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Nuanced views on immigration despite concern over levels of inflow, poll data shows

Sinn Féin supporters are consistently more hardline on immigration questions that the other parties and the general public

Immigration

Pictures of the Dublin riots; of protests outside accommodation centres; and, sometimes, buildings intended to house asylum seekers in flames have often been the face of Ireland’s current debate about immigration issues. Yet the public’s view is much more nuanced than the shocking images would suggest.

For a start – and it’s important to say this at first – a majority of Irish voters who express a view believe that immigration has been a positive thing for this country.

Asked “On balance has immigration been a positive for Ireland, a negative for Ireland, or has it made no difference?”, a majority of those who expressed a view – 48 per cent – said it had been positive. There is, however, a substantial minority who say the opposite – 35 per cent said immigration had been negative. Ten per cent said it had made no difference, with 6 per cent offering no opinion.

It is very clear, though, that there is concern about the levels of immigration into Ireland. This is likely to be prompted not by the hundreds of thousands of non-Irish born people who are working in the public service and the wider economy, but by the recent heightened awareness of asylum seekers coming to this country, and the relatively large numbers of Ukrainian refugees here.

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Asked if they were in favour of a “more open policy”, or a “more closed policy” (to reduce the numbers coming here), or a continuation of the present approach, almost six in 10 voters (59 per cent) are in favour of a more closed policy. Just 16 per cent wanted a more open policy, while 19 per cent are happy with the current approach.

While immigration is a much broader phenomenon than the arrival of asylum seekers here, it is this issue that has dominated much recent debate. This is partly because of the sharp increase in numbers since the end of the pandemic and the consequent difficulty in sourcing accommodation for those people while their applications for asylum, or international protection, are considered by the authorities.

So it is on this issue that many of the questions in the present poll are focused. Voters were asked about the prospect of accommodation for asylum seekers in their local area: 69 per cent said they would have some concerns, while 28 per cent said they would have no concerns.

Further questions, however, reveal that many of the concerns relate to services and capacity – especially in housing – rather than a widespread antipathy to immigration per se. That antipathy certainly exists – but it is not a mainstream concern.

Presented with a series of statements about common concerns expressed recently, voters expressed high levels of agreement them. For instance, 75 per cent of people said they were concerned that “local services such as health and education could be overwhelmed”.

Some 82 per cent of voters agreed that a concern was “there is already a shortage of housing locally”. Despite Government efforts to reassure the public that asylum seekers are not “unvetted”, 80 per cent of people said this could be a concern. Just under half (49 per cent) are worried about the local economy; 44 per cent, however, are not.

While asylum and immigration issues are clearly a concern to voters, the poll does not, however, support the notion that there is a huge head of steam building on the issue politically.

For instance, even if they have concerns about asylum seekers being placed in their locality, nearly four in 10 voters (38 per cent) said they would accept it; 45 per cent would object.

Asked if they were more likely to vote for a candidate who voiced concerns about immigration, 30 per cent said yes, but 60 per cent said no – including 20 per cent who said it would make them less likely to vote for him or her (40 per cent said it would make no difference).

So while it is clear that immigration/asylum is an issue, it is wise not to exaggerate its importance.

There is one further political point to note, however. The data is clear that Sinn Féin supporters are consistently more hardline on immigration questions that the other parties and the general public. So a majority (53 per cent) of Sinn Féin voters believe immigration has been on balance a negative for the country; 72 per cent want a more closed policy; 77 per cent would have concerns about an accommodation centre in their locality; and 60 per cent of them would object – the equivalent figure for the population in general is 45 per cent.

Right across all the questions, the results show that Sinn Féin voters are tougher on immigration than others. As Mary Lou McDonald contemplates the results of this poll, and the slump in her party’s rating reported on Thursday, this finding is likely to be of some concern to her.

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