Western privilege and why Irish eyes are forever smiling

The demise of the Celtic Tiger sparked mass emigration from Ireland, including my own decision to relocate to London in 2008. Irish history is littered with tales of emigration. The Famine alone saw 2.1m people leave the country between 1845 and 1855. Australia, the US, Canada and the UK are the destinations of choice, particularly as they are English-speaking. We Irish are lucky, receiving warm welcomes when we arrive on foreign shores. The same cannot be said for less ‘westernised’ emigrants.

In an article for the New Statesman, Polish writer Agata Pyzik alluded to the topic of varying degrees of whiteness. She wrote about how upon arriving in Britain she was told “Poles aren’t really ‘white’”. This is a good demonstration of the disparity between the way Irish and Polish immigrants are treated in the UK. We both come here in search of opportunities that are nowhere to be seen on home shores. Many will end up in the services sector while plenty of others make headway in professional occupations.

Tabloids and scaremongering

UK tabloids are filled with scare stories of how eastern European workers are stealing British jobs. There is never any mention of Irish immigrants being similarly threatening. This may be down to the long history between the UK and Ireland, despite that relationship incorporating a lot of unrest and aggression. Northern Ireland continues to be part of the UK, so naturally British people feel familiar with the Irish and can see our similarities. It protects us from the scathing judgements of the tabloids, which stop at nothing to misrepresent eastern Europeans. It’s time to put a few of those unemployment and immigration figures into context.

Representation through data

Irish youth unemployment soared from less than 9% in 2007 to 30% in 2011. It declined slightly to 28% in 2013. Figures from Trading Economics also show overall Irish unemployment was about 13.2% in October 2013, compared to 14.2% in Poland. Over the preceding 12 months, Ireland’s unemployment rate was typically higher than Poland’s.

In 2011, the total number of immigrants to the UK was 566,000 – 13.9% of whom were returning Britons. Some 30.8% were from other EU states, while 55.4% came from non-EU countries. Despite this, hysteria over eastern European immigration has grown to such an extent an e-petition has been launched to stop the British Home Office from relaxing immigration rules for Romania and Bulgaria in 2014 as ordered by the EU. Campaigners cite the influx of 600,000 Polish immigrants in “recent years” as the reason for this.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) said one Irish person emigrated from the country about every six minutes for the year to April 2013. Almost a quarter went to the UK, compared to 17.2% to Australia and 6.2% to the US. Newspapers never say it but London is a hotspot for Irish immigrants. It’s worth pointing out Irish workers have the exact same effect on Britain as other immigrants. If you denounce the presence of immigrants, you denounce the presence of the Irish. We have a separate economy, just as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia do.

Update: Data from the UK Office for National Statistics shows only three European countries (Ireland, Poland and Germany) feature in the top ten of non-UK born residents living in England and Wales.

EU immigrants ‘have a positive impact’ 

Tabloids often suggest immigrants are a major drain on the welfare state. However, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) published a paper in November 2013 stating: “A number of studies have documented the – broadly positive – impact of EU workers on the UK labour market. Moreover, the fiscal impacts are positive and significant since EU nationals are considerably more likely to be in work than the UK-born, and considerably less likely to be claiming benefits.” The Independent appears to be the only paper that led with this angle: Immigrants boost the economy, says NIESR. The other broadsheets steered clear of headlines on immigration while the tabloids seemed to have failed to pick up the research at all.

Data from the CSO shows that 21,900 people migrated from Ireland to the UK for the year to April 2013. Given Ireland’s population of 4.5m, that is a significant number flocking to one place. Poland has a population of 38m and yet it is one of eight eastern European countries that account for 58,000 UK immigrants per year. In four months, the UK revived almost 22,000 immigrants from Ireland without a shadow of anger or resentment over the major contribution we make to British immigration figures.

I’m not advocating resentment of Irish immigrants. I’m calling for immigrants to be treated equally and for the notion of different degrees of whiteness to be wiped out. In this day and age it is completely unacceptable to discriminate on the grounds of race, yet eastern European-bashing appears to be fair game. Ireland had ten great boom years but its debt now stands at 117.6% of gross domestic product (GDP). Poland’s is less than half that at 55.6% of GDP. Anyone with the superficial assumption that wealth prioritises one nationality over another needs to take heed of the facts. To say tabloids distort the truth is a gross underestimation – they barely touch on it.


About natashabrowne

Natasha is a freelance journalist and aspiring economist.
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