The Jesuit, sociologist, and social justice activist Fr Micheál Mac Gréil, who died last month, caused a stir in 1977 with the publication of his book Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland. Then working as a sociology lecturer at Maynooth University, he had also spent some time in Kent State University Ohio, where, he recalled, his mind was “blown open” to racism and the ghettoisation of the black population. His book was published six years after Conor Cruise O’Brien, then a Labour TD, had maintained “The Irish character was peculiarly resistant to racism”.
Mac Gréil’s book suggested otherwise; his research included a survey of 2,311 adults in Dublin who were asked 34 questions in order “to establish, to explore and to explain (as far as possible) the present state of intergroup attitudes and relations” among that group. He concluded widespread authoritarianism was “the principal factor explaining inter-group prejudice”, associated with religious fundamentalism, racism, and intolerance of differences in political and other social beliefs and practices: “The relatively high prejudice of females, of the older age groups, of the poorly educated and of those with low occupational status, is in part indicative of the frustrating condition of these ‘minorities’.” The survey uncovered a “high and severe degree” of racial prejudice and Mac Gréil recommended legislation for explicit guarantees of fair treatment in employment, housing and education, to assist “the creation of a genuinely pluralist society”.
These attitudes were highlighted at a time when Ireland’s population was striking for its lack of colour and diversity. The 1971 census revealed a total resident population of 2,893,172, of whom only 24,859 had come from outside the State, but 13,497 of those had been born in Ireland, meaning there were just over 11,000 resident in the State who were not born here. The racist attitudes uncovered by Mac Gréil’s survey were thus seen as largely “latent” or “dormant”. Speaking after the book came out, he maintained “we are an intolerant people to a degree and we are quite fascistic in our attitudes ... when we do become a society taking in immigrants, look at the welcome we are going to give them ... The only reason we haven’t got a racial problem is because we don’t have a racial minority.”
We do now. The 2011 census recorded that one in six Dublin city residents was non-Irish with Polish, British, Romanian, Indian, Chinese and Brazilian nationals combined accounting for 45 per cent of these. Nationally, in 2011, there were 544,357 non-Irish nationals from 199 different nations living in Ireland, amounting to 12.2 per cent of the population. Central Statistics Office data from 2021 indicated roughly one in eight people in Ireland – 645,500 or 12.9 per cent of the population – were non-Irish nationals. That was well before the war in Ukraine.
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Mac Gréil updated his survey in 1996 and found greater social tolerance but ongoing prejudice against Travellers and Muslims, a reminder of the broader framework for his work on exclusion. By 2012 he titled a further survey Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland, attributing progress to the peace process, sustained economic growth and the contributions of immigrants. In 2004, almost 80 per cent of Irish voters supported a constitutional amendment that stripped the birthright of citizenship from Irish born children of immigrants, with the government arguing for a “commonsense citizenship” and accusations abounding that African women were exploiting the Irish health system. But the same year, Ireland became one of only three countries that allowed unrestricted movement of migrants from the new eastern European EU members.
Some of the dominant themes of Sorcha Pollak’s long running series New to the Parish in this newspaper include the freedom arrivals feel and the welcome they are afforded as well as the horrors of what so many have fled from and the restrictions, delays and denials they face in attempting to reunite with families. But many immigrants have also spoken of ongoing racism, that MEP Niall Andrews suggested as far back as 2001 was “endemic” in Dublin, while too many asylum seekers have languished in the much discredited direct provision system.
There has, however, been much comment on what seemed an Irish determination to resist the anti-immigrant populism so prevalent elsewhere. In 2018, UCD sociologist Bryan Fanning, who has written extensively on immigration and racism, wondered “for how long can we count on this?” while also highlighting racism that was “latent as well as violent”. Hooded men with dogs descending on the tents of those seeking refuge are not representative of widespread sentiment, but they are a reminder of the urgency of a question Fanning and others have asked: why has the National Consultative Committee on Racism and interculturalism, established in 1998 and disbanded in 2008, not been reborn? A new version of it is badly needed so that the discussion started by Mac Gréil almost 50 years ago can be updated and amplified.