Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent The Guardian, Friday April 18 2008
Ireland is to allow Poles, Czechs, Slovakians and tens of thousands of other EU migrant workers to vote in national elections, in a move that could radically transform the political landscape, according to the minister in charge of integrating the country's half a million immigrants.
Ireland has an overall population of about 4.5 million, with non-Irish nationals, from the EU as well as China and Africa, making up 12% of Ireland's population.
Conor Lenihan, the minister for integration, said that in return for full voting rights the migrants would have to prove an ability to speak English before taking up permanent resident status.
To date EU migrant workers have not had the right to vote in Irish general or local elections. All of the EU migrants in the republic, including those taking up permanent residence or citizenship and those who do not, will have the right to vote under Lenihan's plans.
It also means that for the EU immigrants, and for a limited number of migrants from outside Europe, there will be an English language test to pass before getting permanent residency or an Irish passport.
The minister told the Guardian that Ireland would reject the UK multicultural model for absorbing immigrants, and that proposals were being drawn up to increase the number of "citizenship ceremonies", which involve foreign nationals being obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the Irish constitution. He added: "There can be nothing more powerful in integrating people than allowing them to make a political decision by using a vote to shape the state [they] are in. By not letting them vote you are postponing their decision to integrate and become full Irish citizens.
"Voting is one of the key benchmarks of citizenship, and that is why I think the time is now right to extend the vote on elections to the Dáil [Irish parliament] and local government to non-Irish EU nationals living in the state."
Lenihan rejected capping the numbers of foreign workers legally entering the Republic, even in the face of economic downturn. But he warned that Ireland would tighten its border controls to stop more illegal immigrants and asylum seekers entering the state. "There can be no integration without deportation." he said.
Lenihan, who in the 1980s worked for the Inner London Education Authority, said he witnessed the UK's multicultural "experiment" at first hand. He agreed with Trevor Phillips, the UK equality commissioner, who said multiculturalism had led to the creation of ethnic ghettoes.
Lenihan said: "Ireland will operate on a happy medium,
between the worst mistakes of multiculturalism and extreme assimilation.
There won't be an American style insistence on holding your hand
on your heart and saluting the flag each day - that is not the
Irish way. But nor will we be encouraging the creation of separate
racial or ethnic areas."