Elections are around the corner, but where are the naturalised citizen candidates, not to mention the bloc who will vote for them, asks Fidele Mutwarasibo
The issue of the forthcoming elections in Ireland came up in a recent discussion with a colleague. While this was not surprising, I was taken aback by the fact that my colleague, a well-established voter of migrant background, felt abandoned both by the political establishment and people like himself who made their home in Ireland in the last 20 years. This abandonment was emotional rather than physical, insofar as he felt that they were not engaging enough, and hence would not be taken seriously as a voting bloc by the political establishment.
His dilemma forced me to revisit migration and integration literature. In the process, I came across the following quotation, from the Carnegie Corporation: “Integration and civic participation are symbiotic, mutually reinforcing, and a necessary condition and by-product of the other. Integration does not always ensure civic participation but is a precondition for civic participation.”
With that in mind, I recalled how a complaint from a person of migrant extraction in the run up to the 2011 prompted myself and colleagues at the Immigrant Council of Ireland to roll out a campaign titled Count Us In, to remind political parties that the Irish electorate had diversified ethnically.
The complainant had been a victim of racial profiling by canvassers who assumed that she was a maid looking after a property in a leafy Dublin suburb. She was in fact on the electoral register, had a vote and indeed owned the property they assumed she was cleaning when they called to the house.
The campaign, among other things, also called for the citizenship ceremonies to embed diversity in the Irish imagination, speeding up the processing of applications for naturalisation and the inclusion of at least one nominee of migrant backgrounds to the Seanad by the incoming Taoiseach. The campaign took its own momentum and the rest is history, as the saying goes.
In 2011 there were 35,000 naturalised citizens. A lot has changed since. Over the last four years, 107 citizenship ceremonies have been held with over 87,500 in attendance. The bad news is that although there are ethnic clusters in some locations around the country, most naturalised citizens are spread around the country and are not necessarily organised as a bloc to compel political parties to engage effectively with them. Besides, some members of these communities come from places where the citizens know their space and where politics is left to those with influence and power – including military power.
The biggest gap in many ways is the lack of role models who could symbolically give them a signal that Ireland is open and welcoming. The current membership of the Oireachtas include a number of people from minorities, but we can’t make assumptions that naturalised citizens are aware of these subtleties. I don’t know how many naturalised citizens would be aware of the fact that Dr Moosajee Bhamjee was elected to the Dáil in 1992, having immigrated to Ireland from South Africa.
On paper there should be one TD for 27,640 people. The question hence is how could the new and emerging constituency influence and seek representation in the forthcoming elections?
It makes sense to let the over 100,000 naturalised citizens decide what it is they want. There is a link between civic integration and other dimensions of integration. While it might be too late to influence the selection of candidates by political parties, it is critical for those eligible to vote to make sure they are on the electoral register and, more importantly, to vote in the forthcoming elections. Candidates do check the electoral register and indeed the list of those who actually turn up to vote.
The next logical step is to become active in political parties that reflect the individual citizen’s views. Above all, naturalised citizens have to ask themselves whether or not their views and issues are taken seriously by the powers that be. They have to position themselves and influence how their challenges are dealt with, and the legacy they want to leave to their children in relation to the recognition and appreciation of diversity in Ireland.
We live in a meritocratic society. Sometimes there are a few things that need to shift to enable minorities to achieve their potential in a meritocratic society. Minorities are under-represented in the Oireachtas – how many women, how many members of the Traveller community, for instance? We can’t let this go on. But the reality is that we have to become the change we want to see.
The response to the challenge set by my colleague is to encourage and support pioneers among Ireland’s naturalised citizens willing to engage effectively in civic and political affairs in this country going forward.
- Anyone who missed the closing date for the Draft Register of Electors on 25 November can still get on the Supplementary Register before February 2016. For details check with your local authority.
Dr Fidele Mutwarasibo is principal consultant at Dileas Consulting and a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.