How Irish Politicians Construct Transnational EU Migrants (2010)

This report analyses how politicians in Ireland construct non-Irish EU immigrants in the media during the recession. It reveals a lack of significant ideological debate on immigration, with some parties contributing to a discourse that constructs migrants negatively. The report offers recommendations for promoting inclusion and combating racism.

Executive summary

Research context

Inward migration from EU member states is an important component of Irish immigration, with EU citizens constituting the majority of non-Irish immigrants to Ireland in the period 2005-2009.

Eastern European immigrants have been especially hard hit by the recession. Many have emigrated as a consequence, but significant numbers have chosen to remain.

International research indicates that recessionary periods may be accompanied by a decline in the quality of relations between the majority population and migrant groups as the latter are at risk of being scapegoated for the economic downturn experienced by all.

In this economic and social context, political leadership on the matter of immigration is of crucial importance. Political parties have a key role to play in framing how the public understand the issue and impact of immigration.


This research study examines the manner in which politicians construct non-Irish EU immigrants to Ireland by analysing the content of statements attributed to this group in the print media.

The decision to examine politicians’ statements made through the print media, rather than through government or party press releases was informed by a desire to analyse those statements which are most accessible to the public and therefore most likely to influence public opinion.

Print media content was sampled from a national Broadsheet (Irish Independent) and two local imprints (The Limerick Leader and The Limerick Post).


The sample of articles analysed was dominated by statements from centre-right parties in the form of Fianna Fáil and Fianna Gael representatives.

In the sample analysed, politicians of the left tended to be supportive of immigrants. Statements attributed to representatives of the Socialist party and Sinn Fein defended the rights of migrant workers, while the vast majority of comments attributed to representatives of Labour expressed a pro-immigrant stance. Nonetheless, a representative of the Labour party was among those who recommended restrictive policies in relation to welfare.

In the sample analysed, statements emanating from Fianna Fáil representatives were much more commonly pro-immigrant than anti-immigrant in their orientation. However, the vast majority of such pro-immigrant statements were framed as rebuttals of anti-immigrant claims and positions rather than as agenda-setting frameworks of understanding in their own right.

Statements attributed to representatives of Fine Gael were more likely to construct immigration as a social problem than those attributed to representatives of Fianna Fáil. Nonetheless, those emanating from the party spokesperson on immigration were overwhelmingly positive in orientation. Problematising statements by local Fine Gael representatives impacted on the overall picture of this party’s stance.

Analysis demonstrated that some representatives of mainstream parties contribute to a discourse whereby migrants are constructed as fraudulent, as burdens on the economy and as participating in ‘bogus marriages of convenience’.

Representatives on both the left and right of the political spectrum were found to commonly address the issue of immigration as a social problem, whether by contributing to its framing as a problem, or by seeking to contradict its problematisation. Across the sample as a whole, the majority of statements in support of migrant rights are framed as a defence of these communities. The rebuttal of negative framings may in fact serve to reinforce, rather than undermine, their perceived salience. Providing alternative frameworks of understanding may be more effective in redirecting debate. Both government and opposition party representatives are in danger of being ensnared in a reactive approach to immigration whereby the course of the debate is set by the problematisation of the issue.

There were a number of issues relating to the themes identified in our analysis, on which our sample contained little political commentary. These issues included informed discussions of unemployed foreign workers’ social welfare entitlements; the lack of recognition of foreign educational qualifications in Ireland; lack of discussion on the support services required by victims of trafficking and / or the state’s responsibility to accommodate, protect and assist victim of trafficking; and the political integration of migrants. While we acknowledge that our sample is by no means a complete record of political statements relating to EU migrants in 2008 and 2009, the absence of these issues from our sample does suggest that they did not attain a high profile during this period.

In spite of the politicisation of particular issues, this research suggests an overall dearth of significant ideological debate on the issue of immigration in Ireland in the period 2008-2009.

Failures by parties both in and out of government to address immigration and integration as important policy areas and the reticence of some party representatives to communicate on these issues to the public creates a vacuum, which may be filled by those who adopt an anti-immigrant stance.

In the absence of the guidance provided by a clear party line, party members may disseminate statements which are ill-informed, anti-immigrant or which their parties would not support. Where parties fail to publicly and effectively censure such claims or proposals, it is argued that they effectively give them credence. In our sample, there are examples of such failures. Political leadership requires that parties counter misinformation with accurate data and provide their membership and the public with the alternative frameworks of understanding to interpret the meaning and significance of same.

