DUBLIN, Ireland—In 2007, Irish writer Roddy Doyle published a short-story collection that serves as a sequel to his novel The Commitments. For those unfamiliar with the earlier book and film, it follows the trajectory of Jimmy Rabbitte *, a Dubliner bent on managing a great rock ’n’ roll band. His group is on the verge of breakout success when ego clashes lead to the group’s disintegration.
In Doyle’s most recent installment, The Deportees, the now 36-year-old father of three decides to assemble a new band. Except this time Rabbitte has an unusual search criteria: He wants the musicians and singers to be non-Irish.
There is no way Doyle would have penned a story about a Dublin-based Nigerian-Romanian-Polish-Spanish band in 1987, when The Commitments first appeared.Nor, for that matter, would he have been able to reintroduce Rabbitte in the forum he did: The short story was one of several Doyle serialized in Metro Eireann, Ireland’s multicultural newspaper.In the 1980s, Metro Eireann didn’t exist. Immigrants in Ireland didn’t exist, either, for the most part. At that point, Ireland had a homogenous population and a stagnant economy. As Doyle recalls in the preface to his latest collection, 20 years ago you didn’t ask people what they did for a living because the answer might be “nothing.”
Fast-forward two decades. Walloping economic growth made the so-called Celtic Tiger one of the richest countries on the continent and an immigration magnet. After centuries of emigration—particularly to Great Britain and the United States—Ireland has attracted thousands of newcomers. While the economy has cooled, foreigners have not, for the most part, headed for the exits: Approximately 10 percent of the country’s 4.1 million residents are now foreign-born. The diversity of this group becomes apparent as you stroll around Dublin: Filipino restaurants stand next to Polish grocery stores and African hair-braiding salons.
The ethnic potpourri can be explained by Ireland’s immigration laws. Before the enlargement of the European Union four years ago, the Irish government allowed businesses to hire workers from around the globe with few restrictions. More than 100,000 people arrived from approximately 150 different countries between 2000 and 2004. Ireland was one of just three EU countries to allow citizens of the new member states to work within its borders. (The others were Great Britain and Sweden.) Since then, the government has encouraged businesses to fill low-skill jobs with citizens from the new EU member states. According to 2006 statistics (the most recent available), about 70,000 Poles have successfully landed work in Ireland. The third-largest group of foreigners—after British and Polish—are Africans. There are about 50,000 Africans in Ireland, and many of them arrived as asylum seekers.
This almost-overnight transformation to multiculturalism seems to have left Irish residents dazed. In some Dublin schools, more than 50 percent of the student body is now foreign-born. This has, understandably, engendered tension. According to a 2006 report by the Irish-based Economic and Social Research Institute, more than one-third of immigrants reported being insulted, threatened, or harassed in public because of their ethnic origin.
Still, many of the immigrants I encountered said they had felt mostly welcomed. One Nigerian described how a group of Irish men he met at a bar insisted he spend the evening with them rather than drum on the street, as he’d intended to. When he told them he stood to make 30 euros from his busking, they gave him the cash and bought him a pint of Guinness.
More significant than the anecdotes, of course, are government policies that promote immigrants’ integration. Noncitizens who have lived in the country for a minimum of six months, for example, are eligible to vote—even run—in local elections. The policy, which was adopted in 1972, was not crafted with an eye toward enfranchising immigrants but rather as a way to show up Northern Ireland. In the North, laws restricting voting rights had the effect of disenfranchising Catholics. This rankled predominately Catholic Ireland, and using residency as the basis for the right to vote was a way to set the country apart from its northern neighbor.
Still, even if they weren’t the intended beneficiaries, the law gives immigrants a say in their local communities. And some have taken advantage of the opportunity. In 2007, Rotimi Adebari, a Nigerian refugee who arrived in Ireland in 2000, became the mayor of Portlaoise, a commuter town outside Dublin, even though he’s not an Irish citizen.
Since his election, Adebari has become something of a national celebrity. When we met up in Dublin, well-wishers constantly intercepted him. His years in Ireland were not uniformly smooth, however. Despite a university degree and years of job experience in marketing, he couldn’t get hired when he first arrived. The turning point, he recounted, came when he was interviewing for a job. His interviewers mentioned they were looking to hire “a local.”
Adebari took this as a cue to detail his volunteer work in Portlaoise. It was a long list—he had served as head of a volunteer cleaning crew and had founded and run a support group for the unemployed. “I walked out of that interview feeling tall,” he recalled.
When he received a rejection letter a few weeks later, he realized that he would never meet the interviewers’ definition of a local. “People had not come to terms with the fact that the country had changed,” he says. “And I knew I had to go out and educate people to help change that.” His contribution, Adebari decided, would be to start a cultural-training practice.
His ties to the community may not have impressed his would-be employer, but the connections he made prodded him into politics. Friends from his volunteer work encouraged him to run, Adebari says. Some even accompanied him when he knocked on doors in Portlaoise during the campaign.
It is somewhat ironic that Adebari has become one of the most prominent faces of the New Ireland, because if he had delayed his arrival in Ireland by just a few years, he wouldn’t have been allowed to stay. Until 2004, Ireland granted citizenship to all children born within its borders. This is, of course, the U.S. practice. Ireland’s policy was more expansive than the U.S. constitutional guarantee because the Irish government allowed parents of citizen-children to legally remain in the country as caretakers. Adebari’s asylum application was denied, but because he and his wife had a child after arriving in Portaloise, the family was permitted to stay. (Adebari and his wife are now the parents of four children, two Irish-born.) Word of the Irish arrangement spread, which is one reason the number of people seeking asylum there skyrocketed from a few hundred in the early 1990s to a more than 11,000 in 2002. Ireland was at that point the only European country to offer citizenship by virtue of birth. But frustrations that this was being exploited led almost 80 percent of voters to revoke the provision in a 2004 national referendum.
There have been efforts to revoke the practice of granting citizenship to all children born in the United States. A bill introduced in Congress in 2007 would limit citizenship to children born to citizens or legal immigrants. It attracted nearly 100 co-sponsors, but the right stems from the 14th Amendment, so a constitutional amendment would be required to revoke the provision. In other words, an Irish-style referendum wouldn’t be sufficient.
Bryan Fanning, a senior lecturer at University College Dublin and editor of the book Immigration and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland, recalls that although he spoke out against the referendum in 2004, he now sees the outcome as almost inevitable. As the country comes to grips with diversity, elements of the social contract are being renegotiated. Noncitizens’ right to vote is not under attack, however, and it could provide a tool for protecting immigrants’ interests.
“It wasn’t designed to be inclusionary, but there is a real opportunity there,” Fanning explains. “Political parties want immigrant votes.” That will necessarily keep anti-immigrant rhetoric to a minimum. And while Irish politicians aren’t going to embark on a Jimmy Rabbitte-type diversity drive when they look for candidates for the 2009 local elections, Fanning anticipates that more foreigners will start running for office. Mayor Adebari could be a harbinger of things to come.