- 17 Feb 23
Following the recent attacks on asylum seekers around the country, our politicians need to wise up: the need to combat the lies and threats of the far right is greater than ever.
Did you hear that there’s a war going in Ukraine? And that close to 20 million people have been displaced there as a result? And that they have been forced to seek asylum in different countries across Europe?
I just thought I’d ask. Reading some of the comments in newspapers, on social media, and from certain politicians, over the past few weeks, you might get the impression that a lot of people out there haven’t got wind of the bad news yet.
They don’t seem to be aware either that there’s been an earthquake along the border between Turkey and Syria. That the Taliban are back in Afghanistan and imposing a horrifically anti-women regime. That Iraq is still an appalling hell-hole that people need to escape from. That there is drought in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Or that, between the Horn of Africa and West Africa, approximately 75 million people are suffering from food insecurity and hunger.
The world is in a particularly acute state of chassis right now. But none of that seems to have registered properly
with the more self-centred and small-minded among us.
They also seem to be oblivious to the fact that, in Ireland, we are fortunate enough to live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Where there is one of the most effective tax regimes on the planet, in terms of redistribution of wealth. And one of the most representative, democratic political systems too.
Think about that for a minute. Compared to the vast majority of countries, we have it very good. And there is no point in pretending otherwise to ourselves or anyone else.
I know. That’s not the full story. There are lots of problems here. Things we need to set about fixing.
We are, for a start, part of a wider capitalist system that has facilitated the accumulation of vast wealth by a small number of people at the expense of far-reaching progressive equalisation measures.
Global economic structures have given far too much power to banks and corporations at the expense of the State and its citizens. And this has enabled transnational monopolies to become embedded across continents, exploiting national resources – including workers – and extracting profits, while – elites aside – the majority of people in Africa and Asia in particular remain mired in the grimmest poverty.
Those conditions affect people in Ireland too. There is an unacceptable level of deprivation here. Homelessness and addiction are a blight on the lives of thousands. Mental health issues are worst among the most economically and educationally disadvantaged, especially the traveller community. And there has been a consistent failure to mobilise the resources of the State to address these problems with the urgency they demand.
In particular, where young people are concerned, successive governments have failed badly to get to grips with the housing crisis. People can’t buy their own homes. And they are being forced to pay extortionate rents. It is deeply demoralising – and wrong.
RESENTMENT WAS INEVITABLE
There is, lest we forget, a particular history to this.
Politicians are easy targets, and ultimately they have to carry the can in any democracy. But the failure to regulate banks in Ireland, in a diligent and effective way, in the first decade of the 21st Century was not just down to politicians. The regulators, part of the public service, were asleep at the wheel. The permanent government did not do its job. Banks were allowed apparently untrammelled freedom to throw money around like confetti at a particularly debauched wedding. And, it is true, too many people were seduced.
This is not to say that blame should be spread equally. We elect politicians to run the country on our behalf. They have to be capable of making the hard decisions and convincing voters that they are doing the right thing. Instead, they decided that they were entitled to enjoy the ride like everyone else in the privileged lane.
Politicians elsewhere fell into the same trap. We just did it more enthusiastically, singing “Olé, olé, olé, olé” like drains until the deck of the Titanic was completely submerged.
When the bean counters at the IMF were called in to bail us out, we didn’t exactly have a strong hand.
This was uncharted territory. The politicians who inherited the mess felt that they had little or no room to manoeuvre. The proposition was advanced that the State was obliged to take on the burden of paying off the accumulated debt. Maybe they could have argued otherwise. Sadly, we’ll never be able to test that particular theory.
In the heel of the hunt, the private debts of the banks, and many of the big speculators, were socialised. Ireland was in hock, and ordinary people were ultimately forced to shoulder the burden created by mistakes made by Government, regulators, banks and speculators. Resentment was inevitable.
History will probably judge that the coalition government led by Enda Kenny made some serious mistakes. We became poster kids for the idea of managed austerity. But at what cost? In particular, the strategic decisions that were made, which allowed the control of house – and apartment – building and ownership, to fall into the hands of institutions, rather than being driven by the State, or local authorities, have proven disastrous. And there is no doubt that ideological preferences were at play – and therefore that under a different government, things might have been handled in a way that would have delivered a far better result.
But we have to recognise that politicians and policy-makers were operating in the dark. They could only see so far ahead. Knowing some of the individuals involved, they did what they did in good faith. And, yes, they got it at least partly wrong.
Young people have a particular right to feel aggrieved about the course things took. The system has failed this generation. And failed them badly.
