As the refugee crisis in Europe reaches breaking point, Brian O’Flynn appeals to the sense of nationalism that is hardening so many hearts towards the desperate migrants. He points out that anti-immigrant sentiment is largely a British import and that our true Irish identity is much more generous.
Identity: “The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group. The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity”
Identity by its definition seems inhering, deep-rooted and permanent, but in reality can be fragile. It is founded in circumstance and context; even in physical objects. What would we be without our homes, our families, our communities? When these foundations are shaken, identity loses its foothold and nebulises.
In war torn Syria, identity is rent asunder by violence. Whole neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble. Mothers try to grieve for friends but must simultaneously worry for their children’s safety.
They cannot sleep, anticipating the next round of gunfire. In these circumstances, personhood and self-actualisation seem like flights of fancy; luxuries only afforded to a lucky few. Superseding local struggles, the nation as a whole is fragmented.
Opposing groups vie for control, bringing citizens to their knees in the ensuing crossfire.
Identity, at every hierarchical level; individual, local, national; is obliterated. Many others across North Africa and the Middle East find identity similarly disrupted by poverty, persecution or war.
It is due to this disruption that 71 migrants ended up dead in a refrigerated truck on an Austrian roadside and why a 3 year old Syrian boy was washed up dead on the Turkish shoreline yesterday.
So many refugees now find themselves desperately seeking to form new identities from the scattered fragments of their old lives. To do so, they need a fresh, clean mould; a blank page on which to begin a new story. For some, this blank page is Ireland.
Until access is granted to this new beginning, their identities remain undefined; diffuse clouds seeking a point around which they can cohere into something solid. They are lost souls; floating aimlessly in uncertain waters (sometimes literally) and waiting for someone to pull them ashore.
This undefined identity is one we as Irish people know. We too have floated in international waters, fresh from the horrors of our own disaster and dependent on the kindness of foreign nations for our survival.
The Famine and the resultant Diaspora are crucial aspects of our own national identity. At the same time, we have always been hailed as one of the most welcoming and friendly nations on earth. Our booming tourism industry is testament to this reputation.
One could say that we, historically, have both sought refuge and offered it. Our identity, then, should uniquely position us to make a difference in this refugee crisis. This should be Ireland’s time to shine.
Instead, we find ourselves sheepishly swept up in the tide of foreign politics. The fierce anti-immigration rhetoric that is so prevalent in Britain has been carried across the water, washing up foully on our shores. UKIP & co. in the UK have scare-mongered and propagandised about immigration so successfully that it has consistently ranked in the top 5 most important issues to British voters in recent years.
Panic is contagious, and sadly, we seem to have become infected. All too often, we now hear Irish politicians spouting the same anti-refugee rhetoric. We are well and truly toeing the British line on the matter, as one UK paper reported. We are taking in far fewer refugees than we could, and generally taking the same begrudging, anti-EU stance as Britain.
We have fallen into the trap of thinking the most cautious, self-preserving policies must be the right ones. In this case, they are merely cowardly. CSO statistics confirm that in the last two years, emigration vastly outweighed immigration in Ireland, leaving net outward migration in the tens of thousands.
Independent.ie statistics showed in 2012 that the vast majority of Polish immigrants in Ireland were not claiming social welfare. A research paper from the International Journal of Manpower in 2013 showed that immigrants are significantly less likely than native Irish people to be in receipt of welfare payments.
And, while Germany is set to take in 800,000 refugees this year (1% of German population), Ireland will take a mere 520 (0.01% of Irish population).
These facts are in stark contrast to Ireland & Britain’s self-image as burdened host countries, groaning under the weight of our own charity. Our dehumanisation of immigrants into welfare parasites has been based on prejudice, not truth.
Our attitude toward this issue exemplifies our narcissistic delusion as a country. We rush to typify desperate refugees as “economic migrants” trying to leech off our benefits system… a glaring hypocrisy given the number of Irish economic migrants jetting off to Canada and Australia every year.
In a deeply ironic twist, Ireland has been morally cowed into defending our identity from the supposed threat of immigration, and in doing so, betrayed it. Begrudgery never was very Irish. We have been ideologically colonised, by a country that has already done its fair share of interfering on our soil.
To cement the irony to near literary levels, Ireland’s newest, anti-immigration party have taken up the mantle of “Identity Ireland”; a handle deeply at odds with the party’s policies. They fly the flag of fear, and it’s not the tricolour.
It’s high time Ireland realised that it’s having an identity crisis of its own. Our past is one of movement, change and rebellion. We have switched between the roles of refugee and host. Our present, is one of diversity, cosmopolitanism and liberalism.
We have an increasingly international population and our laws are changing all the time to be more inclusive of diverse people. That is who we are.
But we are not reflecting this independence and generosity at all. On the world stage, we are presenting ourselves as timid children, vacillating in the shadow of our closest neighbour’s ideology of selfishness.
It is time to step bravely out of the shadow. This is our chance to tell the world who we are.
This week, the head of respected charity Trocaire described Ireland’s response to the migrant crisis as “weak” and “unsatisfactory”.
German chancellor Angela Merkel named Ireland as one of the countries that needs to do more to help. We should listen to these reasoned pleas, and stop attempting to shirk our global responsibilities.
That would be the truest assertion of our Irish identity. It would be a step forward toward the accepting, multicultural and engaged Ireland that we should aspire to become.
By offering a new identity to these people in need, we may just rediscover our own.
Brian O’Flynn is a freelance writer from Cork. He writes on social justice and political issues for Attitude magazine, the UK’s most popular LGBT publication.
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