Appealing to Irish voters’ basest, racist instincts usually pays electoral dividends, says Donal O’Keeffe. 

Like most of the country, I had quite forgotten about Noel Grealish till he hit the headlines last week for racist remarks about asylum seekers.

Forgotten but not gone, Grealish – the man whose leadership finally put the stake through the heart of the heartless Progressive Democrats – denounced asylum seekers as “economic migrants … coming over here from Africa to sponge off the system” in Ireland.

Last Wednesday evening, the now-Rural Independent TD for Galway West addressed a public meeting of almost 1,000 people in Oughterard. The meeting had been called to address local concerns at rumours that the Department of Justice was in discussions with the owners of the long-closed Connemara Gateway Hotel about turning it into a direct provision centre for ‘fewer than 250’ asylum seekers and refugees.

One of the meeting’s organisers, Patrick Curran, has called for ‘direct action’ to prevent such a centre from opening in Oughterard. Given recent arson attacks in Rooskey and Moville on hotels earmarked for development as direct provision centres, it would be hard not to see this as a terrifying exhortation.

As Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowin’ and, having snouted the air – even if there was a sniff of petrol to it – up popped Noel Grealish on his hind legs.

“Now I’ve worked with Galway County Council with one or two Syrian families,” he announced. “These were genuine refugees, persecuted in their homeland, because they were Christians, by ISIS. They were housed around Galway, put in houses, they were accepted by communities.

“If you watch the news, and even our Taoiseach said two weeks ago that he would take an extra 200 what-do-you-call migrants from Africa.

“These are economic migrants. These are people coming over here from Africa to sponge off the system here in Ireland.

“Let the minister know the fear and it is the fear factor this is going to bring on in this village. Because we don’t know, we don’t know the people coming in.

“I can guarantee you it is not the persecuted Christians and Syrians that are coming here. It is the economic refugees that are coming in from Africa that are trying to get across the Mediterranean and ended up in Europe and ended up in Ireland and ended up in Oughterard.

“We don’t have the schools … don’t have the doctors for the families. A big city … can absorb 300 refugees, but not a small town like Oughterard … It will destroy the fabric of Oughterard.”

Grealish’s remarks met with rapturous applause.

The Taoiseach, whose government Grealish supports, called on him to withdraw or clarify his remarks. At the time of writing, Grealish had done neither.

There are clear, and obvious, precedents to Grealish’s populist pandering.

In April 2000, then Kerry County Councillor Michael Healy-Rae said of asylum-seekers: “I would prefer to not see these people coming at all.

“Most people don’t want them. I am only saying what everybody is thinking,” he said, before stressing that he was not a racist.

“The vast majority of asylum-seekers are free-loaders, blackguards and hoodlums. They are hunted out of their own place by their own people. I’d take a genuine asylum-seeker and put him under my own roof. But where is he?”

It might be nice to imagine that the people of Kerry rejected such blatant dog-whistling, but Healy-Rae has been a TD since 2011, when he inherited his father Jackie’s seat.

Two years after Healy-Rae’s comments, Noel O’Flynn, a Cork North Central Fianna Fáil TD, painted a picture of elderly people, too terrorised to leave their homes for fear of gangs of marauding asylum-seekers roaming the streets.

“In the past five years there have been 35,000 applications for asylum and 80% have been from illegal immigrants using the refugee system to get in. We are against the spongers, the freeloaders, the people screwing the system. I’m saying we will have to close the doors.”

Taoiseach-of-the-day Bertie Ahern said he rejected O’Flynn’s comments, calling them neither “educated nor tolerant”, but of course O’Flynn suffered no party sanction.

The then Labour leader Ruairi Quinn, noted that O’Flynn’s sole means of determining which people were spongers and freeloaders appeared to be the colour of their skin.

Quinn’s contribution was significant, as Labour had recently expelled a Cork councillor, Joe O’Callaghan, for making similar remarks. Both O’Flynn and O’Callaghan had suggested that the automatic citizenship granted to all babies born in Ireland should be reviewed.

Predictably enough, O’Flynn went on to top the poll in the 2002 general election.

There are usually electoral dividends to be gained from targeting minorities.

In 2014, Josepha Madigan – then seeking a seat for Fine Gael on Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council – issued a leaflet saying that the provision of Traveller accommodation in her constituency would be ‘a waste of valuable resources’.

Madigan later claimed “Some people won’t want to live beside people in halting sites … there might be more crime, there might be anti-social behaviour”.

In 2016, Madigan was elected to the Dáil for Dublin-Rathdown, beating sitting Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter by almost 1,000 votes. She is currently Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

In last year’s presidential election, millionaire spoofer Peter Casey – a self-described “Irish racist” – rescued, seemingly by accident, his shambolic campaign by denying Traveller ethnicity and describing Travellers as “basically people camping in someone else’s land”.

Casey finished second to Michael D, polling a whopping 342,727 (23.3%) votes.

In 2004, Noel O’Flynn and Joe O’Callaghan got their wish, when the coalition government of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats – the party Noel Grealish would disband in 2009 – championed the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the Constitution.

The amendment proposed to limit the constitutional right to Irish citizenship for children born on the island of Ireland to the children of Irish citizens.

It was an ugly campaign, dominated by tall tales of pregnant women flocking to Ireland so their babies could claim Irish citizenship. The Irish Human Rights Commission, a statutory body, described those stories as ‘vague or anecdotal’.

The amendment, supported by Fine Gael, was opposed by Labour, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party, the SDLP, the IHRC, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

With the referendum timed to coincide with local and European elections, some argued the Government was exploiting prejudice to boost its own political interests. As it happened, Fianna Fáil suffered a deserved hockeying, losing 129 local councillors.

Turnout was 60%, and the referendum was passed by 79.17%.

Going after asylum-seekers didn’t benefit FF in 2004 – although the party was returned to power in 2007 – and it didn’t save the PDs, who lost six of their eight seats in 2007, sending them into terminal decline.

We might not reward political parties for targeting minorities, even if 79.17% voted for an anti-immigrant Constitutional amendment, but we seem to love telling-it-like-it-is lone wolves.

In attacking asylum-seekers last week, Noel Grealish knew exactly what he was doing. Don’t be surprised if he is rewarded at the next election.