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18 May 2000 Edition

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Welcoming the New Irish

Ireland, North and South, is visibly becoming increasingly multicultural. There are always a lot of sentiments involved when people feel that, using Bob Marley's words, ``things are not the way they used to be''. As a Russian, I probably understand it better than many people, because my own entire country, with its entire different social system and a unique life style, disappeared just over ten years ago.

Some people in Ireland are frightened of the consequences of this new process; scared of people who look different, dress different, speak different languages, have different daily habits. This fear is not something uniquely Irish. Back in Russia, people aren't used to different looking and speaking newcomers either: my home city of Tula was closed to foreigners up until 1993! If you come there now, and people suspect - by your clothes, for example - that you are ``nerussky'' (non-Russian), they would most probably come to you and test if their suspicions were correct by asking you in Russian: ``What time is it?'' - just to see what you will answer. Sometimes, just as here, they choose to blame the ``nerussky'' for all their problems.

Life is never again the same when people of different ethnic backgrounds from all around the world come into your country - but such is life in general. It consists of constant changes, whether some of us like it or not.

I am not speaking only about the asylum seekers, or as those looking for scapegoats prefer to call them, ``the bogus refugees''.

The media forgets 9 times out of 10 about those foreign workers here who bring the skills so much needed by the Celtic Tiger. Most of these workers are employed in the growing number of international call centres. These are also becoming one of the most exploited groups of modern workers. Most of these workers (although not exclusively) are European nationals who are prepared to accept poor conditions because of the lack of employment in their own countries. They are hoping that in a few years time they will be able to return and benefit from their Irish work experience. But not all of them will go home. Some will settle down in Ireland.

As the Dublin government is preparing to issue up to 10,000 working visas to non-EU nationals because of the labour shortages, I think it is important for Irish people to be honest with themselves and to realise from the very beginning of this process that many of those who will come here will choose to stay. After World War II, for example, France and the Netherlands experienced similar shortages and invited many workers from Morocco or Turkey to their shores. The intention was that they would go home when they were no longer needed, but this never happened. Instead, the newcomers eventually received the right to be reunited with their families and settled down permanently in those countries, which often forget now how much they are obliged for their current wealth to these very people.

The best way to help the newcomers to adjust better to ``Irish ways and Irish laws'' would be through learning about and understanding their culture so that the Irish, in their turn, could better explain to them the way things work in this country. This is particularly important for those working with the foreigners on a daily basis - for example, Irish civil servants. I faced this problem while interpreting for asylum seekers: what struck me was the lack of real expertise from the Irish side on this issue. There were major misunderstandings and misinterpretations during the interviews caused by the absence of knowledge of conditions in the countries of origin of the asylum seekers by the civil servants (they were doing their best, undertaking research on the Internet and things like that, but it was obviously not enough). Similar words also have totally different meanings in different languages, and when the interpreter is not a native speaker, it is so easy to confuse things.

The numbers of the asylum seekers and foreigners coming to Ireland do not seem scary if you get the proper information about these numbers in other countries. For example, the Netherlands - a country smaller that Ireland and with a population of almost 16 million - receives every year between 48,000 and 60,000 newcomers who come and stay, one way or another.

We often hear here in Ireland about ``Dutch detention ships'' for refugees. What we don't hear is that this measure is a very new one in the Netherlands and that if a person has stayed at least three years, authorities have virtually no right to deport them, as they are considered to be sufficiently integrated into Dutch society. The Dutch government provides subsidised language courses for newcomers and they get, for example, the right to receive student grants and to go to university after holding a residence permit for a year. The Dutch have a lengthier and more in-depth experience of dealing with the immigration, and the best thing would be not to look just at those bloody boats but to learn from the positive sides of their experience as a whole: integration, schools in different languages, ethnic newspapers and radio stations, multicultural festivals, like the yearly Caribbean Carnival in Rotterdam.

Having worked in various multinational companies and having lived in various countries, I can really call myself lucky that I had a chance in my life to meet so many people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Back at home, years ago, in our closed-from-outsiders society, I could only dream of this opportunity.

What about Sinn Féin? We usually say what we don't want: discrimination, racist attacks and insults, blaming the foreigners for the failures of the social policy of this government. But we forget to say what we actually want - and how we are going to achieve that.

I believe that it is time for Sinn Féin to think seriously about attracting immigrants - people of non-Irish origin living in this country - to join the party. Those who have chosen to spend the rest of their lives in Ireland will have to (and in many cases want to!) learn about politics here, and it's our task to show the New Irish that we are the only real radical alternative to the establishment that is trying so hard to put them back on the boat.

When I came to Ireland, I knew more about Sinn Féin than most other immigrants. In fact, it was the only Irish party that was known in Russia (we never heard of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, but the name Sinn Féin was regularly in the news!). I know of other foreigners who live here and are thinking of joining Sinn Féin, but they are not sure that they can do it and that they will be welcome. Let's show them, comrades, that they will be! I think this should be encouraged and organised within the party on a national level. Maybe it's even time to create a special department within the party that would deal with these issues, encouraging greater understanding from both sides.

It might not seem an urgent issue to some of us. But if we think about the future and want to build up our political strength, I think it is a good time to start working on this, in the Six and 26 Counties

The only way to show that we in Sinn Féin are real internationalists, not just when people come to us as guests at the Ard Fheis, is to accept into our organisation new members of different nationalities and to encourage them to join, so that we can build a new Ireland together.



Dublin march against racism

Dublin city councillor Larry O'Toole and Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle Member Aengus Ó Snodaigh at the well-attended Anti-Racism march in Dublin on Saturday 13 May 2000.

Speaking on the platform, Ó Snodaigh said that the ``Frank Dunlops of this world are a bigger threat to Irish emocracy and the econpomy than any influx of asylum seekers.

He was critical of the the media and government's anti-immigrant stance.

``I don't see the Department of Justice rushing to get snatch squads together to swoop on the bribers of this state, the property speculators, or the so-called democratic politicians who willingly and enthusiastically accepted the bribes. Those people are a bigger threat than all the asylum seekers in the world would ever be. They are, in fact, the reason we have the housing crisis today, because instead of concentrating on society's future needs they were more interested in lining their own pockets.

``There wouldn't be a `problem' if the government dealt with all the people on this island as human beings; that includes the settled community, the Travelling Community and those who've come to our shores to seek sanctuary and a better life. Every adult should have the right to work, the right to housing and the right to a decent standard of living, whether they are awaiting immigration processing or not, whether they are Irish are not.''

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
  • This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
  • Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
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