Mixed Messages in Ireland of Welcomes

At launch of a research paper on ‘Barriers to Inclusion and Employment of Immigrants in Kilkenny’ commissioned by KLP and conducted by Immigration Services, Fr McGrath FRC, November 2019 (image KCLR)

Testing the Water with Rhetoric

Over a year ago, Presidential candidate Peter Casey’s anti Traveller rhetoric saw his prospects shoot up from a no hoper to a contender. It frightened the life out of me then and continues to today. He is not alone as now more politicians are testing the water as to how far they can push the rhetoric; lob a curved ball on immigrants or Travellers, make a humble apology and move on. It has become a tactic worth its weight in gold in media coverage.

Added to events of recent months regarding the accommodation of asylum seekers in Direct Provision, I fear we are witnessing the unveiling of a worrying and unsettling side to life in an Ireland where we cherish our reputation as the friendliest nation in the world.

The rise in the reporting of incidents of hate speech and verbal abuse of people of mostly African and Asian backgrounds is on the increase. Earlier this year a young couple who appeared in a supermarket ad, had to leave the country out of fear for their family’s safety following a barrage of online hate speech.

The office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration is concerned too and has stated that ‘A renewed approach is required not only to continue to promote the integration of migrants in an ever-increasingly diverse society, but also to ensure racism, hate crime and discrimination are tackled through education, through dialogue, and where necessary, through the law of the land’.     

In 2009 as the City’s Mayor, I hosted a Civic Reception for Sudanese families who were settled in Kilkenny from a refugee camp in Uganda, under a UNHCR Programme Refugee intake.

The Community Development worker at Kilkenny County Council took note of my inaugural address as Mayor of Kilkenny in June 2009 where I said that I wanted to use the year to celebrate our diversity as a community.

She called me and said ‘I’ll hold you to that’ and she did. We used the night in the town hall, not only to celebrate the culture of these new families, but to launch a process of developing an Integration Strategy for the City and County.

It was an opportune time to carry out this work; many of us had been involved in the welcoming of refugees and asylum seekers for many years. There were a number of failed yet well meaning initiatives but hitherto we had not attempted to bring together all these disparate elements, actors and agencies to make for a plan that we could use as an exemplar for other counties to follow.

With the support of the Integration Centre, a group of volunteers, using local authority funding trained in Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) methodologies in order to design a participative process to bring to the community, to develop our action plan.

It was an ambitious and perhaps foolhardy venture with many days and nights spent in halls and a long painstaking process of additional work processing the information and background material.

The final plan ‘Uniting the Diverse, an Integration Strategy for County Kilkenny 2011-17’, was in my view, a really good piece of work; not because of the actions therein but the process we used to develop it and the friendships and relationships forged along the way.

Failte Isteach

It also led to some really interesting projects, many of which have been hugely successful in integrating new communities into the City and County. The Failte Isteach programme of conversational English language classes was and is still in high demand and has made a huge contribution to the quality of life of so many families.

The plan supported many intercultural events; many related to celebrating food culture but also sporting events. Sport can often provide an effortless platform for inclusion and it’s wonderful to see our interculturalism breaking through in athletics, Gaelic games, soccer and in boxing.

We decided at the outset to include the Traveller community within the remit of the plan and I believe that it was a good decision. The planning meetings which took place among the Traveller community were designed with great integrity and were in themselves most useful events. But we have a job of work to do given the low base from which we are working in relation to inclusion of Travellers within our community.

I have been involved in integration and social inclusion for many decades. I am saddened, concerned and very worried at the background noise of the Ireland of 2019; ten years on from that historic and wonderful night in our town hall.

In my view a space has been created which is facilitating voices of hate in our society. We can say its only words, only language but that is how hatred creeps in and gets under our collective skin. From proposed direct provision centres to providing accommodation for asylum seekers on Achill, those with a hate agenda are being gifted the perfect scenario to spread their message; fearful, vulnerable communities which can be exploited and have that genuine concern twisted.

I now fear that we may be an election or two away from a breakthrough for the far right; assuming they can organise themselves into something coherent.

Government needs to intervene

Government needs to intervene here. We need a well-resourced and sustained anti-racism and anti-hate speech awareness and education programme. We need a long-awaited overhaul of our Incitement to Hatred Act and hate speech legislation. We need to adequately fund the development of community / local authority led integration strategies in every county in Ireland, similar to the one I’ve written about here. We need to end the injustice of direct provision. I believe that with resolve and resources that the homelessness crisis and fair treatment of those seeking refuge here can be addressed.

But most of all government and politicians need to change the language and the message too. The narrative led by our Taoiseach that direct provision is better than tents is deeply offensive to those living in the hell of direct provision but also to people forced to live in tents due a homelessness crisis that has largely been fuelled by misguided Government policy.

Then there’s the acceptable hate speech directed at our Traveller community; where it would appear to be almost encouraged but rarely challenged by media or politicians. The fact that it very often does go unchallenged is often more hurtful to Travellers than the abusive language itself.

The community development sector has never recovered from the cuts of the financial crash. Equally it’s critical voice has been silenced by successive governments and more recently the emphasis has become more about service provision. Community Development Projects (CDPs) abolished in 2008, ran many innovative anti-racism and integration programmes.

Increased targeted funding delivered through Family Resource Centres under local government structures introduced in 2014 could offer a way forward towards implementing new programmes.

We also need to have the ethnic diversity of Ireland reflected in politics, in public services, on State boards, in our Gardai and in the media.

Ultimately though we need political leadership and courage like never before. Otherwise the genuine fear of communities will continue to be exploited. Language will be pushed to the limit until it stokes violent action.

Frightening things are happening all across Europe and beyond and at a time when the main focus of attention should be uniting people around the common threat of climate and ecological breakdown. So let’s start within our own communities. Integration is important but meaningful inclusion means that everyone who lives here has the right to the same opportunities to housing, to education, employment and life fulfilment. It also means that minorities feel the love, the welcome and the safety that exists within a nation that values diversity and all the benefits to society that stem from it.