Dungannon: Why are attitudes to migration so different in this small, rural town?

Dungannon, 40 miles west of Belfast, could easily be compared to March, Cambridgeshire- which the National Conversation visited earlier on this year. Both towns sit within vast rural hinterlands, share an economic focus on agri-manufacturing and as a result, have seen rapid migration over the last fifteen years. Migration trends to both places began from Portugal, then Poland and now Lithuania and other Eastern Europe countries following EU expansion, drawn to the town for low wage work in large food production factories and industrial farming. Both areas have seen some animosities between long-term residents and new arrivals in response to rapidly changing socio-economic and linguistic demographics in towns which have historically had fairly homogenous populations.

But whereas our citizens’ panel in the Fenlands garnered sceptical and sometimes hostile responses in response to questions on immigration and integration, the citizens’ panel in Dungannon were largely more positive about the impacts newcomers were having on their local community. In the Fens, locals stressed the impact of immigration on housing and voiced feelings of intimidation bought on by hearing different languages. In Dungannon, people praised new communities for boosting the local economy and for integrating better than some people who had lived in the town all their lives. “Since the peace process, immigrants have made this town,” said one panel member.

What was striking in Dungannon was how these factors also contributed to conclusions on the citizens’ panel that if there were no migrant workers in Dungannon, there would be no industry, no jobs, fewer schools open, and Dungannon would face major decline: “It’d be a ghost town”.

The town is home to a number of meat processing factories which employ a large number of migrants recruited abroad by agencies. The town’s declining and ageing population would struggle to meet these needs. In rural Northern Ireland, the need for economic migration was put across strongly by locals.  Many of the factories and farms in Cambridgeshire are also reliant on migrant labour, but immigration was perceived by some members of the citizens’ panel there to reduce the availability of jobs for local people, and push down wages.

What is it that has caused such divergence in attitudes towards immigration in areas which, at least on paper, appear to be very similar?

Northern Ireland has a different relationship to migration than the majority of mainland GB; on an island sharing a permeable international border, a history of mass emigration and a long past of segregated communities living side by side.

Members of the citizens’ panel showed strong empathy with refugees fleeing dangerous situations, but unlike in other areas we have visited in the UK, they also showed empathy for economic migrants moving to better their lives. One panel member said: “At the end of the day, they’re people. We’ve done it in this country for hundreds of years, even more”. For others crossing international borders was a daily experience, and locals feared the impact Brexit will have for people working, trading and even commuting over the UK/Ireland border. We will explore these themes in more detail as our journey across Northern Ireland continues.

Integration, too, has been very different in Northern Ireland. STEP is an organisation based in Dungannon which began integration work to resolve sectarian divides in the town, but now also works with migrants. One stakeholder from the organisation told us how local people were more receptive to welcoming newcomers, having had to work to create peace in their own communities. Another stakeholder in Belfast told us that she considered international migration to have had a “genuine levelling effect on identity and conflict in Northern Ireland” and given a broader context “beyond orange and green”.

At the same time, stakeholders reported some violent attacks against migrants, and spoke about the difficulty of migrants who sometimes get caught up between sectarian divides. A stakeholder in Dungannon told us that it was difficult for new migrants to judge the mood of the community: “As soon as they see the locals getting out the bunting, they stay inside” while those in Belfast recounted anecdotes of migrant children being attacked for wearing the uniform of a Roman Catholic school while living in a Protestant enclave. It was clear that integration was a challenge in areas with such strong and divided identity politics. On the citizens’ panel, some of these continued sectarian divides were clear, and there were fears that the formation of a hard border as a result of Brexit would open old wounds in communities.

While Dungannon is an area where there continue to be tensions to resolve, we saw public support for low-skilled economic migration. As the National Conversation continues its journey through Norther Ireland, we’ll be looking to see if this is the case elsewhere.

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