Ignorance and Neglect

On the eve of Rosa Parks Day, George Morahan looks at contemporary racial and cultural relations this side of the Atlantic.In recent years, Ireland has made a sharp turn towards multiculturalism. For a nation that has been perceived as unanimously white, both by foreign observers and its own indigenous population, Ireland has become more diverse at a rapid rate , with an increasingly large immigrant population.Institutionally at least, Ireland is probably one of the most liberal and welcoming nations in the western world, and the increase in immigration to this country can be put down to its lenient immigration laws (in tandem with a formerly burgeoning economy). Professor Bryan Fanning of UCD’s School of Applied Social Sciences points out that “we don’t have far-right parties, we don't have anti-immigrant political movements and that kind of thing. In a sense, basically, our politics is such that racial tension doesn't find expression.” However, according to Prof. Fanning’s research, the problem of racism in Ireland is one of a series of isolated incidents, including people “who were terrified out of their houses, spat on and beaten up. One black African bus driver described how he was urinated on from above by passengers in a very racially-motivated incident.” UCD Students’ Union Science Programme Officer, Chris Wong, regularly hears of racial hate crimes from his mother, who is heavily involved in the Chinese-Irish community. “Eighteen friends of hers have been robbed in the past three months. She tried to get the Gardaí to help her in setting up a prevention scheme and they were very unreceptive.”Despite such incidents of hostility between white Irish people and citizens or settlers of other races, the issue of racism in an increasingly multicultural nation is not prevalent in the public consciousness. Indeed, the Irish people took away the birthright of the children of non-nationals born in Ireland to Irish citizenship in a 2004 referendum, with 79.17% voting to amend the constitution as such. It is clear that, for now, Ireland wants to retain its self-image as a white, Catholic people, and is resistant to embracing the new, if unexpected realities of multiculturalism. The closure of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism in 2008 due to government cutbacks only reinforces this tenet.Martin Collins, Assistant Director of travellers’ rights organisation, Pavee Point, believes that there have been “various attempts to polarise the two communities – the traveller community and the new, immigrant communities – and people have actually said to me, 'we should be looking after travellers; they are our own people; they are citizens of Ireland, and we shouldn't be looking after these new communities.' ... Suddenly, we have people coming out of the woodwork, suggesting we should look after our own first.” Collins goes on to state that the traveller community has been living on the island of Ireland for 1,200 years. It seems the recent acceptance of his community by the settled people is perceived as an attempt at uniting white Irish against ethnic minorities. However, a 2010 report by Micheál Mac Gréil, entitled ‘The Emancipation of the Travelling People’ illustrated that travellers were still “one of the most despised and excluded groups in this society.”The deduction has to be made that the settled, white, Catholic Irish person still conceptualises the Irish people as being identical to them racially, religiously and socio-economically. It’s an abstract notion, but one that finds some outlet in daily life, and Wong has had to confront it from time to time. “A lot of people don't believe that I am an Irish citizen; I have to prove it to them. A lot of time I don't, because I'm already so pissed off with them.” At the same time however, Prof. Fanning believes that “people who are Irish citizens tend to be of the same ethnic group, and perhaps there is a degree of what I call 'ethnic nepotism' towards themselves over others, and that tends to be something we find in other societies.”This failure of the white Irish and immigrant communities, combined with the relative apathy of the state and its practices, points to a continued status of anonymity for immigrants. The concerns of immigrants will not be properly taken care of until they have some kind of stake in our political system, and that starts with enfranchisement. It is an endemic problem facing immigrants that Prof. Fanning labels ‘benign neglect’. “Political parties are indifferent to immigrants, they aren't representing them. There's a vacuum here, and it's one of leadership. I think the politicians who say nothing on such issues [such as the Darren Scully controversy] are also, basically, not representing their constituents.”The comments and actions of former mayor of Naas, Darren Scully, towards his black African constituents late last year would surely paint some Irish politicians as indifferent to immigrant rights. However, what is more damning of Irish politicians is the degree of civility with which the rhetoric and public debate on the issues of racism and immigration are characterised – a nation contented with the current standing of the population’s newest members, unwilling to recognise the antagonism many of them face on a daily basis.For a nation with widespread emigration so engrained in its shared cultural history, one would believe that Ireland would be welcoming of newcomers, intent on righting the wrongs their ancestors faced in the New World. And while, legally at least, we are hospitable of those who seek residence here, social and political structures refuse to make ethnic minorities, and especially immigrants, feel anything more than hostility or indifference. UCD President Hugh Brady has taken steps to amend this in aiming for international students to make-up twenty-five per cent of UCD’s student body by 2015, which, as Chris Wong, the only non-white UCDSU representative correctly states, is “highlighting the fact that we need a more diverse student body more than anything.” With that said, it is a proactive step. Is it however, a move born out of a dire need to enhance UCD’s reputation? Almost certainly, nonetheless, it is a racially inclusive move, and a similar one should be taken at a national level, according to Professor Fanning. “The government should become more proactive in naturalising people who have been here a very long time, because their children are growing up here and so on. Governments have a duty to be proactive in their leadership in these issues.”