The Irish Times view on Noel Grealish’s comments: a dangerous intervention

The debate over remittances is a sideshow compared to the disturbing focus of the Independent TD’s Dáil remarks

As an experienced politician and former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Independent TD Noel Grealish is well aware that the fears and concerns of small communities in relation to ‘others’ can be exploited. Photograph: The Irish Times

As an experienced politician and former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Independent TD Noel Grealish is well aware that the fears and concerns of small communities in relation to ‘others’ can be exploited. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

There was general agreement in the Dáil that Independent TD Noel Grealish had engaged in racism by asking Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for reassurance that the “astronomical amount” of €3.5 billion sent home by Nigerian migrants over eight years had been legitimate and not the proceeds of crime or fraud.

It later transpired that, just six weeks ago, Grealish was given data from the CSO which puts the flow to Nigeria at only €17 million a year, or €136 million over the same period– just 3.8 per cent of the World Bank figure the Galway West TD chose to highlight. Remittances are notoriously difficult to measure, although the CSO’s calculation would appear more reliable than that of the World Bank, which draws on GDP data – leaving it open to distortions in the Irish context.

In this instance, misinformation and prejudice have dominated the discussion

Yet, in many ways, all of that is a sideshow, given what Grealish has done. His Dáil intervention followed his description of African asylum seekers as “spongers” during a recent meeting in Oughterard over a direct provision centre. The tactics used were similar to those employed by Peter Casey in last year’s presidential election, when he attracted nearly one-quarter of the popular vote after criticising Travellers.

The EU’s Human Rights Agency has concluded that Ireland has a “disturbing problem with racism and discrimination against migrants” – a useful corrective to the complacent assumption that Ireland is somehow immune to racism. The agency suggested that people should talk about the issue, but only on the basis of “solid information”. In this instance, misinformation and prejudice have dominated the discussion.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin called for an urgent meeting with other party leaders to agree a protocol to deal with racist comments in advance of the general election. That’s a constructive idea that should be embraced by every party and every politician standing for office.

As an experienced politician and former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Grealish is well aware that the fears and concerns of small communities in relation to “others” can be exploited. He is a full-time politician in a competitive constituency, and was elected on the 13th count in 2016. His closest challenger on that occasion was another Independent candidate, but with a liberal, Labour Party background. By allying himself with local elements opposed to the establishment of a direct provision centre and by questioning the law-abiding nature of Nigerian migrants, Grealish is treading dangerous ground.

Parents from the constituency have sons and daughters who are illegal immigrants in the United States. And people recall the necessity for money transfers from the US and Britain during the lean years of the last century. We should remember our past. And politicians should tread very carefully.

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