Of all the big questions facing rich societies like Ireland, immigration is perhaps one of the most vexatious.

Your tolerance or otherwise of mass immigration depends on many factors. Are you threatened? Do you benefit economically? Do you believe that multiculturalism is a good thing? Do you believe that this is our responsibility to the poor?

Most of us do not take extreme positions on immigration and are typically somewhere in the middle.

It is normal to hear people saying that the success or otherwise of immigration depends whether they “fit in”.

Integration is what politicians call it, but to most of us the expression “fitting in” does just grand. Integration is Orwellian-sounding. It is the sort of term a European Commission bureaucrat or one of Hillary Clinton’s “kitchen cabinet” would come up with.

So immigration is about fitting in, being one of us. No matter how different the parents are, most of us assume that the children will become Irish and share our values. In this scenario, immigration does not lead to segregation. In other words, time heals all.

Emodiment

We Irish are the living embodiment of this. In the US of the mid-19th century, mass Irish and German immigration, particularly Catholic immigration, prompted the virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement.

In New York in 1855, 52pc of the city’s 622,925 citizens were foreign-born. Of these foreigners, 28pc were Irish and 16pc were German. In all, from 1847 to 1860, 1.1 million Irish immigrants docked at the Port of New York, as well as 900,000 Germans.

The Know Nothings claimed that these Catholics could never fit in. We were seen as foreign and un-American. They called for a 21-year naturalisation rule to be introduced to prevent the Irish from voting, stating that only after this time could the immigrant be American enough for such a lofty responsibility.

In the end, the opposition to Catholics — and later Jews — proved to be transitory. Both fitted in eventually. So the ability of the immigrants to fit in is crucial.

Now with the new European constitution up for grabs and the issue of culture and immigration in the mix, the question is what kind of Europe do we want?

The Catholic Church, acting like the anti-papist Know Nothings of pre-Civil War America, have demanded that the Constitution refer to the Christian character of the continent.

This, together with the widespread opposition to Turkey’s inclusion in the EU club, is a manifestation of mainstream Europe’s concern about multiculturalism in general and, Muslim immigration, in particular.

However, if Muslims fit in like all previous immigrants before them and if the children of Muslim immigrants become just like the locals, surely this opposition will be transitory?

Now this is where things get tricky, because a recent paper published by respected economists in Germany and based on up-to-date evidence from the UK, suggests that Muslims are an exception.

The Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn has recently suggested, in research entitled “Are Muslim Immigrants different in terms of Cultural Integration” (www.ideas.recpec.org), that indeed Muslims are exceptional.

This territory — as we all know — is a minefield, so it’s best to stay as close as possible to the data.

Using the UK Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities, the German researchers arrive at definitive but explosive conclusions.

In a nutshell, Muslims integrate less and considerably more slowly than non-Muslims and a Muslim born in the UK and having spent more than 50 years there is likely to have a much stronger, separate identity than another non-Muslim immigrant who has just arrived. This includes Chinese, Caribbeans and non-Muslim Indians.

The first finding of the report, which is based on comprehensive survey data and interviews carried out across the water, found that “Muslims do not seem to assimilate with the time spent in the UK, or at least they seem to do so at a much slower rate than non-Muslims”. For example, 79pc of Muslims stated that religious identity was very important to them as opposed to 42pc of non-Muslims.

Seventy per cent of Muslims said that they “would mind very much” if one of the family married a white person as opposed to 37pc of non-Muslims.

The second finding blows a hole in one of the central economics arguments about financial progress and fitting in.

Most economists, social scientists and political commentators say that integration is a matter of opportunity.

But this finding reveals that for British Muslims, “education does not seem to have any effect on the attenuation of their identity; and job qualification as well as living in neighbourhoods with low unemployment rate, seem to accentuate rather than moderate the identity formation of Muslims”.

Bizarrely, therefore, the richer the area, the more “Muslim” the Muslim resident becomes.

The third observation, which is particularly interesting as it goes against the presumed wisdom, is that “for Muslims more than for non-Muslims, there is no evidence that segregated neighbourhoods breed intense religious and cultural identities”. This is relevant because it is normal to hear politicians warn (whether they mean this or not) against “creating ghettos”. This report suggests that ghettos don’t matter in terms of the dilution or concentration Muslim integration.

Finally, and not surprisingly, “discrimination, which turns out to be more frequent in less segregated neighbourhoods, generates intense identity in all immigrants but this feeling is more acute for Muslims”.

This casts further doubts on the “no ghettos” idea as it suggests that mixed estates heighten discrimination.

The evidence from the UK is pretty definitive. We have no such data on Irish Muslims and maybe they have different attitudes.

However, as the debate on immigration and Europe warms up, this type of economic research, no matter how unpalatable to some, can only be helpful. The more information we have, the less likely we are to mess up.

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