CONSPIRACY OBSESSED MALCONTENTS
That much acknowledged, however, we need to keep things in perspective. Imagine living – or having lived – in Ukraine. Or in Syria. People are generally leaving these – and other economically deprived or war-torn places – for the simple, very good reason, that they have to. They are desperately looking for safe havens – and Ireland is one of them.
So let’s be honest about what’s involved. Across Europe, many countries have been taking in a far greater number of asylum seekers than we have.
In 2021, 30% of all applications for asylum in Europe were received in Germany. 19.1% were in France. 8.4% were in Italy. 6.1% were in Austria. And just 0.4% were in Ireland.
The dial has shifted somewhat since Russia’s war of aggression erupted in Ukraine. The numbers being forced to flee the brutal, murderous campaign being pursued by Vladimir Putin are greater than in Europe at any time since World War II. Refugees are being received in vast numbers in Poland (1.5 million), Germany (1.05 million) and Czechia (486k).
At approximately 75,000 so far, Ireland ranks 17th in Europe, in terms of raw numbers. In per capita terms, we are in 11th place. That hardly makes us a special case. Nor does it suggest that we are being exploited or manipulated. We aren’t.
The fact is that we are more or less doing our share to help people fleeing the most desperate circumstances imaginable – which is as it should be.
And yet this appalling humanitarian crisis, which has devastated an entire country – with over 50,000 people butchered, entire cities levelled, civilians targeted cynically and mercilessly – is being used to fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment in Ireland. The playbook is a familiar one. Utilise social media to spread lies and disinformation.
Create a climate of fear. Play on people’s vulnerabilities. Make women feel unsafe, when there is really no threat at all. Demonise the other.
This is what has been happening. Over the past six months or so, we have seen a significant rise in the airspace being claimed by far right fascists and bullies here.
In reality, poisonous ultra-nationalist fanatics have been orchestrating anti-asylum seeker protests for many years. Sometimes these mob gatherings have tipped over into extremist violence. Irish racists may not be huge in number, but they carried out arson attacks in Moville, Co. Donegal in 2018; in Rooskey, Co. Leitrim in 2019; and in Belfast, in April 2022.
Recently, they have become more insistent and aggressive in their attacks on immigrants. With the rise in the number of asylum seekers, they see a growing opportunity to spread their doctrine of hate.
People have been sucked into hostile gatherings outside places where asylum seekers are being housed, in East Wall, Ballymun, Clondalkin, Finglas and Tallaght in Dublin; and in Lismore, Co. Waterford; Mullingar Co. Westmeath; Athy Co. Kildare and Fermoy Co. Cork. In truth the numbers involved have been relatively small. And some those at the forefront are part of a highly motivated network of conspiracy-obsessed malcontents, motivated by nothing except malice. But there is a deep unpleasantness at the heart of it all.
Couple of dozen anti immigration protesters causing havoc at Annesley bridge this evening pic.twitter.com/GiPKhYN0VM
— Seán Keyes (@Keyes) February 9, 2023
CITIZENS OF THE WORLD
What is a cause for growing concern is that local politicians have allowed themselves to drawn into the paranoia. The Minister for State in charge of integration, Roderic O'Gorman has been targeted by people who should know better, including Fine Gael backbenchers Charlie Flanagan, Michael Ring and, according to some reports, Regina Doherty.
Any child can see that the authorities here are not in a position to plan effectively in advance. They are forced to manage things on the run. They have to act quickly. Which means that consultation with local people is not happening in the way that everyone would like. It is not any one politician that needs to get a grip. It is everyone in the Oireachtas.
A collective, cross-party effort is required to support the efforts that are being made to house refugees. Organisations like the GAA need to be brought more effectively into play. Disinformation needs to be countered locally. Lies must be identified as such. The deliberate freighting of language – the description, for example, of male asylum seekers as being of ‘military age’ – should be exposed.
Social media companies should be required to prevent lies and threats being published and advertised. They should be held accountable for the dissemination of hate.
Most Irish people are open-minded, compassionate and generous. They do not see victims of violence, war and oppression as people to be attacked or turned away. But if lies are allowed to proliferate and mainstream politicians start to repeat them, then a wider opening is created for the hate-mongering of the far right to spread.
The war continues. There is no quick fix on offer. But there is a right response – which is to make sure that the fascist antagonists attempting to take advantage of the current crisis are shown up for what they are; and also that our better instincts as people – and as citizens of the world – are brought again to the fore. More than anything else, what’s needed is a bit of intelligence and kindness. That should be our benchmark every time.
The new issue of Hot Press, starring Inhaler and The Academic, is out now.
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