Any John Wayne movie worth its cast of cowboys has a scene where the baddie sets light to the dynamite taper. As the flame sizzles towards the point of detonation, the audience prays to God and all the saints above in heaven to send someone, quick, to stamp it out before the whole damned town of Tombstone goes up in smoke. That is how it has felt this week watching the lit taper of Irish xenophobia pick up speed in its burn towards cataclysm. Heightening the fear is the absence of any star-billed hero dashing to the rescue.
As gardaí investigate the suspected arson of a 19th century former schoolhouse in Dublin, which had been wrongly identified on social media as a location being prepared to house people from abroad seeking refuge here, the response of Ministers has run the full gamut from tut to tutting. As a group of Irish-born men equipped with a German shepherd, a pit bull terrier and a baseball bat yelled “pack up and get out now” to men who were not born in this country at an encampment in another part of Dublin last weekend, Ireland’s most admired leader, President Higgins, was nearly 3,000 miles away in Africa.
Amid this paralysis of State leadership, two sides have gone to war. On one side are some residents of mainly non-privileged areas who are furious that the Government is trying to look after people fleeing their native lands while many of those born here struggle to pay their bills and to secure homes. Malign keyboard warriors are deliberately stirring this resentment with lies and innuendo for their own bigoted agenda, but there are also many kind-hearted residents who have justifiable reasons for feeling discriminated against. The disproportionate number of communities with inadequate public services that have been chosen to accommodate people from abroad is as provocative as the racist rhetoric.
On the other side are many residents in these communities who are sickened by the hatred being spewed at people coming from abroad to live among them and who, in numerous cases, have suffered unimaginable vicissitudes before arriving here. The prejudice pricks a folk memory of times past when desperate Irish immigrants were as unwelcome as dogs in other countries. Besides, it belies Ireland’s self-image as the compassionate land of the céad míle fáilte.
The Programme for Government, pertinently entitled Our Shared Future, makes an explicit commitment to an ethos of inclusion, envisaging “an Ireland that is a welcoming place to all visitors, whether they are here on holiday, to learn, to seek refuge, or for business”. By that measure, the Government has failed abysmally.
Most people recognise that the State’s obligation to provide accommodation for tens of thousands of newcomers from abroad is a logistical dilemma but it is exacerbated by a housing crisis that governments have presided over for the past decade. For politicians who served in those governments to adopt a laissez-faire stance now and let the two sides slug it out on a battlefront created by political failure amounts to an abdication of their duty. It is galling to see the Irish flag being brandished as a banner of hatred and to hear anti-immigrant demonstrators claim they are taking action on behalf of Irish people, but it is almost as galling to see Cabinet Ministers acting as mere spectators on the ditch.
The spurning of economic immigrants arriving on Irish shores while seeking special status for Ireland’s own economic emigrants abroad is the sort of ‘do what I say, not what I do’ double standard that gives succour to xenophobic agitators
The crisis Ireland is facing is no longer only about putting roofs over people’s heads. It has become a matter of public safety. Considerable Garda resources are being assigned to monitoring protests and investigating suspected hate crimes. Journalists covering the anti-migrant protests say the protest ranks are swelling and are outnumbering the other side. You can feel the volatility.
Anger may not be a policy but it is a powerful motivation and ignoring it puts the public good at risk. The government needs to acknowledge its role in creating this tinderbox and, then, it needs to assuage the fears and resentments of those who are resisting the arrival of migrants in their midst. This can be done, not by “consultation”, which is sometimes used as a euphemism for “veto”, but by asking for communities’ help and then showing gratitude for it. If it makes sense to supplement individual householders’ income for hosting refugees in their homes, it logically follows that communities should receive support too. This is not bribery. It is practical.
[ Una Mullally: The comforting theory Irish people won’t coalesce around far-right has disintegrated ]
[ Diarmaid Ferriter: The racism that has always lurked within the Irish has been exposed ]
In areas where public services have been squeezed, the delivery of extra schoolteachers and medical centres, buses and trains, children’s playgrounds and housing developments could make the difference between social stability and social dynamite. Anyway, it is the fair thing to do.
The body politic needs to make another Confession by owning up to its own hypocrisy about migration. It has become a yearly ritual that, on St Patrick’s Day, a Taoiseach exploits Ireland’s entree to the White House to plead for illegal Irish immigrants to be exempted from US deportation laws. Though this State has no history of any type of emigration other than the economic kind, when the flow of migration turns the other way and people come here hoping to make a better life for themselves, they are classified as economic migrants and are shooed away.
Even now, many young Irish people are moving to the UK, Portugal, Canada, Australia and the US for socio-economic reasons, because it so hard to acquire a home in this country. The spurning of economic immigrants arriving on Irish shores while seeking special status for Ireland’s own economic emigrants abroad is the sort of “do what I say, not what I do” double standard that gives succour to xenophobic agitators worming their ideology of hate into the public mindset.
Right now, many righteous and courageous civilians are joining together to try to counteract the spread of racism and hate crimes in the hothouse of a national accommodation crisis. A government that sits on the ditch watching the confrontation unfold is a quisling government. If it does not climb down from its tut-tutting pedestal and make pragmatic interventions to assuage protesters’ anger, that taper will burn inexorably towards the point of explosion.