No racism here please, we're Irish

 

IRELAND is famous for the cead mile failte we extend to visitors. But is the same warm reception extended to those who come to live and settle here? Or do they find their nationality a source of contention?

The answer appears to be: it depends. Different immigrants have vastly different experiences of Ireland. Sometimes hot disputes arise over land or right-of-way access. "Continentals often have themselves to blame," says Micheal Cropp, a German who has lived in Ireland for 10 years.

"They go to court over land disputes, or they put up signs saying `No trespassing' or `No right of way' which locals find offensive. That is not how the Irish like to do things."

Another problem is resentment over rising prices, particularly in areas of the west most favoured by foreigners. "There are parts of the Dingle peninsula where locals cannot afford to buy a home or bit of land because outsiders have driven prices so high," says Kerry estate agent Padraig Lynch.

But many immigrants say they find the "Ireland of the Welcomes" label appropriate, that they have experienced a friendly openness. "Only once in my three years here have I met a person with a negative attitude towards me, a person who felt I and my foreign co-workers had taken Irish, jobs, and that was in no way typical," says Frenchman Remy Pairault. Larisa Fernandez, a young Mexican woman who Was also lived in Dublin for three years, agrees: "I have always been treated well in Ireland and, never encountered the sort of discrimination against Mexicans that is rife in the United States."

And that is also the experience of Kay Pilz, a Japanese restaurateur who lives with her German husband near Durrus, Co Cork: "I have never experienced racism in this country. When we lived in Berlin I often encountered problems but in Ireland, people take me as a human being and my race feels irrelevant."

However, Aine O'Connor, who runs a support group for immigrants, says: "What our group has made obvious is that not everybody has the same experience. ,I have to say that I have been horrified by some of the attitudes which people have encountered, attitudes which I would describe as explicit racism.

In her pamphlet Repulsing Racism: Reflections On Racism And The Irish (Attic Press), Gretchen Fitzgerald, "a black woman born in India with a mixed Portuguese, British and Indian culture" who lives in Cork, takes issue with the assumption that Ireland is a predominantly white, monocultural society at ease with itself, and the equally fondly held notion that we don't have that problem (i.e. racism) here".

According to Fitzgerald, a description of Ireland as monocultural ignores its small indigenous black population, the increasing numbers of European, African, Asian and Middle-Eastern residents in the country, as well as 21,000 Irish travellers, all of whom live with prejudice and discrimination. Her own sense "of not belonging and of not being fully understood," she says, made her question "whether I had the right to bring a child, whose cultural origins would be as complex as my own, into such an unthinking society.

"My experience of racism in Ireland began as a student," she recalls. "In a small city (Cork) where black women were virtually non-existent, I was particularly conspicuous on and off campus. My middle-class, black femaleness was perceived as `exotic', `exciting', `dangerous'. I was stared at, often to the point of rudeness, particularly when walking through the college canteen, a torture I soon gave up.

These feelings of "inferiority and unacceptable difference" continued when she began to work in Ireland, and later when she married an Irishman.

Drazen Nozinic, from former Yugoslavia, has had similar experiences in his five years in Dublin and believes that "Irish people have a deep inferiority complex". "If you are a foreigner in Ireland, it is not allowed for you to criticise, he says. "Once when I gave a lecture in which I was critical of the Irish, somebody stood up afterwards and said: `Why don't you ... . off back to your own country, then?' Five years ago, I would not have called the Irish racist, I would have said you are insular people, ignorant when it comes to dealing with and living with other cultures. But now, I do say the Irish are racist though often it manifests itself in subtle ways.

"Take, for example, when remarks were made about Alan Shatter and Mervyn Taylor during the divorce referendum," he continues. "The suggestion that because they were Jewish, they were trying to impose divorce on Catholic Ireland and in some way out of tune with the culture of this country. I could not believe the remarks I heard on Irish radio and television at that time. I was horrified. In former Yugoslavia, they would have got six or seven years in jail under our anti-racist legislation"

In Ireland there is no specific anti-racist law. The Government relies on three pieces of legislation to combat racism: the 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act which was passed after it emerged that fascist groups had been using "Ireland as a base for the printing and distribution of horrific racist material banned in other countries; the 1977 Employment Equality Act which made it illegal not to employ somebody because of colour or ethnic background and the forthcoming Equal Status Bill, which will make it illegal for people to be refused services on the basis of colour or ethnic background. The Department of Equality and Law Reform believes that between them these three pieces of legislation cover all the issues around race relations.

However, the reason violent racist attacks and murders of the kind happening in England, France and Germany have not happened here is probably that immigrants are not - as yet - arriving in numbers significant enough to pose a threat. This is the argument posed by Dr Mary Corcoran, of the Department of Sociology at St Patrick's College Maynooth. "At the moment we are insulated from the sort of dynamic we see in France and Germany," she believes, "because the economy is booming and because the numbers of immigrants into this country are not yet hugely significant. Irish nationality is not threatened by immigration, but that could change if immigrants became more visible."

Over the past year, a new phenomenon has begun to emerge in Dublin: graffiti on walls telling "blacks" and "pakis" to get out of Ireland. Anand Lalloo is South African born, of Indian descent. He has had racist graffiti sprayed on his newsagent shop during the night and also on occasion had the metal shutters which protect his shop at night superglued down.

RANJITH Lalloo, who owns a chemist shop nearby, has had similar experiences and members of their family have received telephone calls at three in the morning saying: "Pakis get out or we will burn you in your beds."

Both men stress that neighbours and acquaintances have distanced themselves from this racist activity and that they have received telephone calls and personal assurances of support and help. "Ninety-nine point nine per cent of them (the Irish) are beautiful people," says Mr Lalloo, "and it just takes a couple of idiots to reverse the situation." He fears that such activity could escalate and wants to "nip it in the bud".

But the Lalloos' experience was no isolated incident. A Nigerian family was recently forced out of Ballymun flats by racial harassment. An Iranian family was similarly harassed in Ballsbridge and Blanchardstown. A Somali family on the North Circular Road had the window of their flat broken; their landlord responded by asking them to move as he didn't want his property damaged again. A Zairean man was attacked in Temple, Bar. A black child was stripped naked outside his north Dublin school by schoolboys who wanted to see what a black boy looked like. A Vietnamese teenager hanged himself because of racist taunts. A Welsh family was besieged with threatening phone calls, bricks through the window and faeces through the front door, until they returned to Cardiff.

Statistics on the incidence of racism in Ireland are scant and organisations such as Harmony, the Anti-Racist Coalition or the Irish Council for Overseas Students who monitor racist behaviour do not have the resources to, provide detailed statistics, although there is ample anecdotal evidence.

We are very far from being a society which accepts and welcomes other cultures, Dr Corcoran believes. "For example, when the growing Muslim community opened a cultural centre and mosque in Clonskeagh it was decided not to include the Muslim call to prayer because it was felt that it would not be acceptable to the host community," she says. "If immigrants become more insistent about expressing their own cultural practices, we may well begin to see more intense resistance on the part of the Irish."

Even returned Irish migrants have spoken of the ridicule their children endure because of their different accents. In short, it would appear that the Irish are no more welcoming to incomers than any other nation and the idea that "we don't have that problem here" is as untrue for racism as it was for incest, clerical child abuse or violence in the home.

"Immigration is a big issue for Europe," says Dr Mary Corcoran, "and we can expect it to become more and more of an issue for Ireland as the numbers rise."