ON THURSDAY evening, as he talked of “leadership” and how Ireland will accept “thousands [of migrants] over the coming months and years”, Environment Minister Alan Kelly was asked why it had taken a heartbreaking picture of a three-year-old boy lying dead on a beach for Government to act.
Labour’s deputy leader said “everyone is shocked at that image” and that “last night I couldn’t sleep, I’ve a three-year-old son”. But despite the “harrowing and upsetting” scenes, he insisted the sudden response to an issue that has been increasing day by day for a year “isn’t just a reaction” to the photograph and that cabinet has been doing all it can for months.
The comment was repeated hours earlier when Transport Minister Paschal Donohue responded to the same question by saying that while the image shows the “unbelievable anguish and terror” involved, Ireland has been doing everything it could.
The answer is what we all want to hear: The only problem for the Government is it is simply not true.
In the seven days before the tragic image of Aylan Kurdi was burnt onto our collective memory, Coalition ministers repeatedly dodged, ducked, and dived away from taking definitive action on Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
While rightly pointing out the navy has been at the forefront of rescue missions in the Mediterranean, that we have spent €41m in humanitarian aid linked to the preventable tragedies, and that this country had already planned to take in 600 people over two years — “nearly double” what the EU requested — the line was we are already doing enough.
Now, after powerful politicians in suits have been shamed by a toddler, those same ministers feel further action is suddenly needed — a complete U-turn on previous comments.
Speaking exactly a week before Aylan’s death, at the Government’s defence white paper launch, Defence Minister Simon Coveney said the 600 migrant intake figure — which is now being scrapped — was “proportionate to our population”.
While the Fine Gael TD for Cork South–Central rightly said the navy has a “continued commitment” to rescue missions and that “the EU needs to [act] in a way that hasn’t been politically acceptable to date”, he noted that we “don’t have the capacity to take them all”.
The following evening, German chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Ireland, Denmark, and Britain for holding an opt-out clause on potential migrant quotas and suggested a new quota system based on a country’s wealth.
However, responding on Friday morning, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said Ireland’s 600-migrant figure was enough.
“This is demonstrated by the fact that we have agreed to accept some 600 of these 40,000 people [currently in Italy and Greece] over the next two years,” she said.
“This is proportionately greater than our population share of the EU.”
Ms Fitzgerald said Ireland has also taken in 520 non-EU refugees over the past 12 months, “nearly double the share proposed”. But on the substantive point of increasing the 600-person cap — which she yesterday said is inadequate — Ms Fitzgerald said the matter would have to wait until an EU justice ministers meeting on October 8.
After charity groups Trócaire and Goal both said Ireland could and should take in “several thousand” people in response to the discovery of 71 decomposing bodies in an abandoned van in Austria, the issue was revisited on Sunday.
Labour’s Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Riordáin told RTE News “history will be very unkind” to Ireland unless we “step up to the mark”. However, he did not answer his phone for four days to clarify what this means in practical terms.
Aodhán Ó Riordáin
Fine Gael’s European Affairs Minister, Dara Murphy, stuck to the official line, repeating the 600-person figure is higher than what the EU requested and that “we have taken our fair share”.
The first real change in tone began to emerged on Tuesday, when Tánaiste Joan Burton said: “If we are asked to take further people both parties in Government will look at that in the same way we have addressed the situation so far.”
Ms Burton said it is not “a question of whether anybody’s in favour or not”, and suggested that an increase in the 600-person threshold could be similar to the “family reunification” response to the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s.
But while it was a step forward, Ms Burton — who was speaking 24 hours before Aylan’s body washed up on Turkish shores — would not commit to an increase — only that it would be “considered” if the EU asked.
Now that the Government, like its European counterparts, has been shamed into doing something it should already have done, the questions are rightly turning to what that ‘something’ is.
Refugees hold hands as they leave Budapest, Hungary, on foot for Austria. Over 150,000 people seeking to enter Europe have reached Hungary this year
Time was suddenly “of the essence” and the 600-person figure inadequate, with Mr Kelly suggesting the cap is not Government’s and should be “debunked”.
Long overdue action, whatever its catalyst, is welcome.
However, because of the long-term lethargy in taking adequate action, practical issues have not been worked out.
Should an EU fund be set up to help support all nations taking in people, for example; should “rich Arab nations”, to quote Ms Burton, also play a role; and what the long-term social, housing, and employment plans for refugees.
Real leadership to address these matters and commit to taking in a specific number of migrants immediately, not only after the EU has told us what to do after an “emergency” meeting in a fortnight, could begin to make up for the recent foot-dragging which politically astute ministers are all too keen to forget.
It is the least that the thousands of Aylan Kurdis risking their lives to reach Europe deserve.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved