Who said the following: “The vast majority of asylum seekers are free-loaders, blackguards, and hoodlums. They are hunted out of their own placeby their own people. I’d take a genuine asylum seeker and put him under my own roof. But where is he?
“I would prefer to not see these people coming at all. Most people don’t want them. I am only saying what everybody is thinking.”
Donald Trump anyone? Sorry, closer to home. Those words were spoken by Michael Healy-Rae back in the day when he was a county councillor.
This was the year 2000. He also suggested at the time that Kenmare was in danger of becoming “another Harlem” over plans to relocated seventy asylum seekers in the town.
It’s difficult to believe that a public representative in this State would say any such thing today. But at the time, Healy- Rae’s comments were met with some criticism but certainly not universal condemnation. Ireland, in terms of attitudes to immigration, was a different country back then.
That’s worth considering in light of what is happening to the east of us, in the UK, and particularly to the west, in the USA.
Trump’s attack on four congresswomen of colour represents a dangerous new low in racism espoused by a public figure.
He claims “there isn’t a racist bone in my body”, but his tweet telling the four — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib —to “go back to your own country” spoke volumes. Only Omar was not born in the US, having arrived as a child refugee fleeing Somalia’s civil war.
Trump is brewing up a heady mix to use for his re-election campaign.
Immigration is his weapon of choice in striking fear into voters, but it is all wrapped up in racism.
As the four’s congressional colleague Brendan Boyle pointed out in a tweet: “Like some of my Democratic colleagues, I’m young, from an immigrant family, also very critical of Trump. Funny thing though, he never tells me to ‘go back where I come from’. Hmm I wonder why?”
The answer, of course, is that Mr Boyle, the son of Irish immigrants, is white.
While Trump’s racism is well established, the disturbing aspect to the reaction to his comments is the silence of the Republican party. The party of Abraham Lincoln has nothing to say about a president presenting himself as a racist.
Informed political comment puts this silence down to fear of upsetting Trump, which may then cost them voters. That presumes, with some justification, that there is a considerable cohort out there who will flock to Trump’s standard on the basis of his racist attacks.
In the UK, the situation isn’t much better. Brexit was driven, to a large extent, on inciting fears about immigration.
Just as white Americans wish to go back to the 1950s, so the average Brexit voter — late middle-aged or elderly, and white — want to return to the 1970s when England, and certainly all elements of public life in the country, was largely monochrome.
That’s how things are today in the two countries with whom this State has the closest cultural and family ties.
Public figures are prepared, even eager, to exploit and inflame vulnerabilities, and deflect from real problems, by presenting all woes as being attributable to the presence of The Other.
How, in that context, are things in this country? Not great in a lot ways, but in terms of the big picture, it’s actually quite good.
Back at the turn of the century, around the time Mr Healy-Rae put himself forward as a self-appointed tribune of “what everybody is thinking”, there were fears in many quarters as a steady flow of asylum seekers landed in this country for the first time.
Prior to the late 1990s, Ireland was not on the radar as a destination for the dispossessed. Then, quite suddenly, it was attractive. Sudden change brought fears of the unknown.
That was the background against which the system of direct provision was established. This was put in place on an emergency basis in 1999 but made permanent three years later. It was a crude and cruel attempt to make this country less attractive to the dispossessed by imposing harsh and restrictive conditions. Direct provision remains a major stain on the country’s human rights record.
Yet, apart from that, the country has adopted well to accepting in immigrants of all hue, colour and ethnicity. In the last census, in 2016, it was recorded that 17.3% of the population of the Republic were born outside the state. In the USA, by comparison, the figure is 14%.
Racism does exist, as it does in every society. Intolerance raises its head in an ugly manner every so often.
This can be observed in the incidents in the last 12 months where proposed direct provision centres have been torched. In each of those cases, however, the imperative of many local people in the aftermath of an attack has been to show that they are not intolerant.
But it is also the case that, at a political level, there has been little attempt to exploit the winds of intolerance that are blowing through many democracies right now.
The recent European elections threw up two individuals who campaigned as if they had seen a gap in the market for this kind of thing.
Peter Casey had a pep in his step after a late surge in the presidential election last year on foot of comments having a go at Travellers and social welfare recepients. He stood as an Independent candidate in the European elections.
During the elections, the words “immigration” and “freeloaders” were never far from his lips when debating with other candidates. He may well have identified the Midlands-North-West constituency as a good hunting ground for his ideas.
He may have thought he was in the American Mid-West.
On polling day, he received 9.5% of the vote, a paltry return for somebody with his profile in a constituency that usually leans towards Independents.
Gemma O’Doherty stood in the Dublin constituency. She put her name forward in the presidential election last year but couldn’t get a nomination.
Following that experience, she appeared to transmogrify into a figure intent on protecting Irish territory and culture from rampaging hordes of immigrants.
Her vote in the election stood at 1.8%. Earlier this week, YouTube terminated her account over breaches of its hate speech policy.
So it would appear that, in voting terms, there is no market for intolerance in this country. There is no ‘silent majority’ living under the yoke of ‘political correctness gone mad’ who are looking for a politician to stand up and express their feelings on immigration.
There remains in this country issues over intolerance. We are not pure as the driven snow. But be thankful for small mercies.
In a world where fear and race are being used to whip up intolerance, Ireland can hold its head up high.
Long may it continue.