The vote for Saoirse McHugh demonstrates the power in standing up to Peter Casey 2 years ago

The vote for Saoirse McHugh demonstrates the power in standing up to Peter Casey

Peter Casey's comments on migrants laid bare Ireland's moral ambiguity on the issue of xenophobia during the recent election campaign, but Saoirse McHugh showed the value in challenging them, writes Don Morgan.

In a hard-fought election campaign, there were few stand out moments or stars to emerge. During the Prime Time debate for Ireland’s Midlands-North West constituency, a clearly fed up David McCullagh told Peter Casey to pipe down and let Saoirse McHugh respond to his commentary on migrants.

Advertisement

She was withering of Ireland’s preeminent golf club bore and his views on migrants. During this election, and in that exchange, Ireland’s moral ambiguity as to the issue of xenophobia has been laid bare. It’s not a pretty sight.

In a stellar performance, Saoirse McHugh pointed to two things in particular that resonated with me much later.

First, that the rich man blaming immigrants was a tired, familiar trope and was boring. Second, that the views he appears to advocate have real consequences for people.

She cited the experience of the people of Aran and Achill, who went to Scotland to pick potatoes, who were run out of towns and who were locked in a barn and set alight by angry locals. All on the back of the words of rich men, who she said didn’t take responsibility for what they were saying.

Casey huffed and puffed about having never asked for a house when he went anywhere as an emigrant, but the mask had been ripped off his face. This wasn’t someone standing up for rural Ireland or telling it like it is. It was something more untoward, namely the danger of the seductive power of playing the race card to connect with the perceived “real” Irish public.

Advertisement

It led me to consider my own place in Irish society. When Casey originally came out with his views on migrants, specifically EU ones, my own response was not dispassionate.

I have skin in the game. I am a dual citizen of Ireland and Germany. My mother came here from Hamburg in 1977 at the age of barely 23 and has never left, despite a faltering welcome. I can remember the feeling of unease and defensiveness when people made a crack about Hitler, the war, Lederhosen; when a kind of naïve ignorance of Germany revealed itself to be something much meaner.

Worse still, she was not only foreign, but Protestant. It was not that she was a victim of racism per se, but she – as were her children – were not fully accepted because of our differences meant we weren’t fully Irish. Difference is difference, and difference meant not being Irish. Does that attitude still exist? I suspect that it does, even if it’s largely unspoken.

As I have followed the campaign, Casey’s bumbling shtick has made me sick to my stomach.

His admission in a video that he was racist, albeit appearing to confuse racism with patriotism, and the current climate of fear across Europe of foreigners, finally reminded me of why this was all too familiar. In the early 1990s, around the time of the Bosnian Civil war, refugees were finding themselves in Germany, recently reunified.

Advertisement

The constitution there, a sort of list of things learned after 12 years of the Nazis, provided in broadly terms that refugees had a right to asylum in Germany. Growing unease at foreigners, be they refugees or any other kind of migrant, was weaponised by some on the right and the far right to support their case for limits of that right and greater controls on immigration.

Then, in 1993, three days after this right to asylum was curtailed by the German parliament, four Neo-Nazis set fire to a half-timber house in Solingen, a small, historic town best known for the production of knives. The building housed a young family of Turkish origin. Two women and three girls of that family died in the blaze: they were 27, 18, 13, nine and four years old respectively. The atmosphere was toxic.

The subsequent memorial services were not attended by Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor, mindful of losing the right, no doubt, who criticised those who did as being guilty of what he termed ‘condolence tourism’. The Head of State did attend, conscious of the moral responsibility of all Germans to the victims. The public shared his view and demonstrated it across the country at the time.

The previous year, 1992, just over 438,000 people had applied for asylum, but these were exceptional times. I remember at a family gathering near Hamburg, older relatives commenting on what they saw on the news from Bosnia. They had been refugees themselves in 1945 from what is now western Poland.

Advertisement

“I thought we looked worse by the end,” sniffed one. “Still, the horses held up well,” another said. Well indeed: Under heavy artillery fire from allied ships sat off the Baltic coast, they made it to the village we now sat in, to a nearby reception centre for Germans fleeing westwards as the Red Army advanced.

Whilst comparing their own experience with those on the TV at the time, these people, all dead now, seemed to understand how fortunate they had been. They didn’t speak much else about it. Not the gunfire, not the threats from the Russians, the fear, the fear of rape, of death. That was all unsaid.

But what was clear was they didn’t go west because Hamburg was a nicer gig. They went west because the alternative was inconceivable horror, just as those from Syria, now housed in Ballaghaderreen, will tell you.

Advertisement

But the common memory in Europe is short. And just as there was a moral responsibility in 1945 and in 1992 to help people in difficulty, there is a moral culpability on those now who don’t speak out against a discourse which vilifies those who have arrived here, whatever their reasons, based on spurious ideas and myths about their motivations and intentions.

And as Saoirse McHugh pointed out, we were chief among those who left these shores because the alternative was worse. How shameful it is that we have forgotten that and even more shameful that the voices of the Peter Caseys of this world are not challenged more robustly.

An incident in my housing estate this week by way of example: a small kid, dark-skinned, comes up to my eldest son, who’s nearly four. There’s a swing in his front garden, which we just walked by and other kids – as in many estates – are in and out of each other’s gardens.

We’re blow-ins ourselves, so kids do the integration for us and our eldest is out like he’s on the campaign trail, down every driveway, saying hello. An older kid comes past on a bike, circles around this kid, like a shark. “Hey what’s your name?” asks the older kid, leering. My son’s new friend gives a reply. The older kid, through his smirk, replies, “I thought it’d be Mohammed”. The shark cycles off, delighted with himself. My son’s new friend looks bemused, but visibly deflated. My wife asks how old he is. He’s only six. The older boy, old enough to know better, didn’t lick this off the stones.

Plenty of local politicians, and some on the national stage, have been making noises about immigration, voicing misgivings, particularly in relation to the Muslim community. Not only that, but basic facts are confused to allow this to happen.

The myth – and logical fallacy – is repeated that illegal immigrants come here to mooch off our social welfare system. Asylum seekers and refugees are conflated with economic migrants, who in any case have a right to be here too, particularly if they are from an EU member state: Freedom of Movement, a fundamental concept of the EU, of which we are an integral member, is a reality and one which benefits us. Casey ignored this latter fact in his pronouncements. Europe was framed as foreign. This is dangerous stuff.

Meanwhile, the heat this discourse creates can and will lead to fire, as McHugh rightly put to Casey.

Hotels, like those in Moville and in Roosky, were burned down before they could be used to house asylum seekers. Whatever the merits of dispersing refugees awaiting their applications to remote corners of rural Ireland, and notwithstanding the festering sore of Direct Provision, a connection between these fires and the advent of foreigners coming to these towns fills me with foreboding, not because of migrants, but because immoral things will be done against them and we will be morally culpable by our inaction.

Words indeed have consequences, I’m with Saoirse on that.

I’m not Arabic, I’m not African. I’m not attacked on my way to pray at my mosque on a Friday, but I have an inkling of what it’s like when you’re trying to live your life and be left in peace.

I also know that, just as in Britain, just as in Germany, even today, the challenge to live up to our moral obligation just to be decent requires articulate, robust, courageous defence.