Can rural Ireland be a safe haven?

Sometimes things seen cannot be unseen. The tragedy in Syria, from where the main impetus of refugees stems, has been a horror. 

Quarter of a million dead, including 20,000 children, is for most of us incomprehensibly large.

The death of a poor wee toddler washed ashore in Turkey is, however, comprehensible and unbearable.

That child, and thousands like him are not economic migrants. They are refugees. And Ireland has a horrific record on refugees. 

It seems we are governed, if such an organised concept can be applied to the Department of Justice, which has been in the driving seat of the clown car that is our refugee policy, by the same impulses that allowed Dev and his ghastly insouciance to refuse to rescue Jewish people in the 1930s.

We pride ourselves on our status as an open nation while refusing to recognise that we have created hundreds of thousands of economic refugees. 

The very stability, clotted and curdled as it is, of the polity in which we live is down to the generosity of other nations taking in our economic migrants. And now, with real migrants drowning in the hope not of a better but an extant life, we do next to nothing.

We have agreed to take in 600 persons fleeing the twin horrors of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State’s efforts to enforce a Wahhabist year zero, although Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday indicated that this figure may rise to 1,800. On a per capita or per GDP basis, we should be taking in tens of thousands.

There is, thankfully, no organised polity in Ireland which is xenophobic and anti-immigrant.

So why is there not a top-down initiative to do this? Of whom is the Government scared? They need fear nobody, yet have not provided leadership on the issue in spite of common sense and common humanity demanding that we do.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we have real leaders. We have two issues that can find a common, or at least related, solution.

In the first, we have a collapsed state from whence millions are fleeing, willing to risk death on the way. 

We seem happy to be on the far end of the continent looking for the likes of Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans to largely deal with it; countries that are significantly less well off than us.

At home, meanwhile, we have the slow death of the Irish country town. There is a remarkable coincidence between two features of Irish rural life — slow growth or decline in population and the incidence of vacant houses.

This is most marked along the west coast, now being sold abroad as the Wild Atlantic Way. We have, by various estimates, more than 150,000 vacant housing units excluding holiday homes. Few, if any, of these are in the cities. 

Waterville, from whence I hail, has a small vacant estate on the road to the GAA field and other infill developments here and there. So perhaps we have two problems that together can be solved.

Let’s open our hearts and our vacant homes. I suspect that, given the choice between drowning in the Med, being teargassed by Hungarian police, or camping outside a train station on one hand, and living in a structurally sound home in South Kerry or West Clare, most people would take the Wild Atlantic Way every day.

Let’s think big. Can we begin to repopulate and reinvigorate the declining parts of our nation, to end the blight of wasted capital tied up in vacant homes, and to show our humanity?

Let’s take 10,000 or 20,000 refugees. Let’s be clear and take Syrians and Eritreans, as they are the clearest refugee statuses to identify.

Let’s avoid ghettoisation by not clumping thousands in sink estates around the suburbs of cities.

And let’s engender integration by making State support contingent on learning English and making efforts to integrate into the community.

Let’s give a three-year status and allow people, after passing a basic English test, to work. If and when Syria is a habitable place, and if they want to stay on a regular path to citizenship, let them. Or let them return home, as many will.

Let’s think big, and think in a joined-up manner. Let’s not have one more toddler drown because we can’t be bothered to raise our hand to save him.


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