According to the last Census, 12% of the population in Ireland are migrants, a figure that has remained stable since 2012 (12.2%). Today, one out of every eight people has a migrant background.
Irish society is, in many aspects, a multicultural society. It is possible to see people of various nationalities, cultures, and religions walking its streets, working or studying in large urban cities and small towns in rural Ireland: supermarkets, pubs, small shops, and farms have a presence of migrant workers from European and non-European countries. This transformation has produced unexpected positive effects, such as the presence of numerous migrant families has boosted rural public schools, sports clubs and churches.
These situations show the many economic, cultural and social benefits produced by the contribution of migrants to Irish society. Each of us probably has a funny or thought-provoking experience prompted by a conversation with someone from another country in the post office queue, the supermarket, or a social event.
These daily interactions seem not to impact the local public sphere: in 2019, only 0.7% of the elected Councillors in Ireland had some migrant background. In the 2020 Monitoring Report of Integration, the Irish government stated that this situation “demonstrates a continued under-representation of individuals with a migrant background in politics” (pp.87-88)
This underrepresentation could be interpreted as apathy, lack of information, or a consequence of migrants’ participation barriers. The absence of migrants in local politics is a complex issue that presents the challenge of understanding migrants experiences of political participation, dialogue and democracy in their own voices. In other words, if migrants have the right to vote in local elections, we must approach this complex experience through their inclusion in the political affairs that concern and interest them.
It seems to me that this situation should make us think about the best ways to strengthen local democracy by opening spaces for the involvement of migrants in politics, especially at the local level. For example, in the 2014 local elections, there were 28 candidates with a migrant background, while in 2019, there were 56 that represented only three per cent of the total number of candidates.
Why is it important to pay attention to the inclusion of migrants in local politics?
Because local democracy is a crucial asset to face the future challenges for Ireland: reduction of carbon emissions, Brexit, Covid-19, poverty reduction, housing crisis, far-right movements, extremism, etc. On the other hand, from the sad British experience, we know that the exclusion of the immigrant population creates pockets of urban and rural poverty capable of producing effects of social exclusion that are difficult to overcome and impact several generations.
For these and other reasons, promoting the participation of migrants in politics is a way to strengthen the democracy on which the country’s future challenges depend. Including migrants, we invest in the future.
Photo: The Irish Times