If you think Ireland isn’t racist, ask an Irish person of colour. Ask an asylum seeker in direct provision. Ask a Traveller.
On Thursday, following his own fine words against racism, the Taoiseach defended the direct provision system for housing asylum seekers, while conceding that “direct provision accommodation is substandard and that needs to change”. Without directly naming Donald Trump, Leo Varadkar had spoken out against the US president’s appalling response to the killing by Minnesota police of the unarmed black man George Floyd.
As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world, the Taoiseach also said that you would not need to cross the Atlantic to find racism, as it is “pernicious” in Ireland, and he described racism as “a virus transmitted at an early age, perpetuated by prejudice, sustained by systems often unrecognised by those whom it infects, possible to counteract and correct for, but never easy to cure.”
As the only person of colour currently elected to the Oireachtas, Mr Varadkar has spoken in the past of the racist and homophobic abuse he has suffered as the son of an Indian immigrant and an Irish mother, and as a gay man. He has invited anyone who doubts him to look at the replies to his Twitter account.
The Taoiseach also told the Dáil that “we can learn from the mistakes of other countries and make sure we do not follow their path”.
This assumption that we’re not as far down the road to racism as Trump’s America was challenged by Labour leader Alan Kelly, who called on Varadkar to end direct provision, calling it “the real discrimination and racism that is going on in this country”. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said “the rhetoric in the Irish system decries racism”, while maintaining “direct provision and the segregation” of Travellers.
Direct provision, the Taoiseach acknowledged, “is substandard and that needs to change … (but) direct provision is, ultimately, a service offered by the State. It is not compulsory or a form of detention. It involves people being provided with free accommodation, food, heat, lighting, healthcare, education and some spending money.”
The Taoiseach has form here, and last year said that asylum seekers could leave direct provision “at any time”.
But if direct provision isn’t compulsory and an asylum seeker who isn’t happy in conditions the Taoiseach acknowledges are substandard can leave “at any time”, where can they go? As Ken Foxe, journalist, and lecturer at TU Dublin, points out, “They are not allowed to go to another country in Europe because their application for international protection needs to be processed in Ireland.
Where else can asylum seekers go?
“Does he mean they can go and find their own accommodation? Clearly, many residents cannot do this given they get €38-a-week in welfare and are not eligible for the housing supports that would apply to other people – direct provision is THE housing system for applicants. Presumably he knows that even after many international protection applicants are granted asylum in Ireland, they have to stay in direct provision because there are no housing options available for them. The Department of Justice calls them ‘overstayers’ in internal records.
“So, when the Taoiseach says direct provision is not compulsory, really, the three viable options are ‘go back home’, live on the streets, or move illegally to a third country.”
The open secret at the heart of the direct provision system is the fear of a “pull factor”, the unspoken terror that if we treat too humanely the people who come here seeking asylum, it might embolden more to seek asylum here. It’s a nonsense, with asylum-seekers coming here to escape intolerable, life-threatening conditions in their homelands. People being people, those whose claims are rejected appeal the decision and then the fun starts.
Direct provision is a cruel and inhumane system which benefits nobody, except the lawyers, and – of course – the millionaires who own Direct Provision centres and who make staggering profits from a system founded on human misery.
The bottom line in Direct Provision is: We don’t want you here, we certainly don’t want any more of you coming here, and if you really must be here we’ll make your lives so miserable that hopefully you’ll shag off out of here leaving only happy millionaires in your wake. Which is not a good look for the self-advertised “Land of a Hundred Thousand Welcomes”.
On Sunday, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan told RTÉ’s This Week that a “root and branch transformation” would likely “lead to the abolition of the system” but conceded that he did not know when this would happen, adding that with “7,700 people living in direct provision, the question of housing was fundamental. We don’t have that number of houses or apartments available”.
We sure don’t, and with in excess of 10,000 people homeless, just wait for the chorus of “We should look after our own first” from people likely to step over “our own” too.
If you want proof that Ireland is a racist country, remember that not 20 years ago we voted by a staggering 80% of a 60% turnout to deny citizenship to babies born on Irish soil, if those babies are not the children of Irish parents. Trump’s supporters could only dream of being able to do such a thing.
“Racism is killing us”
A mixed-race family very recently fled the country, having been abused horrifically for appearing in an advert for Lidl. Television nobody Peter Casey went from nowhere in the opinion polls to finishing second in the presidential election after his anti-Traveller comments. In 2015, not three days after five adults, five children and an unborn baby perished in a catastrophic fire at a halting site in Carrickmines, local residents blockaded the proposed site of a temporary emergency halting site to accommodate the survivors of the fire.
An Irish Times online poll of 4,800 readers saw 78% agree with the blockade. According to a 2010 poll, three out of four Irish people would be reluctant to buy a house next-door to a Traveller. Chillingly, one in five of us would actually deny Irish citizenship to Travellers.
Travellers experience multiple barriers to adequate education, healthcare and housing. Councils deliberately under-spend Traveller accommodation funding to see it cut the following year, while 12% of Travellers remain ghettoised in dangerously overcrowded sites.
Traveller children have an infant mortality rate four times that of the general population. Life expectancy for a male Traveller is 61.7 years, 15.1 years less than other Irishmen. Female Traveller life expectancy is 70.1, 11.5 years less than other Irishwomen.
Suicide rates are six times that of the wider community, accounting for one in eleven Traveller deaths.
Dr Sindy Joyce is a member of President Higgins’ Council of State. She is an Indigenous Mincéir (Traveller).
“Ireland needs to get down off its high horse and not just look at itself but really see how Mincéiri have suffered in Irish society from the very foundation of the State,” Dr Joyce told me yesterday. “Racism is killing us; we just have to look at the statistics from suicide and mortality rates to education. We have no representation at any level of society from politics to the media. Racism was written into Irish policy through the assimilation project, and local authorities not spending their Traveller accommodation budget.”
On Friday, Joe Duffy spoke on Liveline with a little boy called Tré. Tré lives in Kells, Co Meath. Tre’s dad was African-American, and he passed away. At Joe’s gentle encouragement, Tré read his letter, entitled “My encounters with racism”.
“My name is Tré Jones. I am 11 years old. People say that I am mixed race but I say that I am black because I know what people see when they look at me. I am proud to be black.
“Since I was a baby I have suffered from racism from adults and children who are white.
“I have been called the ‘N’ word so many times.
“I have been told to go back to Africa.
“I have been called chocolate face, monkey, I’m burnt and that I’m a little slave boy.
“These things really hurt my feelings and I will hear things like this all my life. I wish white people would stop being racist and be kinder to all races.”
Tré told Joe that most of the abuse he’s experienced has come from adults. If you think Ireland isn’t a racist country, think about that hatred aimed at a small child, and check your privilege.