Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Tuesday, 31 January 2006

Irish opportunity attracts Poles

By James Helm
BBC correspondent in Dublin

Romanian children in Dublin ceremony
The arrival of Eastern Europeans has been celebrated in Dublin
In the Kanal cafe on the north side of Dublin, not far from the city centre, a group of Polish musicians is playing.

The food on offer, and the beer, are Polish, as are most of the customers.

It is a lively, busy place, one of the venues that has sprung up in recent months to serve the growing communities from Eastern Europe.

The manager, Miroslaw Dulawa, arrived in Dublin with his wife last year.

He believes the reason so many of his fellow countrymen and women have come to Ireland is partly economics, partly history: "For money, that's for sure... I think they find Ireland pretty much like Poland. A lot of people emigrated from Ireland, so maybe Polish people think they will understand us."

It was in Phoenix Park in Dublin, on 1 May 2004, that the leaders of the European Union gathered for the official ceremony to mark EU enlargement.

Growth rate

A choir sang, the sun shone, and Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and others listened as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern welcomed the new countries on board.

In the early 1990s we still had scenes on our televisions after Christmas when parents were saying goodbye to their loved ones who were getting on planes from Knock Airport, Shannon, Cork and Dublin
Mary Harney
Deputy prime minister
He told the audience: "From division we have created union, from dictatorship and oppression we have created vibrant and sturdy democracies."

Ireland certainly put out the welcome mat for migrant workers from the new member states, choosing to offer open access to its labour markets.

Mr Ahern has spoken of the need for foreign workers to help sustain Ireland's impressive economic growth.

So, less than two years down the road from that day in Dublin, it is estimated that around 150,000 people have arrived from Eastern Europe. The largest single group is from Poland, but many have also come from the Baltic states.

Jekabs Nakums is one of them. Back home, he is a well-known sportsman, having come fifth in the biathlon at the Winter Olympics eight years ago. Last year, he announced that, just like many other Latvians, he was heading to Ireland to find work.

His current job is as a car cleaner, travelling around the Dublin area. He is also training to be a fitness instructor.

Role reversal

He makes more in Ireland than he did in Latvia, but he told me: "I came here to improve myself - I didn't come here just for the money."

Irish Ferries protest
The threat to Irish jobs from immigrants has angered some
He describes how his children are quickly learning English at school.

Mary Harney, Ireland's deputy prime minister, describes the decision to open the doors fully to incoming workers as the right one. Of the arrival of new communities, she said it was "fantastic".

"In the early 1990s we still had scenes on our televisions after Christmas when parents were saying goodbye to their loved ones who were getting on planes from Knock Airport, Shannon, Cork and Dublin, back to the US, Germany and the UK. It seems long ago on one level, and yet it's only just over a decade ago. So for us it's a whole new experience."

The dispute before Christmas surrounding Irish Ferries has, however, brought a different focus to the debate.

The company wanted to bring in cheaper, Eastern European workers to replace its Irish staff, saying it was a necessary step.

Trade unions objected to the plans, there were protests around Ireland, and accusations that migrant workers were being exploited.


A recent opinion poll showed strong support for a limit to be placed on the numbers of migrant workers allowed into Ireland. There has been talk of whether Irish workers have already been "displaced" by those who have arrived.

Pat Rabbitte, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, has called for a more "managed" immigration policy.

"We're having an element of displacement of the existing workers," he told me, "an element of exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers, pretty much no effective enforcement, and kind of an official attitude that says We must feed the economy, it's great to have an endless stream of cheap labour, let's not be concerned about society."

So the debate is under way. Ireland is changing quickly: a bestselling book at the moment is a study of the "New Ireland", and Dublin's daily newspaper, the Evening Herald, even produces a weekly supplement written in Polish.

Not long ago, many Irish young people headed abroad to find work. Now, the young Polish builders, bar staff, bankers and engineers enjoying their Polish beer around Dublin see Ireland as a land of opportunity.

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