This research documents that in an Irish context the framing of immigration and proposals regarding immigration policy have been accompanied by accusations of racism in a number of instances. It is essential that we name and address racism where it manifests. However, spurious accusations of racism may be used as a strategic tool to effectively terminate debate for reasons other than the pursuit of an anti-racist agenda.


  • We encourage all political representatives to recognise the status of migrants as community members, constituents, potential party members and voters, and to represent them as such in their public discourse.
  • We recommend non-governmental organisations such as Doras Luimní continue to engage in voter registration drives directed towards members of migrant communities.
  • We recommend that all political parties recommit themselves to the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism’s (NCCRI) anti-racism protocol. Such a framework is, we hold, necessary to support the anti-racist stance adopted by individual political representatives, and to mainstream this approach. Moreover, we support the reformulation of this protocol to apply to the daily exercise of political representation and office, rather than just in respect of election campaigns.
  • In light of the previous recommendation we would urge non-governmental organisations such as Doras Luimní continue campaigning for political parties to renew their commitment to the NCCRI’s anti-racism protocol and for the extension of the protocol in line with the recommendations made above.
  • We reiterate the recommendations of other such as Fanning, Shaw, O’ Connell, & Williams (2007, p.4) in advocating the further extension of the anti-racism protocol to include a commitment from all political parties to proactively cultivate migrant political participation as voters, party members and candidates for elected office.
  • We urge non-governmental organisations such as Doras Luimní to continue monitoring political parties' initiatives with regard to including immigrant candidates and voters, as well as addressing the needs and interests of immigrant communities.
  • It is essential that we name and address racism when it manifests, and the role of our political representatives in displaying leadership in this regard is critical. Political parties and representatives who make accusations of racism should support those claims.
  • We encourage party leaders to enforce their own association’s commitment to principles or protocols which espouse inclusion and anti-racism, by actively responding to contravention of these principles by their members.
  • We recommend that Doras Luimní address complaints regarding anti-immigrant statements directly to party executives.
  • At the local level, the launch of Integrating Limerick: Limerick City and County Integration Plan 2010-2012 is to be commended, as is the focus on consultation of migrant networks which contributed to its development and is highlighted in its recommendations. We encourage Limerick local authorities to follow this achievement with the development of a community cohesion protocol, such as that developed by counterparts in the UK, which committed council members not to “create or exacerbate divisions between different groups within the community” (Crawley 2007, p.499). Limerick City council should join Galway and Dublin in becoming a signatory to the European Coalition of Cities against Racism1 , which would enable them to avail of policy, technical and scientific supports in engaging with the diverse communities resident within Limerick City.
  • We encourage political parties and political representatives to commit themselves to evidence-based policy making in the fields of immigration and integration.
  • We urge non-governmental organisations such as Doras Luimní to continue to seek right of reply where media outlets reproduce assertions or proposals by politicians, which are misinformed or supported by reference to evidence of questionable authority.
  • In the interests of transparency, we encourage all political parties to communicate their policies on immigration and integration in order to provide the public with leadership in this important area of political and public discourse.
  • Party policies on immigration and integration should be clearly communicated to party members. We urge party leadership to consider that, although they may not represent party policy, a failure to publicly and effectively censure problematic claims or proposals disseminated by their membership may unintentionally legitimise those statements.
  • We recommend that political parties and representatives seeking to counter the problematisation of migrants proactively develop and present alternative frameworks of understanding rather than merely reactively rebutting the problematising statement. This approach is held to offer greater potential effect.
  • We commend to political parties the importance of sustaining and developing the institutional framework which supports an equality agenda in Ireland. We urge that this institutional framework, consisting of agencies such as the Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the National Employment Rights Authority (and, before their termination, the National Consultative Committee against Racism and Interculturalism and the National Action Plan Against Racism) be prioritised in a recessionary period, in which international experience tells us that anti-immigrant sentiment tends to increase.
  • Our analysis suggests that the range of political voices represented in media discourse on immigration is limited. We assert that the mass media is an important site for disseminating ways of understanding migrants, immigration and integration. To impact public understandings of immigration, some parties may need to be more strategic in ensuring their messages are represented in media discourse.