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Opinion: Prejudice and hysteria caused two Roma children to be taken from their families

I have no doubt Garda and HSE staff acted in what they believed to be the best interests of those two children, but there were clear elements of ethnic profiling involved.

Donal O'Keeffe

LAST OCTOBER, two children were taken from their families. Who stole them? Was it Gypsies?

The Taoiseach, Minister for Justice and Acting Garda Commissioner this week apologised to two Roma families whose children were taken from them last year. With the Children’s Ombudsman saying there were clear elements of ethnic profiling to the case, we should ask how such a thing could happen.

Against the backdrop of international media hysteria over a Greek case where a blonde four-year-old girl “Maria” (eventually proven to be herself Roma) was found living in a Roma camp, one member of the public emailed the Garda missing person bureau using the subject line: “Suspected child abduction”. They recounted having seen a Roma woman with a “very blond” baby with “the bluest eyes”. An hour later, a Facebook “tip-off” told TV3′s Paul ‘Ireland’s Bogus Beggars’ Connolly that a similar case might exist in Tallaght. Naturally, he called the Garda Press Office.

Utterly unfounded claims

These two “tip-offs” were utterly unfounded but they led to Garda taking both children from their families and placing them in the overnight care of the HSE. DNA tests eventually proved that both children were exactly who their parents said they were. It is hard to imagine the depth of the trauma felt by both families.

The Children’s Ombudsman, Emily Logan, has spoken of “a widespread belief that the Roma are ‘child-abductors’” informing the readiness to believe that “Maria” was abducted. She expressed the belief that Garda “were not sufficiently sensitive to the possibility that stereotypes could play a role in their decision-making and this triggered a chain of events that caused enormous distress to the children and families”.

The Roma are, to many Irish people, despised outcasts who are seen as being up to every scam in the book. “Gypsies, tramps and thieves”, to quote an old song. I know some Roma. I can’t claim any particular insight beyond the staggeringly-original observation that, for all our cultural differences, people are just people, as ordinary and extraordinary as everyone else.

Our dark histories

I used to sell broadband and made some friends amongst Cork’s Roma families. I was welcomed with a look which perhaps recognised a fellow chancer.

I’ve eaten and drank in Roma homes and have been on the receiving end of a sardonic humour which makes the worst excesses of the Irish “I’m only slagging” seem like a wry smile by comparison. We native Irish have a dark sense of humour. History will do that to you. When I was small, my Granny told me about the experiences of her grandmother, who lived through the Famine.

The Irish have the Famine and the British and the Catholicism and the rain. The Roma, though, have been on the wrong side of polite society since, their legends say, a Roma blacksmith forged the nails for the Crucifixion and Jesus condemned them to wander the Earth landless.

If the Famine, 170 years ago, has had a scarring effect on the Irish psyche, then we should remember that in living memory Adolf Hitler tried to wipe out the Roma. As many as 1.5 million Roma were murdered in the Holocaust – or as the Roma know it, the Porajmas.

Existing on the margins of society

The Roma I knew didn’t mix with the wider community, instead existing very much on the margins of society. Most were young, to my eyes terribly young to be parents, but they clearly loved their children, boisterous and cheeky children who seemed both happy and healthy. The men sold second-hand cars and scrap metal, the women went into the city, mostly to beg.

For many Roma, begging is a way of life. Some venture further into criminality. I have Garda friends who would tar the entire Roma community as criminals and who would be baffled at accusations of racism.

I once met a Roma kid I recognised, begging outside Eason’s. He had a sign saying “I DEAF DUMB PLEASE HELP” and a single tear rolling down his cheek. He was good. Suddenly, though, technology betrayed him with a Nokia ringtone. He smiled at me, embarrassed, and shrugged. “Sorry about this, pal,” he said, pulling out the phone, “HELLO?!”

He got €2.

In the interests of honesty (which I may not always have had as a sales rep) at least some of my friendship with Cork’s Roma was founded on the high incidence of fellas who looked remarkably similar to guys who’d had their broadband cut for non-payment but who now had completely different names. Identification, even identity, could be multiple-choice.

Can any good come of this?

I have no doubt Garda and HSE staff acted in what they believed to be the best interests of those two children but I suspect that when they became aware of the suggestion that a Roma family was involved in abduction, there would have been no benefit of the doubt applied. At the time, Alan Shatter said there was a degree of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” but I would imagine that two plus two added up to eight straight away.

We think the Roma secretive, alien and apart, outsiders who live among us, damned because they do not integrate… but are we equally damned because we probably wouldn’t want them to integrate anyway?

Will any good come from the fact that prejudice, ignorance and hysteria caused two frightened children to be snatched from their families, not by the Roma of monstrous stereotype, but by well-meaning and misled agents of the Irish State?

The road to understanding

“I am committed to ensuring that this results in a more dynamic and effective approach to Roma integration in Ireland,” said Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. “We need a new culture of understanding of the distinct challenges and needs facing the Roma Community”.

Emily Logan said “The apology should be just the beginning of the process of building trust with the Roma community”. She’s absolutely right. So is Frances Fitzgerald.

But, as my friend asked me in the wake of this, is there any room in Irish society, or even in Irish minds, for Roma?

I hope so. We are a nation which knows trauma and abuse. I think the very best thing we could do to help ourselves would be to help others and to be the nation of generous welcomes we have for so long pretended to be. It’s past time we reached out, for our own good, to our new neighbours.

And if that seems hopelessly naive, well, just look how far prejudice, ignorance and hysteria have got us.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe

Read: “Ethnic profiling” a factor in removal of Roma children, report finds

Read: ‘A wake up call’: Where to now after the Logan Report?

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