We can have a sense of pride and realise that what stymies us isn’t outsiders — it is insiders, writes Gerard Howlin
There is “growing unease and concern among many people in Ireland around the issue of immigration”, said Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín and leader of the newly minted Aontú party.
That statement last Saturday immediately sparked growing unease and concern in me about Aontú and Tóibín. He is no swivel-eyed loon. I admire him for standing for what he believes in on abortion, and leaving Sinn Féin — the party in which he had spent his whole political life.
Founding a new party is frustrated by overwhelming odds. Counter-intuitively, State funding of existing parties and limits on donations is one barrier. Attracting able candidates into an increasingly toxic political scene can be another. And then there is an issue of identity.
What does a new party, overwhelmingly associated with just one issue, stand for?
Until Saturday, I was mildly curious about how Aontú would turn out.
Now, I am wary.
Across Europe, there has been an explosion of localism. It is newly-accented xenophobia. This place-politics has its caricature in Ranelagh where the massed ranks of the higher professions, to a woman and man, stopped the Metro project advancing south into leafier suburbs. Effective mass transport wouldn’t intrude into lives dedicated to the bespoke. Their group-speak is a local dialect, honed over two generations in specific schools and social settings. It couldn’t risk being homogenised by people from other postal sort codes. If it weren’t a damning indictment of our politics and culture, it would be truly funny.
But you can’t understand the apparently more menacing, and disturbing, nuance of Tóibín’s position without reading across. It’s nativism. It’s insecure. It’s unpleasant, and it’s always poised to keep others out.
I am more than 10 years older than Tóibín. I left secondary school in 1982. I left the country in 1986 for three years. Ireland in the ‘80s was deeply depressed. Violence in Northern Ireland was a staple on the nightly news. This was a place apparently destined for also-ran status.
Emigration was the key issue. It was good to get away. It was also an education I never got in school or college. People of different colours. The smell and taste of different foods. A culture where the churches weren’t full on Sunday mornings, where legislating for sexual morals wasn’t the main national preoccupation — besides unemployment and Northern Ireland.
It was fresh air. Well, fresh is overstating it. It was the freedom of anonymity, in a different place and culture. There was a sense of living intensely, and a little wildly.
Back here, my life for nearly 30 years has been in Dublin’s north inner city. It is still deeply gritty and pockmarked in places. Pockets of deprivation run deep. But it is also deeply changed. Ranelagh exiles, living the champagne lifestyle on something closer to a 7 Up budget, abound. It is also the place in the State with the deepest penetration of immigrants. I’d like to say thanks to them for being here.
There is an incredible richness on the street, in the community and in the life we share together. This was a country when I was growing up, where the national colour was beige. Actually, it was usually called “fawn”. It was constricted and slightly asphyxiating. All its great art seemed to be anger. Lamenting, not celebrating, was the stuff of our songbook.
Politically now, and here Peadar Tóibín has miscalculated, we are not a homogenous or largely the same sort of people. There is no way back to the nativism of the safe nest he wants to return to. I don’t accuse him and I do not ascribe to him any sense either of racism or ulterior political motive.
But his instincts are deeply wrong, and completely contrary to mine. They are also the basis of a political agenda that can easily become almost instantly unpleasant.
The Malthusian sense of more and more people predicting eventual starvation, or at least some privation, is inherited wisdom here since the famine. It’s not specifically Irish, it flourishes everywhere there is fear. Its context is othering incomers, and those who are different within. Traditionally we were splendidly successful with the latter, but we lacked fodder for the former until now.
There is something about Tóibín that reminds me of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who led Sinn Féin until the 1980s. He is rooted, socially at least, in a Sinn Féin that predates Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. He lacks the determination to throw over every piece of excess baggage that saw them travel so far. But he is of an older Ireland.
Now, there is no way back. Special interests abound. Our multi-seat constituency system allows anyone with a few hundred followers to wag the tail of the dog and play Finn MacCumhail. It is all about interests now, not ideals. Leading out the dispossessed, inculcating a sense of privation, othering people we are lucky to have — this is not an Ireland for me.
This is not a politics of unity or cohesion. It follows logically from, but it also significantly diverges from, a supposed national politics of unity, inherited by Tóibín, that by any other name is a politics of annexation. There is no joy in difference in this world, whatever words to the contrary are routinely used. It is about ‘them and us’. In that sense, he is fully still a Sinn Féin TD. He has applied what is their default position in a binary society in the North — the culture of overcoming rather than including — to our more diverse society in the South. Sinn Féin never has.
Ireland can have a bright future. If there is no way back, there are new ways forward. We are now an essentially urban culture. We can have a sense of pride and realise that what stymies us isn’t outsiders, it is insiders. It is native, ingrained special interests — not immigrants — that are the threat within. However removed, language that comes from, and hints towards old quarrels with outsiders re-engineered for a different era, isn’t a new politics. It is a woke version of Ó Brádaigh. It is reminiscent of the bitter defence of a few bleak acres.
We can welcome the stranger because we have been him. We can feel energised by the arrival of new people, because we remember the departure of so many of our own.
Nativism isn’t pride of place or pride in anything. It is a cowering feeling. It lacks the rising sap of enthusiasm required for creativity. It forsakes the peace of mind that allows relaxation in your own skin. We have surely had enough of self-appointed busybodies policing the parish. It is too soon to take it seriously. What I have, coming from my first listening encounter with Aontú, is the sense of stale breath.