietnamese and Bosnian Communities living in Ireland, Dublin, The Refugee Agency, 1998.

3 Sunday Independent poll, December 8th, 1998.

4 Michel Maffesoli, La Contemplation du monde: figures du style communautaire, Paris, B. Grasset – Fasquelle, 1993.

5 Bryan Turner (ed.), Citizenship and Social Theory, London, Sage Publications (Politics and culture series), 1993.

6 Dermot Keogh, Jews in twentieth century Ireland. Refugees, Anti-semitism and the Holocaust, Cork, Cork University Press, 1998.


Department of Sociology – NUI Maynooth, Ireland

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 2007

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