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Fintan O’Toole: Refugee crisis cannot be treated as opportunity to show how lovely Ireland is

We are fluent in high-minded idealism, making it real is another story

Every decent Irish person recognises that the mass exodus of refugees from Ukraine is a historic crisis to which we must respond. There is a genuine desire to rise gracefully and with generosity to this historic challenge.

But while compassion is obviously necessary, it is not remotely sufficient. If Ireland is serious about taking 100,000 refugees – let alone the 200,000 suggested by Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue on Morning Ireland last week – we will need a revolution in the way the State operates.

We’re talking about an incoming population the size of Limerick city, or of Waterford and Dundalk put together. Or, if McConalogue’s estimate is right, a second Cork city. Bluntly, if we meet this test as badly as we have been handling our existing crises, we will shame ourselves in the eyes of the world.

Let’s not kid ourselves: personal kindheartedness alone will not work. Private benevolence is not going to be remotely adequate to the collective demands we are accepting.

And while the surge of sympathy might make us feel good about ourselves, two dangers are very clear.

The first is that good people and caring communities will be left with all the blame when things go wrong – as, without a huge shift in the way government functions, they certainly will. These good deeds will not go unpunished.

The second is that a deep and toxic resentment will set in if Ukrainian refugees are given priority over everybody else when it comes to housing, healthcare, childcare and education. What is possible for them cannot remain impossible for people who already live here.

These dangers are avoidable. But they will not be evaded if this great crisis is approached merely as an opportunity to show the world how lovely Irish people are.

We know that already – but what we also know is that our systems of public provision are weak and in many cases patently failing. They will fail catastrophically unless this emergency galvanises the whole system of governance.

Implicit in the commitment to take in vast numbers of people who are fleeing the Russian invasion of their homeland is the assumption that this is a temporary crisis. This is a very foolish assumption.

There is no doubt that most of the four million people who have left Ukraine since February 24th hope and expect to go back. The love that Ukrainians have for their country has been the overwhelming revelation of Putin’s war. But it would be perilously optimistic to imagine that people will be able to go back anytime soon.


War could last a very long time, and even when it is over, it will leave a shattered country. Ukraine’s economic losses from the invasion are already about €500 billion. The damage, by the end, will be hideous.

And frankly, Ireland has a shameful record of treating refugees as a “temporary” problem and then abandoning them.

When Irish people think of hunger strikes, we tend to forget the one staged in April 1957 at Knockalisheen army camp, in the hills of Clare, just beyond the Limerick border. The strikers were people who had fled a Russian invasion of their country, Hungary.

Dublin City Council officially declared a housing "emergency" in January 1999. Twenty-three years on, it's worse

The previous year, when Hungarians rose in revolt against Soviet domination, there was a huge wave of emotional sympathy in fervently anti-communist Ireland. We took in 541 refugees, greeted them as heroes, then stuck them (as one of the hunger strikers put it) to “sit and rust” in a bleak disused barracks.

Ireland's Hungarian refugees became, in the end, refugees from Ireland. Almost all of them had to be resettled in Canada by the United Nations.

That was all very long ago, of course, before we got rich and developed. Except that we did the same thing again with the “direct provision” system for refugees and asylum seekers.

When it was established at the start of this century, this too was a “temporary”, “emergency” and “interim” response to a relatively modest inflow of people from areas of conflict, oppression and deprivation. Ironically, one of the places that was reopened (in 2002) to house asylum seekers was Knockalisheen army camp.

And here we are in 2022 with this same “sit and rust” system still in place. On current plans, it will be gone by 2024 – a quarter of a century of housing people (including children) in conditions that did not have to be tolerable because, ah sure, it’s only going to be for a little while.

More broadly – but just as pertinent to the Ukrainian refugees – we have a great knack for the crisis, the emergency, the sugar rush of a one-off extraordinary challenge that somehow is going to be dealt with a raft of one-off responses.

Dublin City Council officially declared a housing "emergency" in January 1999. Twenty-three years on, it's worse. As of last week, there were 9,492 homeless people in Ireland, including 2,667 children.

These numbers – especially those for kids – used to make the headlines. Now, they’re just normal. We have perfected the permanent “temporary” emergency.

Traumatised children

Or take an issue that is going to be of huge concern to families coming from Ukraine with traumatised children. We’ve been talking about a crisis in mental health services for children and young people for years. Yet, at the end of last year, we had 3,357 children waiting to be seen for the first time.

Individuals and local communities can’t provide long-term housing for refugees. They can’t give them mental health services that don’t exist. Charity, however uplifting, goes only so far. Those who practice it must not be left with a burden of guilt when its limits have been reached.

We cannot, moreover, say that all sorts of things are suddenly possible – like the rapid building of homes on church and public land – for refugees that we couldn’t be bothered to do for thousands of families already here.

The Covid emergency meant, for example, that 5,000 homes being let to tourists on Airbnb in Dublin alone, were suddenly available for rent. Prior to Covid tourists had, in effect, been prioritised over inhabitants.

Our generous offer to provide a home for huge numbers of refugees from Ukraine has garnered attention internationally. We've set ourselves up as an example for others to follow

This kind of implicit or explicit prioritisation is socially disastrous and it can’t be repeated in the response to this new crisis. If we would be ashamed to fail Ukrainians in their hour of need, we should feel the same sting of guilt for failing so many of our own citizens in their decades of need.

Historic challenge

It does not have to be one or the other. This historic challenge should force Ireland at last to get its act together.

Our generous offer to provide a home for huge numbers of refugees from Ukraine has garnered attention internationally. We’ve set ourselves up as an example for others to follow.

We’re very good at that part of the deal – we are native speakers of high-minded idealism. Making it real is another, less heroic, story.

Yet maybe we need to feel that someone is watching us. We’ve created a great test for ourselves: either we can create adequate housing and public services for all, or we fail in the eyes of the world. To be a land fit for heroes from the east, it must also be one fit for ourselves.