Our forefathers would have commandeered all available land for refugees and the homeless

Anne Harris: Ranting against the far-right is not going to put a pillow under a war-weary head

Paul Mescal is a “triple threat.” That means that as well as acting, he can also sing and dance. But he has a fourth dimension which could well explain his meteoric rise — his roots in the GAA. If he wasn’t an actor, he told Vogue magazine last week, he would have been a Gaelic footballer.

The ineffable quality that the world loves about Mescal is the spirit of the GAA. “I would have broken every bone in my body,” he reflects.

Russia’s spring offensive against Ukraine looms like an apocalyptic cloud and means more and more desperate refugees will arrive. Resources will be needed; resources we have forgotten we have, buried deep in our DNA; qualities Mescal wears invisibly and our forebears exemplified.

That is why Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman’s appeal for every parish hall and sports centre in the country with fire safety is not naive, but an appeal to the national folk memory. It was also fateful — within days, polls showed 56 per cent of us believe we have “too many refugees”. What does ”too many” mean? Are we to renege on the international legal obligations we signed up for in the 1951 Refugee Convention? Do we expect people whose world has been destroyed to just disappear?


Coping with an unprecedented number of refugees is not like building a motorway

Ranting against the far right is not going to put a pillow under a war-weary head. Neither will nightly briefings from the opposition offering the truism that “lack of information” to communities causes unease and far-right exploitation. Of course, it does. But coping with an unprecedented number of refugees is not like building a motorway — it is fighting fire and everyone involved, from the Minister through NGOs to neighbourhoods, is doing their heroic best.

The GAA, whose founders, 135 years ago, included the district inspector of the RIC, Thomas St George McCarthy and who chose as patrons Michael Davitt, Charles Steward Parnell and Archbishop Croke, was pluralist and resolute. It had to be for the Sisyphean task of fostering Ireland’s unique games and athletic past. Over the century, as we know, it was warped by splits and sectarianism, but without it, the Gaelic revival would have been a thin-blooded affair.

A genius for improvisation was how the GAA flourished in hard times. Improvisation, in a nutshell, is what O’Gorman is calling for in his powerful appeal for “urgent assistance.” Not quite a year since Ukraine was impaled by Russian president Vladimir Putin and we have welcomed 10 times — 74,000 — the number of refugees we had this time last year. Little wonder O’Gorman eschewed all rhetoric in his plea for “large halls where camp beds, mattresses and sleeping bags can be used by refugees”. He promised his department will provide management and NGO support in the buildings.

They will have to do more. This is a national emergency on the scale of Covid-19. It requires a nationwide taskforce on the scale of coronavirus. And yes, nightly briefings. Calming legitimate fears, community by community, as was done in Covid. This is no time for Sinn Féin antics and increasingly counterproductive efforts to prove our democracy a “failed State”. Only political pluralism on the scale of the 1888 GAA will suffice if we are to confirm our shared humanity with those displaced by war. Micheál Martin who as Tanáiste has donned the robe of wise counsel, saying what nobody else will, put it succinctly last week. “We are all birds of passage,” he said.

He was addressing the issue of historic claims, not refugees, but some truths are immutable. His remarks, brave in the current climate, go to the core of matters.

Calls have to be made, he said, as to whether the current generation should pay for historic mistakes and wrongs. The Government has to make decisions and “not all of them are palatable or desirable”.

Desperation as asylum seeker accommodation crises deepens

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His clear subtext was: should health and housing be the price the current generation has to pay for historic claims? And the “current generation” in Ireland today includes refugees.

Conflict between the griefs of older generations and the needs of current generations has existed from time immemorial: “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father,” says the bible. The 21st century has paid heavily for the sins of the 20th, says Martin.

There is no question that most historic grievances are legitimate and deeply felt. There is no doubt that the Government acted wrongly — on shameless legal advice — in denying disability payments and refunds for wrongly charged nursing home fees.

What would our forefathers have done? Found a way of conferring a different kind of distinction on victims perhaps?

There’s no avoiding that accepting injustice is very hard. The victims command compassion. And that the injustice should be weighed against the needs of the homeless, sick and displaced smacks of the judgment of Solomon. But in a field of scarcity, as Martin says, unpalatable and undesirable decisions must be made.

What would our forefathers have done? Found a way of conferring a different kind of distinction on victims perhaps?

One way or another, they would have commandeered every bit of available land — church, State and commercial — in the service of refugees and the homeless. They would have recognised that refugee needs are our needs. That mutual, enlightened self-interest and an ability to improvise are the means to survive. Not just survive, but overcome.

We’ve achieved the unimaginable before. The 1921 Leinster hurling final at Croke Park took place only weeks after the truce which ended ancient hostilities. Michael Collins’s left-handed flying double with the hurley and sliotar that launched that game flew skyward. To a whole new world.