6 June 1997 Edition

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Céad míle fáilte?

Meadbh Gallagher looks at how the Irish media is failing to confront racism

Racism is rife in Ireland, recent media coverage has confirmed. But the media itself is responsible for promoting racist views, a member of the National Coordinating Committee for European Year Against Racism says.

Gary Quinn, Project Coordinator at the Cities Anti-Racism Project (CARP), was speaking to An Phoblacht after a notable increase in racist commentary on radio phone-in programmes and newspapers.

``Whereas last year a lot of the coverage was on the problems refugees and immigrants are facing here in Ireland, this year the coverage is on the problems they're said to be causing or bringing with them,'' Gary Quinn says.

The media claim to be only reporting what's there, but in the midst of a lacklustre general election campaign, it is press reports that have fuelled racist ranting on refugees and asylum seekers.
  When we really confront racism is when we try to establish ourselves as human beings - like when we say I want to stay here  

On 26 May, the Irish Times gave a full page to what it described as an ``influx of asylum seekers''. A front page headline claimed ``asylum-seekers arrive at 100 a week''. This claim is a gross exaggeration, but it is headlines like this which have dominated press coverage.

The Irish Independent front page headline on 29 May read: ``Demand for curb on tide of `refugees'''. For this `story', the Indo used the results from an opinion poll question it itself had commissioned.

The News of the World on 2 June went one step further, leading with a claim of ``Fear of Race Riots'', with a comment from a Department of Justice `source' confirming ``secret plans'' had been drawn up for this eventuality.

RTE is no different. For months, racist remarks by callers to programmes like RTE's Pat Kenny Show were left hanging in the air, unchallenged by the programme presenter and rarely balanced by interviews with anti-racist or other representative organisations.

Though RTE journalists are subject to National Union of Journalist guidelines which say phone-in programmes should not be used to spread racial hatred ``in whatever guise'', the station has no developed anti-racist policy and there is no onus on it to address the issue in its programme planning and content.

Gary Quinn is critical of RTE but says it is not alone amongst the statutory bodies in not doing anything proactive. ``The Department of Education has no formal policy to allow children to understand what it is to have different communities and identities and different cultural backgrounds,'' Gary Quinn points out.

In such a statutory setting, exposing the myths which accompany racist prejudice is made more difficult.

What is clear is that Ireland is moving from being a relatively closed, almost mono-cultural society to being a more multi-cultural one. However, to suggest that there is a `tide' of refugees just because the state is moving from its historical position of taking in virtually no refugees is patently false. The reality is that of the world's 30 million refugees, 90% are hosted by the world's poor developing countries, and so far this year, a mere 1,290 people have sought asylum in Ireland.

And under the Geneva Convention, Ireland is obliged to grant this human right to refuge, a right which many Irish people have sought abroad.

Eddie Clario is one refugee who has had first-hand experience of the Irish statutory and street version of the Cead Mile Failte. In 1994 he fled Mobuto's Zaire, ending up in Ireland. In October 1996, he was still awaiting a decision on his application for asylum. He was walking down Dublin's Camden Street when two white Irish men attacked him, heaping racist abuse on him before beating him up. One of the attackers was caught by passing Gardai but no prosecution followed.

After two years Eddie Clario was finally granted refugee status. Up until then he had no right to work and existed in a frustrating limbo with only the basic Social Welfare the government has to provide under international law available to him.

Now, under new European Union laws, the Irish state can deny recent asylum seekers the right to refuge. Under what is called the Dublin Convention, a refugee must seek asylum in the first country s/he lands in, which in Eddie's case was Belgium.

Fortress Europe may be being built by German and British-led exclusion policies, but the Irish government is secure in the knowledge that because most refugees have to go through at least one stop-off point before reaching this island, it can use EU laws to send them back. The liberal language of the recent Refugee Bill concealed this reality. And the Department of Justice is increasingly deporting people under the cover of the Dublin Convention.

However, it is not only on the human rights issues associated with refugees that Irish society is now being challenged. The image of thousands of Irish emigrants arriving as immigrants in other countries and seeking welfare and jobs there is in the collective memory. What is less appreciated is the reverse image, where immigrants arriving in Ireland have an equal right to jobs and welfare and should be able to exercise that right free from the racism that greeted Irish people abroad in the past.

Bisi Adigun can talk about racism from personal experience, though he can safely say he is not keen to talk about it. Racism just keeps on getting in the way.

For example, his reasons for being in Ireland stem from racism. He had left Nigeria for England to work in television production. After three years in London he reverted to his first career choice, the performance arts, and specifically, drumming. British immigration rules would not accommodate this change: in the middle of 1996 he was given 28 days to leave, with no right to appeal.

Now, he differentiates between the more overt street racism he's met in Ireland and that which he meets with officialdom. ``When dealing with someone on the street, that is one thing, but somebody that represents an organisation, that is different,'' Bisi says.

``When we really confront racism is when we try to establish ourselves as human beings - like when we say I want to stay here,'' is Bisi's bottom line.

Whether Ireland can cope with its own racism is the big question. For those who believe that the Celtic Tiger can afford to be liberal, the experience of the nation's biggest ethnic group, Travellers, says otherwise. While concern for human rights in faraway places is a virtual industry in Ireland, whether human rights principles translate into the backyard is another thing. Bisi Adigun is certainly wary of the prospects, based on his knowledge of the racism experienced by Travellers he has worked with in Ireland. In Nigeria, the nomadic tradition is a respected part of many of the nation's tribes. Bisi quotes a Nigerian proverb from one of these tribes to illustrate his point about the racism that exists towards Travellers in Ireland. ``If the crocodile can eat its own eggs, what might it do to the flesh of the frog?''

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