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Integration in Ireland

30 November, 1999

If there are concerns about immigration or racism, they should be listened to and discussed rationally, says Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, to prevent myths and rumour spreading false ideas about immigrants.

The issue of racism in Ireland raised its ugly head recently when reports surfaced about a twelve-year-old GAA player being subjected to vicious racist taunts during a game.

What broke my heart about this issue was the child’s reported response to one of his team officials: ‘It’s just the usual, people are racist against my colour.’ That a twelve-year-old child should tell us that he is used to racist abuse, that he considers it to be ‘just the usual’, should make us all pause.

The GAA is to be congratulated for its prompt and strong response to this incident. Racism has no place in our communities, whether it is on the sports field or off.

I think we can be heartened by the widespread condemnation this incident received. It is clear the vast majority of people in Ireland are horrified by such behaviour.
While the fair-minded majority in this country accept that we must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to racism, this issue has highlighted the need to take action in another area of growing concern. That is the need to ensure we have effective integration policies in place in Ireland.

Other recent events in Ireland – reports that concern about immigration was a factor in the ‘no’ vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum and the realization that we are experiencing a recession – give added urgency to the need to act.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland has spoken previously about how the lack of leadership – across most sectors of Irish society – in relation to immigration, is allowing misconceptions and harmful myths and stereotypes about migrants to go unchecked. Immigration remains a topic that many politicians and leaders in other fields are reluctant to talk about publicly.

It is understandable that in times of rapid change, coupled with an economic downturn, people will express concern about immigration. But what is less easy to understand is why those who have the responsibility and ability to address such concerns continually fail to do so.

According to media reports, there are concerns that ‘migrants are taking Irish people’s jobs’. So where are the politicians, business leaders and others who should be pointing out that, without immigration, our economy would be in a worse position than it is now?

There are legitimate concerns about job security during an economic downturn and it is totally irresponsible not to address them, particularly if resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment is the result.

Too often, when many politicians talk about immigration, they pay mere lip service to the benefits of immigration and the important role migrants play in our communities, before turning the debate to the need to be seen to be ‘tough’ on issues to do with concerns about criminality – real or perceived.

This type of debate helps feed erroneous and damaging myths about migrants. All of us living in Ireland – migrants and Irish-born – deserve better than this. If there are concerns about immigration – or about racism or exploitation – they should be listened to and discussed rationally.

So if our leaders are reluctant to lead on this issue, perhaps it’s up to Irish communities to take charge. Many communities are doing just that, without fuss, and embracing change and diversity.

There are a very wide range of community groups and many individuals throughout Ireland who have made practical integration measures their priority – from providing English language tuition or hosting cultural festivals through to just ensuring their new neighbours and colleagues feel welcome and at home. Their communities are better places as a result.

One of the most important things we can do as individuals is to challenge the myths and misconceptions that can have the potential to grow into something worse, if they are repeated often enough and become accepted as reality.

These myths can range from the unfair to the truly ridiculous, for example, blaming migrants for the failure of the education system to plan adequately for population growth, through to rumours that migrants receive government grants to have their hair braided. We’ve all heard this sort of nonsense but many of us don’t necessarily take the next step and point out that this just isn’t true.

One migrant I know tells the story about how she was travelling in a Dublin taxi not long after she arrived in this country and was listening to the talkback radio programme the driver had on.

The calls were about the removal of a Sacred Heart statue from a Dublin location. The talkback show host and callers were blaming the removal of the statue on migrants with different religious backgrounds coming to Ireland and not liking ‘our’ religious imagery, and the fact that political correctness was caving in to these migrants’ beliefs.

The view was expressed that these migrants shouldn’t come to Ireland if they had a problem with our religious beliefs, or should ‘go home’ if they don’t like them. The feeling was expressed very strongly that it was wrong to remove the statue to please migrants.

Then another caller rang in, this time a representative from the council. This caller said the council had removed the statue temporarily so that it could be refurbished and that it would be replaced in the near future.

This story shows how bleak something totally innocent can be made to look and how hurtful and damaging assumptions can be. It’s as important to challenge this sort of mindset – particularly now – as it is to take a zero-tolerance approach to racism.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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