|If it was a pint of Guinness he was holding we might reconsider|
They were once famously branded as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" by David Cameron but UKIP have become so popular lately that Cameron's Conservative Party have had to adopt their rhetoric and even policies to prove their right-wing credentials. Yes, no one's chuckling at Nigel Farage's party anymore with the Guardian even beginning to acknowledge their seismic effect on the British political scene.
UKIP's success has largely been built on that most primal, most basic of human emotions - fear of the outsider. They have latched on to an issue with considerable historical baggage in Britain and an issue which still carries a lot of significance for a considerable portion of the population - immigration.
Inward migration to the UK is not something new. Nor is opposition to it. But never has a party which is so explicitly anti-immigration gained such traction in the UK. But I do not wish to discuss the reasons for that. What I wish to query is why a similar party or movement has not emerged in Ireland.
Inward migration to Ireland is a relatively new beast and while it has abated considerably since the beginning of the recession, over 50,000 people emigrated to Ireland in 2012. The social fabric of Ireland has changed significantly since the early 90s. Prior to then, Ireland was decidedly white and decidedly catholic. Not since the Vikings had Ireland witnessed any real surge in inward migration. And we were world champions of outward migration, of course.
While reaction to immigration in Ireland has been typically difficult to gauge (We're a nation who likes to keep our political opinions to ourselves - unless we're down the pub) there is unquestionably a sense of opposition among a portion of the population, mainly older and more rural people, to immigration. This opposition, its relative strength or weakness difficult to measure, has not manifested itself in any practical way.
There has been no mass, quasi-patriotic, anti-immigration movement in Ireland like UKIP. Does this not seem strange to people? I'm not advocating the founding of such an organisation but it seems like it would have been a natural step. So what are the probable reasons for this state of affairs? I can only speculate but speculate is what I shall do.
Well first off, as I have already alluded to, we have a prolific history of outward migration. Like, seriously prolific. If each country was a player in the Emigration World Cup we would be Pele, Romario and Messi rolled into one. So is there an argument to be made that, because of this, we have a keener understanding of and sympathy with incoming migrants than a country like the UK would?
Stories abound of Irish immigrants being the victims of very distasteful discrimination in America and Britain for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. No blacks, dogs, or Irish as the old adage goes (Indeed, A People's History of the United States of America by Howard Zinn is a good book if you wish to read more about the difficulties faced by Irish immigrants in the US in the years after the Famine.) So, perhaps there is a case to be made that we are more naturally welcoming to immigrants than our Anglo cousins for we've seen what a challenge it can be to up-sticks and move to a strange, foreign country.
Now that point is really only speculation. I can't prove that. So perhaps we could do with some more practical reasons. Like the fact that we have much, much bigger problems on our plate than immigration. I don't want to dwell too much on the recession or the bank bailout or our new, 21st century brand of emigration but I have to. While the economic picture in Britain since the world was shook by the stock market crash of 2008 has been far from rosy, the entire fabric of their political and economic infrastructure has not been torn apart in quite the same way ours has.
Here's just a few statistics. The UK's unemployment rate is currently 7.4% while Ireland's is 12.4%. Indeed, Ireland's rate hit 15.1% as recently as February 2012 and the sharp decrease has less to do with positive economic activity and more to do with the gentle massaging of statistics thanks to JobBridge and similar internship schemes, underemployment and of course our old friend emigration. Which leads me on to my next point rather nicely. Since 2008, over 200,000 people have left Ireland. And the problem isn't going away with 250 people still leaving Ireland every day.
So maybe, in a very simple way, we just don't have the time to be worrying about immigration. Contrary to what the weekend papers have been trumpeting in the last few weeks, Ireland is not yet out of murky waters and our supposed recovery has been very slow and grinding. Perhaps for the more affluent classes it is a different story, but for the majority of the population, Ireland is still waiting for an actual "good news story". We remain too distracted by a myriad of serious issuess for an issue-heavy party like the UKIP to emerge and the emphasis right now is on the economy and not much else.
Then there's the dominance of the major parties; Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Now some may claim that this point is moot as the major political parties in Britain have enjoyed a similar hegemony, since the Second World War at least. Labour and the Tories have taken turns as Britain's most popular party while the Lib Dems are as used to bronze as Dannii Minogue is to botox. Judging by the local elections held last year however, UKIP have broken this triangle of power. We'll get a better idea in next year's general election but judging by the polls, they should make some healthy gains.
A handful of small political parties have made it into power in Ireland, albeit as very junior members of coalitions with the big boys. The Democratic Left, the PDs and the Greens have all sat around the cabinet table in the last 20 years though two of those parties no longer exist while the Greens were virtually wiped out in the last election. No small political party in Ireland has ever had the impact UKIP have made in the UK. Some may point to Sinn Féin's recent resurgence but it's an entirely different story given Sinn Féin's prominence in modern Irish history.
Ireland's attitude towards immigration remains difficult to gauge. While the assimilation of many different nationalities has hardly been rosy, the Immigrant Council of Ireland reports that there has been an 85% increase in the number of migrants complaining of racist incidents in the past year for example, we have not seen close to the disruption caused in Britain by rising racial tensions. I'm not quite sure why this is, some may point to the fact that Britain is far more industrialised and far more densely populated than Ireland and that this is bound to cause tensions to simmer, others may say it's more to do with our apparent apathy.
In truth, whatever negative attitudes persist in Ireland with regards to immigration, it remains very unlikely that a party like UKIP will emerge any time soon. Even after the tumult of the last half-decade, Ireland's political arena remains remarkably stagnant and remarkably short of fresh blood. We may not be happy with our current lot, but it doesn't seem like there's much of a queue lining up to replace them.
My own personal opinion (Related to but separate from the above post)
Now, I've remained remarkably impartial throughout the above post so I feel as though I should state my position very clearly on immigration. I am strongly in favour of the free movement of persons regardless of colour, creed or race. I have grown up in a relatively multicultural society, much more so than people 20 or even 10 years older than me did, and can say with certainty that diversity and immigration makes things more interesting.
Now it is important to remain aware however. The free movement of persons around the EU, particularly from the poorer Eastern countries, is loudly applauded by the capitalist classes and it's not because they're champions of multiculturalism. When there's an influx of foreign labour in Ireland it is used as a tool to drive wages and working conditions down. Foreign workers are more likely to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions than Irish workers and Irish workers in turn are forced to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions for fear of dismissal.
This is a win-win for the capitalist class as, along with the obvious monetary benefits, the Irish workers generally vent their anger towards the foreign workers instead of those who really deserve their ire, the capitalist classes. This is a vicious cycle and one which unfortunately will not be rectified in the foreseeable future due to obvious systematic problems.
Oh, and I find the policies of UKIP and Nigel Farage pretty odious. I also find their cheerleaders in the media, namely the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, odious. People should look to alternatives from the political establishment (Cameron, Miliband and Clegg along with Kenny, Gilmore and Martin are equally distasteful) but, as history has taught us, the far-right route only brings intolerance, misery and suffering.