Our diversity can be an engine for renewal and growth

As the IMF closes in on Ireland, much has been surrendered in terms of economic sovereignty.  One non-negotiable in terms of economic policy they have asserted is the 12.5% corporate tax rate.   Otherwise the message is ‘the country will take the cuts for the greater good of getting the economy back on track’.  The 12.5% corporate tax rate is presented as a crucial part of Ireland’s stall that will lead to success again.There are other reasons why Ireland is an attractive country for doing business.  We still have a young educated population that is eager to get back to work and make a contribution and there is also our diverse population.  How we get out of the mire, requires radical thinking.When asked why Google located its European headquarters in Ireland, head of Google Ireland John Herlihy said ‘because Ireland provided access to a multi-lingual and multi-cultural workforce’. 75% of Google Ireland’s workforce come from outside Ireland and they do business from their Dublin offices with all corners of the globe.  In other words, there are assets we have other than a 12.5% tax rate that makes Ireland attractive.Facebook, Ebay, Paypal are some of the other companies who have chosen to locate in Ireland on the same basis as Google.  The nature of these companies demands that they work across nations, cultures and ethnic boundaries.  Ireland’s 400,000 immigrants have come in significant numbers from both within and outside the EU.In the context of the current recession, if Ireland’s immigrants feature in the national discourse at all, they are dismissed as though they have all gone home and are not relevant anymore.  Yet it is Ireland’s diversity that marks us out as a unique attraction for international investmentDavid Mc Williams has rightly attracted a lot of kudos for both his economic analysis over the last number of years but in particular for the conference of the Irish diaspora at Farmleigh in September 2009.  The Farmleigh conference, he claims has already resulted in concrete economic activity called upon the goodwill of the Irish diaspora who could contribute to recovery in Ireland.However the Farmleigh conference while a useful initiative is more in tune with Ireland of 1990 when Mary Robinson spoke of the Irish diaspora than Ireland which has had the experience of fifteen years of immigration that has transformed the demographic and cultural make up of Ireland.  Like Tourism Ireland’s advertising, the Farmleigh conference ignored the contemporary demographics of Ireland.The approach ignored the potential resource of Ireland’s immigrant community.The plethora of immigrant shops, newspapers and other businesses is illustrative of the entrepreneurship that is a ready made resource for our country.  Just last week the Filippino Cultural Forum organised a gig which packed out the Grand Canal Theatre’s three thousand seats with popular acts the Filippino community enjoy.  Other minority communities are similarly well organised.Parents of immigrant children have independently of the state organised weekend schools to ensure their children grow up competent in both English and that of their country of origin.  These weekend schools present Ireland with a unique opportunity to seek to integrate language learning within the mainstream for all Irish children in education which can result in more children becoming competent in a multitude of languages.Our experience of immigration is distinct from that of other countries in several ways. Immigration in Ireland is a recent phenomenon and they tend to be highly skilled and they have come from all over the world.Brazil, Russia, India and China are referred to as the BRICs, so called because they are the countries experiencing rapid growth and adding new ‘bricks’ to the global economy.  We have within our country, people who have language knowledge and cultural knowledge which can help Ireland access new markets around the world including the BRICs.  This is in addition to the fact that immigrants add significantly to Ireland’s economy.Under the influence of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, Ireland’s official policy claimed that Ireland would learn from the experience of others and steer a course neither towards assimilation nor multiculturalism but to integration.However since 2007, the government’s integration policy has become steadily incoherent.  The first Minister for Integration Conor Lenihan, discontinued the Fund for Integration of Legally Resident Immigrants in Ireland, established in 2006 by then Minister for Justice Michael Mc Dowell.  Unlike other state offices, the Office of the Minister has failed to spend its budget in any year since it opened.This combined with the closure of the NCCRI and the failure to follow up on the National Action Plan Against Racism in 2008 along with the government’s continued policy of marginalisation of asylum seekers, surely Ireland’s immigrants are getting a message about their official welcome here.Unfortunately it is a hugely damaging policy not just for reasons of social cohesion but laying the basis for a diverse Ireland tapping into the human resources of immigrants provides us with a unique resource that will help us to come through the crisis.Building and maintaing social cohesion in our society is critical to recovery.  The political economic decisions in this budget must be mindful of the need to support community and voluntary work.Recent research by the Trinity College Immigration Initiative suggests that children as young as seven already experience racism in Ireland.  The research found that racist abuse had serious significant consequences on children, leading to depression, delinquency and other health problems.  One eight year old Nigerian child interviewed in the research who when asked if he would change anything about himself responded by saying he wanted to be white.We are finding that this is not an isolated view but reflective of a certain trend, a trend that as a country we need to work hard to reverse particularly in current circumstances.  Show Racism the Red Card has proven effective in challenging attitudes on the issue of racism and demonstrating practically what integration means.  We have been supported by various sporting personalities in conveying that message.  It is also vital that the government supports this programme.Ireland’s diversity should be presented as an asset internationally Ireland is seen as a socially cohesive nation plugged into the global economy as well as the European Union.  Some people have bemoaned the fact that non-Irish nationals greet unexpecting tourists, yet again here is an opportunity to be reaching out to new tourism markets.  A follow up to the Farmleigh conference drawing on these themes could be significant in laying the foundations for recovery.

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