Reacting to the Dublin riots in their immediate aftermath, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was calm and correct on the gunpowder subject of migration and racism. “Migration is a difficult topic to talk about in politics,” he said. And then he went on to make the case for it.
“In the round,” he said, “migration has been a good thing for Ireland. We are a country of migrants. In hospitals, I see how diverse the workforce is there. Our hospitals would not work without migrants. There would be nobody to look after the sick or look after the old.”
Importantly, however, he added that any Government must have the power to control the numbers entering the country. We’ll come back to that.
“The country I have grown up in is a republic and in a republic,” Varadkar said, “you judge people by their character and their actions and their deeds, and not by the colour of their skin, or their background, or their gender.”
But if Varadkar – himself the son of an immigrant – was bang on about the principles at stake here, his Government has frequently ducked the pressing challenges of policing ever-edgier streets, monitoring the small but viciously potent far right and formulating an immigration policy that is workable, commands public support, aids our society and economy, and lives up to our international obligations. And it is migrant communities – nervous, jumpy, scared by what happened last week – who have been paying the price for these failures.
Foostering and faffing around the periphery of a problem in preference to tackling it head on is often a hallmark of the Coalition and it has been evident in all these areas in the past week.
Sometimes it’s because the Coalition partners can’t agree on what to do. Sometimes it’s because individual Ministers don’t want to do anything that might be unpopular. Sometimes it’s just because Government is difficult – all those choices to make, so few good options.
So after his blunt and brave rhetorical reaction, Varadkar’s initial policy response was back to business as usual: activity masquerading as progress. He promised to “modernise our laws against incitement to hatred and hatred in general”.
I am not sure which part of threatening – and carrying out – violence on gardaí and members of the public; rioting; smashing shop windows and looting their contents; setting fire to buses, trams and garda cars; and threatening the burning out of politicians, asylum seekers and Irish citizens of foreign birth is not already illegal.
And I suspect the hate crime/hate speech legislation – due to return to the Dáil in the next fortnight, we’re told – might turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth. There are already significant wobbles about it in Government and growing opposition outside.
Helen McEntee is in danger of becoming bogged down talking about whether it will be a crime to use the wrong pronouns while Fine Gael backbenchers, city centre businesses, jittery migrant communities and just about everyone else are clamouring for safer streets.
Maybe the Government is starting to get this. By the middle of this week, the focus had moved to more practical measures. The Government resolved to flood the streets with gardaí, give them whatever equipment they needed, and, er, encourage them to use it.
I suspect this will go down rather better with the public than the hate speech legislation. But it’s hardly a long-term policing solution, and nor will it defang the far right. Rather, it will simply give them a target, and a challenge to measure themselves against.
On the wider question, for some people, this isn’t the time to talk about migration. Actually, I think it’s exactly the time, because people are listening. It’s time to stress its benefits, to stand up and defend migration, to talk about our responsibilities to those in the world less fortunate than ourselves.
But it’s also the time to acknowledge that our migration policies must be sustainable and command public approval. There needs to be a system that efficiently and definitively decides if people qualify for refugee status, and – yes – sends them home if they do not. And there needs to be parallel system that admits the much-needed economic migrants in the numbers that are required to run our economy, but in a sensibly controlled manner. If we don’t do that, you need only to look elsewhere in Europe to see what happens.
In the Netherlands, a far-right party has just won the general election. Concerns over immigration motored the far-right Brothers of Italy, under Giorgia Meloni, to power in Italy last year (though she has behaved like a conventional centre-right politician in government). The AfD is rampant in Germany. Marine Le Pen may be the next president of France. The UK is in consternation over migration. I could go on.
This week, European People’s Party president Manfred Weber warned the EU must get a grip on migration if it wants to avoid a far-right surge across the continent. And if far-right, anti-immigrant parties have a substantial presence in the European Parliament after next June’s elections, the EU will get tougher, not more accommodative, on migration. That’s a dreadful prospect. But it’s real, and wishing it were not so will not make it go away.
Ireland is not exempt from this. Every week now, Independent TDs are raising in the Dáil the concerns of communities which have learned that groups of asylum seekers are due to be relocated to their towns and villages, often without preparation, consultation or reasonable notice. Whatever you think of their objections and protests – they’re probably a mixture of reasonable and not – this is now a political issue. Independents’ concerns will seep into the mainstream parties. Our political system is nothing if not hyper-responsive to motivated interests. Just like law and order on the streets, whether you like it or not, migration is now an issue.