Poll exposes xenophobia towards immigrants
Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, Jun. 21
On Dublin’s Moore Street, an old man in a flat cap unloaded spuds from a horse and cart outside the African hairdresser’s. Cut-price, fibre-optic Virgin Marys glowed in a shop window near the Asian supermarket. Moore Street is the last inner-city bastion of the working-class Dubliner, and the home of a new phenomenon: multicultural Ireland.
Sharon O’Donnell, a flower-seller here for 20 years, was not so sure about the transition. “I’m not a racist but people from outside are abusing the system,” she said. She had heard rumours of a “no whites” sign in a shop window. She felt Dublin’s hospitals were so full of foreigners arriving to give birth that she went private to deliver her last child.
Ireland has been gripped by an outbreak of soul-searching this week after Mrs O’Donnell and 80% of the electorate voted in favour of changing the constitution to limit the rights of “non-nationals”. The country of 100,000 welcomes, which still remembers the “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs that greeted its emigrants in 60s Britain, has woken up to face a new accusation from its liberals: that it has morphed into a nation of racists and xenophobes.
Until now, Ireland has been generous with its passports. Anyone born on Irish soil was an Irish citizen. But the government last month warned that heavily pregnant “citizenship tourists” were arriving to give birth in Ireland and using their Irish babies as a backdoor to the European Union. A referendum was held on the same day as the local and European elections seeking to ensure that children of non-national parents were no longer Irish, unless one of their parents had been resident for three years. The voters approved.
Opposition parties say it was a hurried and confused campaign, and one exit poll showed that a substantial number voted not solely on citizenship but because they felt “anti-immigrant”. Like Ireland’s other historic referendums — on abortion, divorce and the Nice treaty — the opposed camps have been locked in a mini-civil war. Everyone expected a Yes vote, but the overwhelming size of the vote was a shock to many.
“Has Ireland lost its soul? Have we thrown out the best of the old for the worst of the new?” asked the Catholic archbishop Sean Brady in the week before the referendum. Now liberal commentators have joined him in a rush of moral angst.
Immigrants are a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland, arriving with the economic boom of the 90s. Ireland is now a rich place with a small population and it depends on migrant workers — principally in the health service. But it still has relatively few asylum seekers. Last year it had fewer than Slovakia or the Czech Republic. But most are dispersed from Dublin and sent to small rural towns that refugee workers say can be ill-prepared for social change. The Refugee Council said that, given the lack of a full debate on immigration, the public is confused about asylum seekers and has not been kept informed by the government.
Ireland’s one anti-immigrant candidate in the European elections got only 2% of the vote in his eastern constituency. But it is a sign of Ireland’s deep confusion over immigration issues that there have been whisperings from the British National party about moving into Ireland to canvass support.
“Out on the street campaigning for a No vote, I was aware of the high level of xenophobia and racism,” said Aisling Reidy, from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “At one stage, people screamed in my face ‘Vote yes, let’s get the fucking niggers out of Ireland’. We have moved from an inclusive debating society to a very much more rightwing country.”
The Irish Labour party, along with doctors, human rights activists, Sinn Féin and even a former US congressman argued that the referendum was launched with no time for a proper debate. They now want assurances of anti-racism legislation.
But the government is demanding an apology from those who accused it of playing the race card. Ministers have promised that new legislation will make Ireland the most “immigrant friendly” country in Europe.
The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism is examining statistics from refugee groups which say racist incidents have risen since the referendum was announced.
Some groups speak of name-calling, with pregnant black women told: “That baby business is over.” Others in Dublin have been called “scroungers” and “niggers”. The role of the media is also under scrutiny but the British tabloids which have a vast presence in Ireland have not been singled out.
Jean-Pierre Eyanga, from Integrating Ireland, an umbrella group of refugee organisations, said the Irish were trustworthy people who made excellent friends, but the referendum had asked them the wrong question and they had been misinformed. The rumoured “flood” into hospitals of mothers from developing countries had not turned out to be totally accurate.
The debate has now turned to allegations of a collective amnesia about Ireland’s emigrant past and diaspora.
Ambrose Blake, 66, who left working-class Dublin at 16 and worked as a plumber on Birmingham’s water system for 27 years, said: “We worked hard in England but we were still abused. There would be ‘no Irish’ signs up, we were called Paddies, navvies. We kept our heads down, we accepted it, that’s the nature of Irish people. Maybe because the Irish had to fight so hard for what they have now, the thought of other people coming in here makes them feel resentful.”
The Irish Times columnist John Waters said the Irish could be presumed guilty of xenophobia until they proved themselves innocent. “This country got rich quick and the people were never told they might have to pay back their dues,” he told the Guardian. “The leadership has abdicated responsibility. This vote will create a two-tier idea of belonging in Ireland.”
Back on Moore Street, Pat Hogan was painting his hardware store. He voted No to the referendum and loved multicultural Ireland. “This vote is going to make us a laughing stock,” he said.
Boom and bigotry : How attitudes changed
• The Celtic Tiger boom of the 90s made Ireland one of the fastest growing economies in the developed world. Between 2001 and 2003, Ireland ranked as the most globalised country in the world, according to Foreign Affairs magazine.
• With a population of 4m, Ireland depends on migrant workers. There are around 47,000 legal migrant workers in Ireland, many from EU accession countries. Around 5,000 Filipino nurses work in the health system. Many South Africans and Indians work in the technology sectors. Other migrant workers are in horticulture, such as fruit picking, and in the service sector.
• Irish medical colleges depend on international students who pay substantially higher fees than European students.
• Asylum applications grew from zero in 1990 to a peak of around 11,000 in 2002. The number is now declining. In the past eight years, Ireland’s total number of asylum seekers was less than the UK takes in any one year.
• According to government research, one in five people in Ireland has witnessed a racist incident. An Amnesty International survey found that 79% of ethnic minority people in Ireland had experienced racism or discrimination.
• Last year, 4,625 babies were born to non-national women in Dublin’s three main maternity hospitals. The mothers were from more than 100 countries. Around 1,500 babies were born to Nigerian women.