Fingal Migrant Integration Forum – a vehicle for participatory democracy

Fingal Migrant Integration Forum – a vehicle for participatory democracy – LGIU

Summary

Over the past three decades, the level of immigration (inward) to Ireland has exceeded the level of emigration (outward) in almost every year.  Relative to its European neighbours, Ireland is relatively new to immigration and diversity in respect of language, ethnicity and nationality.  While Ireland has not been immune from xenophobia, racism and discrimination, these have been less pronounced than in other countries, and there have been concerted efforts in national policy, public service delivery and community-led initiatives to promote the inclusion and integration of migrants.  This briefing focuses on one experience, namely the Fingal Migrant Integration Forum, which was established by Fingal County Council, and which has become a vehicle for engaging migrants and the so-called ‘host community’ in collaboratively celebrating diversity and promoting participation in civic life.

Introduction: Fingal in context

Fingal County Council was established in 1994 with the sub-division of the former Dublin County Council area into three local authorities – Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Fingal includes some of Dublin’s northern and western suburbs, its peri-urban fringe, coastal towns, commuter villages and adjoining areas of intensive agriculture – mainly in horticulture and market gardening. By virtue of its geography – physical and economic – Fingal has, in respect of nationality and ethnicity, become the third most diverse local authority area in Ireland, after Galway City and Dublin City. Census of Population data show that, in 1996, almost 97% of Fingal’s resident population had been born in Ireland or the UK.  By 2016, this figure had fallen to 81%, and almost one fifth (19%) of the population was born outside these islands. The corresponding figure for Ireland (Republic) is eleven per cent (2016 data) for people born outside of Ireland or the United Kingdom.

As is the case in Ireland as a whole, Polish nationals represent the single largest immigrant cohort.  In Fingal, they account for almost three per cent of the resident population. Romanian nationals represent the next largest cohort followed by nationals of the UK, Lithuania and Latvia. The Romanian community is the fastest-growing nationality in Fingal.  Relative to other local authorities in Ireland, Fingal has the highest percentage of persons who describe their ethnicity as ‘Black or Black Irish’.  They account for almost four per cent of the resident population. Thus, in terms of diversity and the associated need to promote integration and inter-culturalism, Fingal has a hugely diverse population and consequently has become a forerunner among Ireland’s local authorities in addressing issues such as integration and inter-culturalism.

Policy and practice

Official policy in Ireland has tended to distinguish between economic migrants and other cohorts, most notably asylum seekers.  The former are predominantly EU nationals, and many have been recruited to work in particular industries here.  While most economic migrants enjoy legal certainty and many of the rights conferred on Irish citizens, their experiences of integration and inclusion are variable.  Asylum seekers, however, find themselves in legal limbo, and since the mid-1990s, Ireland has operated a system of direct provision, under which asylum seekers have been obliged to reside in designated congregated/ direct provision centres.  The current programme for government commits to abolishing this system by 2024 (See previous LGIU Briefing).  While asylum seekers recently gained the right to work in Ireland, many find themselves excluded from the labour market, due to employers’ misgivings and persistent discrimination.  Thus, local authorities and communities that are striving to promote integration find that macro-level trends and the policies of others can have considerable negative impacts on their work.  Structures such as the Fingal Migrant Integration Forum represent a bottom-up approach to addressing the diversity of issues facing migrants.  Similar platforms exist in most of Ireland’s thirty-one local authority areas, and they provide mechanisms through which migrants and Irish people can come together to give greater voice to migrant issues and to advocate for integration and inter-culturalism.

In 2017, the Irish government (Department of Justice and Equality) published The Migrant Integration Strategy – A Blueprint for the Future.  This strategy envisages a ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘whole-of-society’ approach to promoting the integration and inclusion of all migrant communities, and it specifies policy and practice objectives in the following areas: economic and employment; language; communication and information; community / social; cultural differences; racism; housing; and organisational matters.  It also envisages local authorities devising local-level integration strategies; mainstreaming integration across the totality of their work; increasing migrant community representation on, and participation in, consultative and participative fora (including Joint Policing Committees and Public Participation Networks); and supporting entrepreneurship.  Action 53 (of the strategy) states, ‘a Migrant Integration Forum will be established in every local authority area, ideally through existing Public Participation Network (PPN) structures, and will meet regularly’.

Fingal County Council was one of the first local authorities to establish such a structure, and the Fingal Migrant Integration & Social Cohesion Strategy 2019-2024 attributes a number of strategic actions to the Fingal Integration Forum.  Indeed, the council had done considerable preparatory work in advance.  In 2015, the then Mayor of Fingal convened a conference ‘Immigration to Integration’.  This gathering provided an opportunity for new communities to network and to have their voices heard.  It also served to highlight the positive impacts new communities have, in Fingal, and to inform the County Council’s approach to integration, so that it would respond effectively to current and likely future challenges faced by migrants in their day-to-day lives. The formulation of an integration strategy was one of the key recommendations from the conference.

