The trouble with saying ‘I’m not right wing or racist but . . .’
Ireland is as predisposed to racism as any society although we are probably more prone to self-deception
Demonstrators protest over the potential opening of a direct provision centre in Oughterard, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
This is how it begins. In Achill, Ballinamore and Oughterard of all places.
“We are not opposed to having asylum seekers in our community, but what we are opposed to is the lack of consultation from the department around this matter and safety concerns that the site is not suitable for this group of people to be housed in,” said the committee in Achill after its actions denied refuge to 13 vulnerable women who had come to Ireland seeking protection.
“This protest is about lack of facilities and about not wanting to throw these people into that concrete jungle,” said the protestors in Ballinamore after they blocked plans to house 130 people who have sought to assert their right to asylum under various treaties signed by Ireland.
There is something more than a little unsettling about meekly accepting a narrative that, at face value, would seem to share a lot of common ground with Ireland’s ragtag assortment of racists, bigots and far-right extremists.
“This peaceful protest was never about not welcoming asylum seekers to Oughterard, but a protest against the inhumane conditions for asylum seekers,” explained the Oughterard committee that left 250 people in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation elsewhere.
Maybe some of those involved believe these assertions. But there is something more than a little unsettling about meekly accepting a narrative that, at face value, would seem to share a lot of common ground with Ireland’s ragtag assortment of racists, bigots and far-right extremists.
Protestors tell us at great length how they are anything but racist or right wing. And we give them plenty of room to explain that they have no objection to poor foreigners of colour and of different religion coming to live in their mostly white towns. It is as if we need to believe; that it’s an article of faith that Irish people are congenitally incapable of racism. To suggest otherwise cuts across the treasured image we have manufactured of ourselves as a tolerant people whose enlightened attitude to foreigners is informed by our own complex past of subjection and emigration.
We cling desperately to explanations founded on anything other than the possibility that Irish people might be racists. It’s not racism, it’s the housing crisis. It’s the Government’s fault. If it had not made such a mess of its housing policy there would be plenty of suitable accommodation for asylum seekers in urban centres better able to cope. Why should rural Ireland carry the can?
It’s not racism, it’s unemployment, poor local services or broadband all over again. It’s the Government’s fault. Protests against direct provisions centres are an outpouring of the inchoate rage that people in rural Ireland feel over being left behind in an increasingly unequal country.
But racism is as racism does. If you find yourself wanting the same things as racists and right-wing activists, you need to take a good look at yourself. We are as predisposed to racism as any society although we are probably more prone to self-deception. We possess the same primal fear of “others” yet what has been absent in Irish society are the stresses and strains – and the immigration – which has brought it to the surface in all its ugliness elsewhere.
All that stands in its way in Ireland are the same obstacles that exist in any liberal democratic society – the rules we set for ourselves and our ability and desire to enforce them. The keystone of this edifice is strong institutions that enforce the rule of law. Strong institutions are institutions that people have faith in. And at the top of the pile in Ireland sits the Oireachtas. Which is why we should be taking revelations about low standards in our parliament much more seriously.
Instead we are told we shouldn’t get too het up about our elected representatives bending or breaking the rules. What is the point of voting when the Dáil is effectively neutered by the confidence and supply agreement? The Government won’t fall on a lost vote. Does anyone really think we elect deputies to legislate? They are there to represent the interests of their constituents and the tedious business of attending the Dáil and voting should not get in the way.
The Oireachtas and its rules are not taken seriously by those elected to it. And if they don’t take such matters seriously, then why should we?
Why should we bat an eyelid at the idea that a deputy can register his attendance in Leinster House using a fob – becoming eligible for daily expenses – before turning up at funeral at the other end of the country a few hours later?
If this line of argument doesn’t make you uneasy it should. It casts Irish politics as some sort of never-ending in-joke. Everybody gets it. We all know what is going on and how things work. Sadly, in due course, the joke will be on us.
The truth is much more prosaic and much more sinister. The Oireachtas and its rules are not taken seriously by those elected to it. And if they don’t take such matters seriously, then why should we? If their behaviour is not above reproach, why should we behave any differently? The edifice is weakened and authority diminished. The slope is a slippery one. And you do need to believe that.