WHEN LIMERICK COUNTY Councillor Kevin Sheahan stoked public fears and anxiety for political gain by claiming that immigrants are being given preferential treatment in the allocation of social housing, he was convinced he could get away with lying to the public. And he did.
The Councillor’s allegations that immigrants are “leapfrogging” social housing waiting lists are false and have been refuted by the Department of Environment and the Central Statistics Office. However, he has avoided any disciplinary measures and raised his media profile because his party, Fianna Fáil, condones the politics of racism and xenophobia.
‘Irish first’ housing
His solution, the implementation of an ‘Irish-first’ housing policy: “We should put our own people first”, has garnered support from the disenchanted the public.
Despite outrage from members of the public, and calls for action from migrant rights groups, the response from Fianna Fáil leadership has been completely inadequate.
We sought a response from party leader Micheál Martin, asking that he break the public silence in relation to this matter and make a formal public statement clearly stating the official Fianna Fáil position – and that he demand a public apology and retraction by Councillor Sheahan of his statements made at the Limerick County Council public meeting on March 25.
Comments made in a ‘personal capacity’
Mr Martin ignored these requests despite acknowledging that Councillor Sheahan’s allegations were unfounded, inaccurate, “totally unacceptable and wrong”. He ‘assured’ us that Councillor Sheahan’s call for an ‘Irish-first policy are “not Fianna Fáil policy and were made in a personal capacity”.
This is far from reassuring. In fact, it is completely disingenuous given that Cllr Sheahan originally made the comments at a Limerick County Council public meeting in the course of demanding a notice of motion to the sent to the Department of the Environment for changes to the criteria for assessing eligibility for social housing.
Although Councillor Sheahan’s behaviour was completely unprofessional, to the extent that it provoked a mass walk-out by the other members of Limerick County Council, he was clearly operating in his capacity as a County Councillor and Fianna Fáil party member. Furthermore, Councillor Sheahan subsequently reiterated his comments in interview after interview and in all cases he was introduced or identified as a member of Fianna Fáil party and as a Limerick County Council member.
An abdication of responsibility and accountability
Micheál Martin failed to act as a part leader. In a complete abdication of responsibility and accountability, he refused to sanction these anti-immigrant statements. This permissive stance allows the exclusionary politics of racism and intolerance to flourish. Councillor Sheahan has continued to make these allegations, wilfully misleading the public. The message from Mr Martin as we hear it is ‘I don’t like it but I’m not willing to actually do anything about it’.
In a time of economic hardship, calls to blame the foreigners are an easy way to channel public frustration and resentment. Political parties that ignore the abuse of political office risk tacit consent of the use of political scapegoating, which is an extremely dangerous precedent.
The inability of the Fianna Fáil leadership to make a clear statement sanctioning the councillor’s views, which were expressed in the public forum of a County Council meeting as well as local and national media, could be construed as tacit Fianna Fáil consent for anti-immigrant sentiment. A much more direct sanction must be taken by the party to send a message that it will not tolerate the inflammation of racist views for political gain.
No disciplinary action
We accuse Micheál Martin of political cowardice for taking no disciplinary action against Councillor Sheahan and making no public statement disowning the comments.
However, while Fianna Fáil are in the spotlight this time, politicians from all of the mainstream parties have succumbed to the temptation to flirt with exclusionary, populist politics. A prominent example is that of former Mayor of Naas and Fianna Gael Councillor Darren Scully famously refused to represent members of his constituency based on being Black Africans.
How can parties expect to represent migrants when they fail to sanction those who use immigrants as a scapegoat? Of course, the greater answer is more migrant political representation. But what migrant would join a party that condones anti-immigrant rhetoric?
As economic woes persist future elections will provide more fodder for those who want to score points by highlight migrants as a target. All political parties need to tackle racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant scapegoating with conviction. A strong message must be sent by all of the major political parties in Ireland from their leadership that there is no place for racism and intolerance in Irish politics.
Dr Matt Canon is the integration policy officer with Doras Luimní, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation working to support and promote the rights of all migrants living in Limerick and the wider Mid-West region. He is also a lecturer at the University of Limerick.