Capacity building of the Fingal Migrant Integration Forum

During Fingal Integration Week, 2019, a fledgling migrant integration forum convened an open meeting, which was attended by representatives from the migrant and host communities and Fingal County Council.  Participants concurred on the merits of promoting integration as a two-way process, and they noted the need for capacity-building actions with forum members and among those with whom the forum was likely to interface.  Following approval of funding from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), Fingal County Council’s Housing & Community Directorate, in collaboration with the Immigrant Council of Ireland, developed a programme on integration, which is now required training for all council staff.  The council’s Community Development Office and Public Participation Network (PPN) have worked together to ensure that the Migrant Integration Forum would be awarded representation on council structures.

In addition, Fingal County Council worked with migrant communities and the PPN to sketch an outline for a capacity-building programme for the Migrant Integration Forum, and the County Council issued a call for proposals to devise a bespoke capacity-building programme for the forum and for others in civil society with an interest in joining the forum and/or in supporting integration at local and county level.  The author and Dr. Kathy Walsh were subsequently contracted to develop and deliver the programme, which ran from September 2020 to March 2021.  During that time, they liaised systematically with Fingal County Council, and the council responded to issues and requests that programme participants identified and articulated.

The capacity-building programme’s aim was to support, guide and mentor the Forum in progressing as a strong, vibrant, inclusive and dynamic organisation that is proactive in advocacy, representation, engagement and the provision of civic leadership, and whose efforts contribute to the attainment of a more inter-cultural Fingal.  Initially, it was structured in two mutually re-enforcing strands as follows:

  • Strand 1: Citizenship Education; and
  • Strand 2: Community Development.

These were delivered weekly (online) between September and December 2020.  While over forty people expressed an interest in participating in the programme, Strand 1 had a core group of twenty-five participants, while Strand 2 had twelve.  Those who participated in Strand 2 also completed Strand 1.  Participants comprised a mix of Irish people and migrants.  All sessions were interactive, and they included a mix of presentations, breakouts, polls and discussions.  The facilitators also undertook surveys, between sessions, and the feedback from those served to inform discussions and deliberations.

Programme Content

The programme content evolved – based on co-design by the facilitators, participants and Fingal County Council.

Strand 1 (citizenship education) covered the following topics:

  • how things get done in Ireland – introduction to decision making;
  • how things get done in Fingal (County Council);
  • how individuals can engage (participate/be involved) in Fingal;
  • the role of community; and
  • how community groups can engage with Fingal County Council.

Strand 2 (community development) explored the following:

  • this is Ireland – the Irish State – institutions and democracy;
  • making decisions;
  • community development – principles, good practices and partnership working;
  • groupwork;
  • democracy – representative and participative, active citizenship; and
  • integration and Inclusion.

During weeks 7 to 10 inclusive, the programme focused specifically on the Fingal Migrant Integration Forum’s objectives and work programme for 2021.  These facilitated sessions and contemporaneous consultations (surveys) with participants led to the identification of the following action areas:

  • organising events – as a forum and/or in collaboration with others;
  • cultural mediation;
  • information provision; and
  • collaboration with other organisations/groups.

Fingal County Council conveyed, to the forum, its support for the delivery of the forum’s 2021 work programme, and the council agreed to support a series of follow-up facilitated sessions (Strand 3) over the course of January – March 2021, during which Breandán and Kathy oversaw the election of officers, the adoption of a terms of reference and the forum’s registration as a group – under the aegis of the Fingal PPN.

Outputs and prognosis

The training and capacity-building programme was marked by a high level of participant buy-in and engagement; attendance was consistent, sessions were vibrant, and all officer positions were keenly contested.  The vast majority of those who completed the programme remain involved with the forum, and groups from their communities are currently in the process of affiliating to it.  The forum recently held an online intercultural celebration of St Patrick’s Day, and is pursuing linkages with civil society groups across Fingal.  The officers have established three working groups, each of which is tasked with delivering elements of its annual programme of activities.

In March 2021, Fingal County Council appointed an Integration Officer, who will be responsible for supporting and promoting the delivery of the aforementioned multi-annual Fingal Migrant Integration & Social Cohesion Strategy, and who will act as the staff liaison person for the Migrant Integration Forum.  As the integration officer assumes post, the programme facilitators (Breandán and Kathy) are handing over the responsibilities for ensuring that the forum continues to operate effectively, attract more members, delivers its work programme and plays an active role in local governance.

Comment

Despite being unable to hold any in-person meetings or events, the members of the Fingal Migrant Integration Forum, and those who joined them for the capacity-building programme, have worked enthusiastically and effectively to ensure the Forum gives increased effect to migrant voices in local decision making and provides space in which integration can be promoted as a two-way process – involving migrants and the host community.  Its officers have assumed leadership roles and are to the fore in convening activities and in representing the forum. The Forum provides an ideal platform through which the diverse voices of the people of Fingal can be heard by a council committed to integration and inter-culturalism.

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