Growing gains

Immigration has replaced emigration as a feature of Irish life. Declan Moylan says the country must make the most of this influx of new workers

Migration has always played a large part in Ireland’s history. In periods of economic difficulty, emigration was a major feature of Irish life, as its inhabitants travelled to places such as the UK, Australia and, in particular, the US in search of employment and a better future.

In recent times, immigration has replaced emigration, as large numbers of non-nationals travel to Ireland seeking employment and a better life. Indeed, most economists say that continued immigration, properly regulated, is key to Ireland’s economic growth. As a country with virtual full employment, it will depend on immigrants to create conditions and opportunities to attract new foreign investment.

Immigration trends

Throughout the 1980s, young people left Ireland in their droves. As recently as 1988-89 some 70,600 people emigrated from Ireland. A dramatic reversal ensued in the years from 1995 onwards, which culminated in net immigration in excess of 50,000 in 2005.

Net immigration was nil in 1995 and by 1997 had grown to 20,000 people a year. This had doubled to 40,000 a year by 2002. This net immigration level is expected to be sustained in the years to come, and has become vital in ensuring Ireland will continue to have access to a young, skilled workforce to feed a growing economy.

The Irish Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that 85 per cent of immigrants are “high skilled”, compared with 67 per cent of the indigenous population. If this trend continues, it should ensure that Ireland has a highly talented and skilled workforce to compete in the international marketplace.

Immigration policies

As Ireland’s economy experienced rapid growth in the mid to late 1990s – a development that became known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ – it was recognised that immigration could contribute to economic growth. Legislation provided that non-EU nationals could legally take up employment in a wide range of industries, including low-skilled jobs. Employers could legally recruit non-EU workers for positions at any level, once they were prepared to go through the necessary administrative procedure. This peaked in 2003, with 47,707 new work permits being issued.

On 1 May 2004 Ireland became one of just three countries that did not impose entry restrictions on nationals of the new EU accession states. Nationals of the accession states, as of 1 May 2004, secured an unfettered right to work in Ireland, as circumstances or opportunities arose. This approach resulted in 50,000 people making the most of the unprecedented opportunity. Around 50 per cent of these ‘EU accession immigrants’ were from Poland.

A tightening of the work permit system, which required employers to give preference to EU accession state nationals, accompanied this ‘open door’ approach and in August 2004 the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment announced that it would no longer issue work permits for low skilled jobs to non-EU nationals. The policy shift to a selective work permit system was complete when in 2005 a green card system to cater for highly skilled applicants was introduced.

Consequences of immigration

From the mid-1800s right up until the early 1990s, emigration was a fact of Irish life. Irish people had grown to expect that, as local employment could not be readily found, employment opportunities and a brighter future could be gained abroad. Emigration was seen often as a safety valve and Irish people had grown to expect a warm welcome from the UK, US and Australia for eager and skilled Irish workers.

Now that Ireland has itself become a land of economic prosperity, it owes a moral and historical obligation to the international community to continue to ensure that Ireland is now, in turn, a land of opportunity and of welcome. After several decades, if not centuries, of Irish people being welcomed and given opportunities abroad, it is now incumbent upon Ireland to provide a reciprocal welcome to guest workers seeking to better their lives, and those of their families. The difficulties that may arise from increased immigration, such as increased pressure on the health service and rental inflation can undoubtedly be addressed in our newly prosperous Ireland.

But an interesting question faces Ireland. Can current levels of economic growth be maintained should immigration continue at current levels? The answer to this question fundamentally dispels any notion that economic growth and continued immigration are mutually exclusive.

Ireland now has virtual full employment and problems in finding skilled workers may arise in future years if growth is to continue at current levels (5.4 per cent a year). For the economy to continue to grow, it is necessary that the labour force grows in tandem. Indeed, economists predict that in order for Ireland to sustain its current levels of growth, 50,000 immigrants a year will be required to supplement the existing labour force. This is on top of additional labour sourced internally and follows from a practical perspective given that labour-intensive industries, such as construction, account for much of the growth.

So, it seems economic growth can continue as long as immigration growth leads the way.

Declan Moylan is managing partner of Mason Hayes & Curran