Integration is a key element of Balbriggan’s development plan

In a town with a young population, the lack of investment in youth services is an issue

Integration is a key component, arguably the main driver of Balbriggan’s development strategy, and the reasons are obvious.

There are as many as 60 nationalities and ethnic groups here. Data compiled by Fingal County Council shows almost one-third (28 per cent) of the population is foreign born, compared with 13 per cent nationally. Further, 19.1 per cent identify as non-Irish.

The “Our Balbriggan” development document notes the town “felt divided”, the lack of integration holding back its potential. It talks of celebrating diversity and a need to “own the difference”.

Such sentiments are admirable but the nature of diversity and integration is complex, often muddied by issues and subtexts of perceived racism and intolerance.

In recent years, Balbriggan has struggled with the notion of youth “gangs”, an issue some believe is often tangled up in racist views but that others feel is overplayed and exaggerated, notably through social media.

It is not a topic many are happy to discuss openly but a flashpoint in late 2017 forced the issue uncomfortably into public debate. A community march, ostensibly to protest about unchecked antisocial behaviour, was dismissed by some as a reflection of racist perceptions of teenagers from ethnic backgrounds, a view strongly denied by its organiser in a subsequent radio interview.

While there were differing views on that particular incident, it offered an insight into the local situation. Racism is considered a problem by some, while others separate ethnic tension from a more straightforward issue of “gang” behaviour.

It doesn't matter where we are from, what is important is how we are treated and how we continue to respect humanity

John Uwhumiakpor, a Nigerian living in Balbriggan for 13 years who ran unsuccessfully in the local elections on a platform of integration, says efforts “are not really going in the way [they are] supposed to be”.

“There are a lot of tensions,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where we are from, what is important is how we are treated and how we continue to respect humanity.”

Dr Marianna Prontera and Dr Lucy Michael, sociologists specialising in integration, recently compiled a “liveability study” in Balbriggan on behalf of the local authority and community organisation Cairde.

Focusing on the Flemington area – where residents comprise 60 per cent ethnic Irish and 30 per cent non-national or “new Irish” – their local research team found no particular problems with integration among neighbours.

However, they did identify concerns about the level of Garda interaction with youths, primarily about drug concerns (gardaí told them they do not target any specific groups), although community policing has led to improvements.

“In a town with such a young population, the lack of investment in youth services is an issue,” Michael says.

“They are perceived to be in gangs because they are in large numbers in open areas and they are being moved on. But this is [just[ young people out on the street.”

Gardaí say they adopt a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour but work with community organisations to pursue solutions other than prosecution, notably youth diversion schemes. Eight new community gardaí have been put in place in the past two years.

In one incident last year a group of youths from various backgrounds were involved in making hip-hop videos of a style that involved intimidating public behaviour, sometimes involving carrying weapons. This led to 20 arrests for public order offences.

Balbriggan Garda Inspector Brian Downey says they have seen groups of youths formed along ethnic lines, but this is often simply due to where they live. Ethnicities also mix, he says.

“We want an ‘us environment’ not a ‘them and us environment’,” says Insp Downey, agreeing with the consensus view that more work on integration is required.

As regards crime in the town, I wouldn't think there would be a crime problem. I think a bigger issue is integration

In the centre of the town, Balbriggan District Court has been processing minor criminal offences every Thursday for years. Donogh McGowan, a solicitor at Gerrard L McGowan, has been practising there since 1996 and says the court has been relatively quiet in recent times.

“A lot of it is drunk and disorderly [cases], petty theft, assault,” he says of the day-to-day lists. “As regards crime in the town, I wouldn’t think there would be a crime problem. I think a bigger issue is integration.”

Ayodele Yusuf, chairwoman of the voluntary Balbriggan Integration Forum, says it is a two-way process.

“The adults, when they see groups of boys, especially African boys together, then they think that they are up to no good,” she says, explaining that sometimes they simply want to hang out.

Originally from Nigeria, Yusuf thinks in broad terms on a complex issue – the need to consider youth interests other than sport, the unlikelihood of the Muslim community going to pubs, a lack of shared cultural spaces and activities, are just a few of her thoughts. But she is upbeat, in accordance with the plan.

"Ireland was not this diverse how many years back. And that diversity is open to so many good things along the way," she says.

“Some people might want to fight it because they don’t like change. But the positive change is more than the negative change.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times