We Should Embrace a New, Inclusive Definition of Irishness
Posted on May 17, 2019 at 08:50 AM
Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party
Across Europe, populists and extremists are trying to resurrect failed ideas about segregating people by language, religion or the colour of their skin. It is not enough to dismiss these ideas; we have to actively oppose them to ensure social inclusion in Ireland’s diverse society.
We should rightly celebrate our age-old traditions, and migrants should be taught Irish history, culture and language in our schools. But at the same time, we should welcome new cultural contributions from our diverse population, and not supress difference.
This is the first election in my memory where racism and xenophobia have entered the mainstream of our politics. They want us to go backwards to the illusion of some kind of exclusive national identity. To oppose this, we should embrace a vision of inclusive, diverse Irishness.
Every person has equal status as a human being, and everyone living here is equally part of the people of Ireland. It is not a question of holding a passport or the right papers.
It is a fact that one in six people living Ireland was born elsewhere, including being born to Irish parents living abroad. One in twenty people in Ireland has an African or Asian background, including people who have lived in Ireland for generations. In future, our people will never belong to one ethnic group or religion. Ireland’s people will be a mixture of dozens of backgrounds.
What brings us together is our common interest in Ireland’s environment, our society and our economy. We are all in this together. By recognising everyone’s fundamental equality, we can be united as a single people.
We must forge an agreed Ireland that acknowledges the role of immigration and emigration in shaping Ireland. Irish people emigrated over the years and were successful around the world. We cannot deny the same opportunity to those coming here.
The Labour Party itself was co-founded by three migrant workers. James Connolly and Jim Larkin were born in Britain to Irish parents, while Tom Johnson was English. Johnson was no less an Irish patriot for being English-born. His commitment to an independent, socialist Ireland was on the basis that it would better serve working people. In this decade of centenaries, we should dig deeper into the roots of our identities.
One recent report finds that many people who are visibly different have experienced abusive language and behaviour in public places. Another report states that racially-toxic speech and hate is commonplace online, and this may particularly influence younger people in Ireland who rely on social media to access news and information. Another report finds that people who are black are much more likely to experience discrimination in the labour market. How many reports do we need before we recognise that we have a problem?
Much good work has been done to drive racism out of sport, and to educate young people about the social inclusion of people who are different. But more should be done to raise this up the agenda, before we find ourselves in the same situation as those countries now faced with racist political parties.
Labour champions the idea separating religion from politics. But secularism is not anti-religious. Freedom of religion is a basic human right. For most people here, that is Catholicism or another Christian faith, but we have a longstanding Jewish community and now many Muslims, Hindus and others. One in ten people indicated at the last Census that they have no religion.
Secularism means being a safe and welcoming place for people of all religions, so they can hold festivals and build places of worship and burial grounds to fit the needs of their community.
Ireland’s system of Direct Provision has failed. We need a new, fairer system for asylum seekers. We should have a one-off amnesty for people who have been too long waiting for a judgement, and we should regularise the situation of young people who do not have Irish citizenship despite being raised in Ireland, because of their parent’s residency status.
We need stronger laws to protect migrant workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and to close loopholes that tie a worker’s residency permit to a single employer in cases of exploitation.
More funding should be given to local government to improve social inclusion and integration, and to prevent the social isolation of migrant communities that are clustered in apartment blocks or housing estates at the periphery of our towns and cities.
Labour will fight racism and xenophobic rhetoric in society as well as in politics, and we will oppose any political movement or politician who proposes racist and xenophobic policies that seek to demonise Ireland’s ethnic minorities or migrant communities. We can have a mature discussion about migration policy, but that is not what the racists are calling for.
It is up to all of us to reflect on our language and unconscious biases when it comes to describing Irish identity. We should embrace a new, inclusive definition of Irishness that will make us a stronger, more unified people.
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