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Saturday, 19 February, 2000, 17:09 GMT
Lure of the Emerald Isle

Bronze sculpture of migrant woman and her two sons on the harbour in Cove, Eire Migration has forged Ireland's identity over centuries

By BBC Dublin correspondent Kevin Connolly

For centuries, emigration has helped to shape Ireland and the Irish view of the world.

In the 80 years after the famine of the 1840s, more than four and a half million men, women and children left to build new lives far from home.

In a country where the population has never been more than eight million, an exodus of those proportions had profound economic and social consequences which are still being felt today.

But there are clear signs now that the tide of history is turning.

Boom time

Twenty-first century Ireland boasts one of the strongest and fastest-growing economies in Europe, expanding at such a rate that it urgently needs immigrant labour to sustain the boom.

Piaras Mac Einri of the Migration Studies department at Cork University Piaras Mac Einri: Irish need to look at themselves
Piaras Mac Einri, of the Migration Studies Centre at Cork University, says that historical shift has forced the Irish to look at themselves in new ways.

"The stories of emigration have been an enormously important part of history here ," he explains.

"Now we face the question as a society of how we cope with immigration and with the new idea of having ethnic minorities here."

Vocal opposition

The new phenomenon of immigration has brought with it another new experience for Ireland - the anti-immigration campaigner.

The most vocal and most energetic of these is Aine Ni Chonaill, a diminutive teacher of history and Irish from the seaside town of Clonakilty in County Cork.

She is convinced that she speaks for the silent majority in Ireland when she calls for the government to be tougher - much tougher - about the number of people it allows into Ireland and the ease with which Irish citizenship can be acquired.

Beside the sea in Cobh,  Aine Ni Chonaill explains her opposition to immigration Aine Ni Chonaill says she speaks for the silent majority
" People do have a terrible fear of being politically incorrect," she says. " I think it is very significant that we receive anonymous letters of support, from people saying 'keep up the good work', but being too frightened to put their names to it"

Aine Ni Chonaill insists she is not motivated by racism, whatever her critics say. She argues that the whole issue of immigration is growing, and is one that Ireland has to face up to - and quickly.

Asylum seekers

The statistics indicate that, whether you agree with her views or not, she has a point. One of the commonest ways for immigrants to try to get into Ireland is by seeking political asylum.

In 1992, there were 39 such cases - but by last year the number had risen to nearly 8,000, the bulk of them from Romania and Nigeria.

Derek Stewart,  of the Irish Refugee Council, in his office Derek Stewart: new arrivals are made scapegoats
Derek Stewart, a Dublin lawyer who specialises in such cases, says there is a danger that newcomers will find themselves being blamed for chronic social problems.

"There's no doubt in certain areas where new arrivals settle, they will find themselves being made scapegoats for problems that existed long before they arrived. It is an issue for the politicians as well as for the Irish people."

The issue of immigration is certain to remain high on Ireland's political agenda in the years to come.

And the underlying issue is a fascinating one - does a country which was shaped by emigration feel it has a special responsibility to immigrants as they begin to arrive in ever-greater numbers ?
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