MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Little tolerance here for racial intolerance

BE GRATEFUL for small mercies.

Last Monday evening, a Fianna Fáil councillor in Limerick became the latest public figure to draw a kick at foreigners.

Kevin Sheahan told a meeting of Limerick County Council that ‘non-nationals’ were getting housed as soon as they “breezed” into the country, while Irish people seeking social housing were told to “go home to mammy”.

The charge was ludicrous and bordered on racism. Sheahan called the Government “anti-Irish” on the basis of housing policy. He wanted new policy that put Irish people first — whatever that meant.

“We should put our own people first. Our economy is tight and we can ill-afford to do anything else,” he said.

The outburst prompted a walk-out, from the chamber, of Labour and Fine Gael councillors.

Apart from anything else, the notion that people from other countries get housing as soon as they arrive here is at complete variance with the facts. People who come here from other EU countries are entitled to the same provisions as the native population, but no more.

Another category of foreigners can come here on the basis of a job offer, the scope for which has been greatly reduced since the economy collapsed. Such people would neither be eligible for social housing, nor would want it if they were coming here to fill positions for which local people could not be found.

Asylum-seekers are in a different league. Precious few of them ‘breeze’ into the country. They are fleeing oppressive regimes, where life is cheap and their own lives are in imminent danger.

Asylum-seekers are subjected to a harsh regime of direct provision, in which they receive around €20 a week and are housed in reception centres, some of which fall well below basic, acceptable standards of habitation.

So, to whom was Sheahan referring?

In all likelihood, he was merely following a path beaten by a small number of politicians, who use urban myths about ‘non-nationals’ as a means of rooting around in the gutter for a few votes.

At a time when resources are stretched, resentment often wells up in subsections of society, particularly those worst-affected by the straitened times.

In this milieu, foreigners present a handy repository for the resentment. Myths ‘catch fire’ about foreigners doing better than the natives. Before long, in certain quarters, these myths are elevated to received wisdom.

Sheahan must know that, however ludicrous his charges, they will resonate with a small section of the electorate, who will, in turn, remember him when it comes time to enter a polling booth.

As a tactic, sticking the boot into minorities for cheap votes is about as low as it gets in politics.

The small mercy is that comments and outbursts by the likes of Sheahan are still relatively few and far between.

The last reference in the body politic to foreigners was in January, when Senator Pascal Mooney opined on taxi drivers who weren’t of the old sod.

“I’ve been in taxis and, I have to say, and I’m not in any way being discriminatory here, but it’s nearly always non-nationals. And it’s got to the point where, quite frankly, and I make no apologies for it, that I will now go to a local taxi driver, in preference to somebody who’s a non-national — an obvious non-national — and that has nothing to do with the colour of their skin or anything of that nature,” Mooney said.

How exactly Mooney would recognise a non-national taxi driver was not clear. Would he, for example, assume that all black drivers were not born and bred in the country? And what exact characteristics would he recognise in a non-national who is caucasian? Yet he claims his outburst had nothing to do with skin colour?

Mooney later apologised for the remarks, but there’s no getting away from the sentiment.

At a time when many taxi drivers are experiencing hardship, where better to lay the blame than with ‘Johnny Foreigner’.

In recent years, intemperate remarks about foreigners have also flowed from a judicial bench. Again, however, these occasions have been rare.

The contrast with the manner in which immigration is now being regarded in Britain is stark.

Over there, the urban myths have taken hold to a far greater extent. The anti-immigration party, UKIP, is making serious gains in the polls.

In the recent by-election to fill the seat vacated by disgraced former minister, Chris Huhne, the Conservatives were beaten into third place by UKIP.

Myths about health, housing and benefits abound. In a recent Commons debate, health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he was considering abolishing free primary care for tourists and visitors.

“The current system of policing and enforcing the entitlements of foreign nationals to free NHS care is chaotic and often out of control, at a time when we are having to face the challenges of an aging population,” he said. Yet, such treatment is estimated to account for €230m at most, in a health budget of some €120bn. That’s around a quarter of 1%, which is hardly a drain on resources.

Equally, there has been much hot air about housing. Our friend Sheahan referred approvingly to Britain coming down hard on immigrants.

Thankfully, however, we don’t have an equivalent of the UKIP in this country. The outbursts of a few public figures, along with the resentment in certain quarters, have not led to anyone forming a national movement that targets immigrants or other minorities.

Are we, despite a number of cases of racism in this country, more tolerant than our neighbours? Perhaps.

One other answer for this lack of a reactionary force on the political stage is that so many parties have long crowded on the centre ground.

This funnelling of political philosophies into a narrow strip of the spectrum is something that many, including this columnist, have often decried. It has, for instance, in recent years, meant that there has been little in the way of an alternative vision for dealing with the economy.

It also feeds into a system in which vested interests have greater power than might be the case if there were clearly defined divisions between various parties.

But in the area of immigration, and attitudes towards minorities in general, it has also meant that there is little scope for the rise of an anti-immigration lobby with any real power. This is in sharp contrast to the politics of many of our European neighbours, most notably Britain and Holland.

Racism is a serious issue in the country. Of late, cases have made their way through the courts, and cases pop up all the time in the media, and even on playing fields.

The treatment of asylum seekers, and minorities in general, is still well short of acceptable in many areas. There is a reluctance among the main parties to properly discipline members who hunt out cheap votes on the backs of minorities. But be grateful for small mercies. Outrageous and inaccurate comments from the likes of Councillor Sheahan have had little purchase in the main body politic, and long may it remain so.


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