Was Oughterard about racism or a fear of the unknown?

Seán Moncrieff: If the protesters were racist, it wasn’t the marching-to-a-whiter future sort

People taking part in a silent protest march in Oughterard against a proposed direct provision centre at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel. The plan has since been scrapped. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

In the future, Norway disintegrates. There are radical Norwegian supremacists, carrying out a vicious terrorist campaign. Warlords control most of the country. Food and water are scarce. Sweden has carpet bombed most of the towns and cities.

The specifics are not important, other than this chaos produces a massive refugee crisis, with tens of thousands streaming across the borders into the EU. The EU reacts by creating a quota system for its members.

Some of the refugees claim asylum, saying they are fleeing persecution. But because of the destruction of Oslo (and all government records), it's difficult for them to prove who they are. They could be refugees. But they could be sleeper agents for the Norwegian supremacists, who have already expressed their antipathy for the rest of Europe.

Ireland takes in its share and declares it will place them in direct provision centres, though it will have to open a few new ones to accommodate the new arrivals.


In that scenario, would locals object to the asylum seekers? Would the fact that they were white and European make it easier?

As we know, there have been quite a few controversies around the siting of direct provision centres. Resistance has ranged from protests to unexplained fires. And while the protestors have cited many reasons – a lack of resources to cater for the new arrivals, worry over who these people might really be, opposition to the entire direct provision system –- they have left themselves open to accusation of racism.

According to Doctor Wikipedia, racism is antagonism or prejudice towards people of a different race or ethnicity. Or it can mean the bald belief in the superiority of one race over another.

Using that definition, racists are pretty difficult to find. Few people believe (or admit to believing) that their ethnicity makes them automatically superior. Few people admit to prejudice.

However, common sense tells that we do have racists in Ireland. There are a few tiny political parties and some active individuals who subscribe to various nutbag theories: the most popular being that our government is secretly plotting to replace all the white Irish with immigrants and refugees.

Most of them argue that multiculturalism doesn’t work and that immigration only serves to dilute Judeo-Christian ‘culture’. It’s the foundational logic of apartheid.

More outrage

Because of the amplifying effect of the internet, these people may sometimes seem more popular than they are. They certainly generate far more outrage than support. It’s foolish to discount them, but so far none of these people have been elected to anything.

Perhaps with that in mind, some of them arrived in Oughterard hoping to capitalise on its direct provision row. But, as this paper reported at the time, once the local activists realised who these people were, they promptly shut them out from their public meetings.

So if the protesters in Oughterard were racist, as many accused them of being, it wasn’t the marching-to-a-whiter future sort. Perhaps it was unconscious, or not admitted to. Or perhaps it was something else. In the Norway scenario, would they, or many other communities around Ireland have reacted differently? Was it about skin colour or ethnicity or a simple fear of the unknown; a fear that is universal to us all?

Perhaps this is a Pollyanish analysis. It’s arguable that there was a racist component, intended or not, in these protests. Some maintain that we are all a little bit racist. But even if that’s true, it’s certainly not a reason to give in to such ideas. The project of civilisation is one of improvement, of how we live and how we think.

And perhaps it’s also not that useful to deploy the R-word every time there’s a row like this. Because racism – particularly the unconscious variety – is more effectively overcome with dialogue, information and understanding, not finger-wagging. When the word is overused, it gives the real racists a place to hide.