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Column: Is intolerance prevalent in Ireland?

Ireland has never seemed intolerant to me but recent instances of racism and intolerance in the news has me questioning whether I am right, writes Aileen Donegan.

Aileen Donegan

AS RECENTLY AS April I asked a friend ‘Is racism big in Ireland?’ We were attending the same training course on hate speech. I guess my innocent question caught him off guard: ’Yes Aileen, racism is a huge problem in Ireland,’ he said with a tone of awe and surprise that offended me. Though Ireland, my home, has never seemed intolerant to me, the last week in news has given me some much-needed insight into Irish attitudes.

Incidences of racism

Take for instance, this story. Scribbled on the face of this derelict building in the heart of Dublin city is ‘Zionist engineered global financial holocaust’, ‘Jewish supremacist destruction of indigenous Europeans’ and ‘Zionist global financial terrorism’. Bit of graffiti never hurt anyone, right? I probably would have believed that, but ideas breed action and it’s the action that I’m afraid of. Fortunately, the media picked up on it and denounced it right away. I’m lucky I live in a country where this kind of behaviour doesn’t go unnoticed. An investigation is underway.

Consider the story where journalist and blogger Una-Minh Kavanagh was waiting outside a hotel for her friend. A group of teenage boys approached her, spouted racial slurs at her, then grabbed her and spat on her. It’s a story again picked up by the mainstream media. The outpouring of empathy from readers was immense, but Kavanagh insists no one on the street, where the attack occurred, helped her.

My ignorance about intolerance combined with all that I was reading in the news both in Ireland and abroad compelled me to read the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) report on Ireland. Every five years the ECRI publishes a country-by-country report on public policy, attitudes and statistics on racism and intolerance. The fourth monitoring report on Ireland was published in February this year. The ECRI monitored discrimination in various fields of Irish life: employment, housing, health and education. The report also considered the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Where can we improve?

While the ECRI was pleased with the progress in Ireland since the third monitoring report in 2007, they noted some things we can improve on.

Ireland has a good system for registering racist criminal offences, but the report found that racist incidences are under-reported. Migrants fare badly when trying to find work – in Discrimination in Recruitment from a Field Experiment 2009 by Frances McGinnity and others, it was found that ’… job applicants with Irish names are over twice as likely to be invited to an interview as candidates with identifiably non-Irish names, even though both submitted equivalent CVs. Sounds a lot like this.

The report quotes another publication, from the Public Appointments Service 2009, which looked into experiences of job seekers from a range of minority ethnic groups seeking employment. It found:

…[vulnerable groups encounter] language barriers, poor information among immigrants regarding the operation of the labour market, lack of awareness of the employment rights and agencies, experience of racism and discrimination or problems of qualifications recognition.

The Travelling community

Unsurprisingly, the Traveller community doesn’t fare much better in Irish society. The ECRI quote a disturbing statistic from the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study, which states that 7.6 per cent of Traveller families have no access to running water. Resistance from local residents, and the “lack of political will” of local authorities are cited as reasons why Traveller accommodation is difficult to attain in Irish society. This is hardly surprising. Remember when local residents set fire to a house that Travellers were set to live in?

It seems the economic downturn, the recession, the IMF, the big bailout, the problem Fianna Fáil caused, and the banks, have taken its toll on education services in Ireland. According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), in 2011, Ireland ‘is not very well prepared to help new immigrants enter the school system’. The report notes that 70-75 per cent of school children with a migrant background (10 per cent in primary school; 12 per cent post-primary), where English is not their first language, may require additional English language assistance.

Within the five years since the last ECRI report was published the Irish Government, owing to financial difficulties, slashed funding to Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) schools. Additional English language responsibility now resides with the Vocational Education Committee (VECs). All is not lost though; we still have the national Intercultural Education Strategy 2010-2015.

6,107 asylum seekers living in 52 residential centres

The most shocking and disturbing information in the ECRI report is reserved for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. In Ireland, asylum seekers are not permitted to work, and have ‘little control over their everyday life,’ according to the ECRI report. It also states that in 2010, under direct provision (accommodation and other services for asylum seekers awaiting refugee status) nearly 6,107 asylum seekers were living in 52 residential centres, across 18 counties in Ireland.

While any kind of provision for asylum seekers in a country that is not their own is a good thing, the statistics regarding the mental health of asylum seekers in our care is frightening. The Irish Refugee Council notes:

90 per cent of asylum seekers suffer from depression after six months in the direct provision system and they are five times more likely than an Irish citizen to be diagnosed with a psychiatric illness.

Furthermore, since asylum seekers cannot by law seek employment or be listed as ‘habitually resident’ they cannot earn or receive money other than that derived from direct provision – this is an allowance that all asylum seekers can… live off? A weekly allowance for an adult living in direct provision is €19.10, and for a child €9.60. These amounts haven’t increased since… get this, 1999. The ECRI notes that these amounts have lost about a third of their original value since 1999.

Of the ECRI report, one other thing is clear: people living in Ireland are not aware of their rights. Is Ireland intolerant? I sincerely hope not, yet the last few instances of racism and intolerance in last week’s mainstream news would beg to differ. Maybe we’re just ignorant, uninformed to the point of denial.

Aileen Donegan is from Ireland, but temporarily living in Strasbourg, France. She has an MA in journalism from DIT and a blog you can view here.

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Aileen Donegan

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