Politicians’ inaction on racism isn’t good enough

Despite decades of lip service from politicians, institutional racism remains rife in Irish society

The 2020 General Election marked a seismic shift in Irish politics, with the dominance of the two civil war parties being broken by a Sinn Féin surge and the relative success of the Green Party. While the results of the election indicated a widespread dissatisfaction with Ireland’s housing crisis and crumbling healthcare system, state racism remained a largely unspoken issue. 

In 2017, the election of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach was lauded by some as a marker of progress for marginalised people, due to the fact that he is a gay man of Indian descent. However, politics cannot simply be about one’s identity, but rather the ideas and policies you embody and fight for. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s approach to tackling racism in Irish society has consisted largely of lip service, hypocrisy and inaction. 

Direct provision is the clearest example of state racism in Irish society. Introduced in 1999 as a temporary measure to house asylum seekers, the system remains a national disgrace. It is criticised by human rights organisations as degrading and cruel. Living in direct provision centres, residents are given 38.80 to live on each week, and are isolated from the greater community. They are subjected to subpar conditions, as well as repressive, infantilising rules about phones and curfews as well as dictation about when they can and cannot eat in centres which are often run for profit. One third of those growing up in state-sponsored poverty, deprived of independent living and basic dignity, are children, according to the Irish Refugee Council. 

While a large number of politicians from almost every party committed themselves to abolishing direct provision when pressed on the issue in the run up to the election, it is difficult to ascertain a genuine commitment at a time when there is a scramble for seats, with a desperate bid for a place in the Dáil. 

Several Fianna Fáil candidates (such as Bobby Alward) have claimed that they support the reform rather than the abolition of direct provision, and Fine Gael’s record in government speaks louder than any hollow promises their election manifesto pledges about reducing wait time in direct provision. On the day Varadkar took office three years ago, he endorsed the system by increasing the weekly allowance by €6.00 for children and €2.50 for adults. Varadkar claimed that these offensively paltry increases would give asylum seekers more disposable income, showing a complete lack of understanding of the suffering direct provision has brought asylum seekers over the past 17 years. 

“…a party which has presided over the housing crisis, and has an ideological opposition to making housing a constitutional right, has no place posturing about being committed to a republic without prejudice”

On top of this, a party which has presided over the housing crisis, and has an ideological opposition to making housing a constitutional right, has no place posturing about being committed to a republic without prejudice, given that austerity measures have been weaponised by far-right groups to scapegoat migrants and refugees. The emergence of groups such as the Irexit Freedom to Prosper Party (who claim to oppose the “cultural Marxist stranglehold of the EU”, and whose leader Hermann Kelly subscribes to the ‘great replacement’ theory) have thankfully not gained enormous traction. However, the fact that they are emboldened enough to run candidates for public office who desire to “bring an end to the policy of a two list system where newly arrived non-nationals are provided housing over Irish people who have been on the list for years” is a worrying development. 

In the 2018 presidential election, the relative success of anti-Traveller candidate Peter Casey came as a shock to many, perhaps unjustifiably, given Ireland’s historic inaction on the marginalisation of the Traveller community. Casey asserted that Travellers “don’t pay taxes”, despite refusing to disclose his own tax returns for the last seven years. His claim that Travellers are the recipients of “special treatment” presumably came as a surprise to any member of the community, given the rate of suicide for Travellers is seven times higher than the general population, and half of Travellers are dead before the age of 39, with just one percent reaching third level education, according to Pavee Point in 2016.

The emergence of populist right wing figures like Casey and Kelly, who attempt to prey on economic anxiety, demonstrates the need for radical action on the current state of housing and healthcare, which establishment parties have ultimately failed to deliver. In recent years, Fine Gael have attempted to give their fundamentally anti working-class politics a liberal lacquer by capitalising on progressive social movements to which they have contributed nothing, as seen from their last minute support of abortion rights. While Varadkar claimed there was no place in this republic for prejudice upon his appointment as Taoiseach, Fine Gael’s record in government tells a different story. For example, Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht deemed building housing for Travellers to be a “waste of resources”. As well as this, while the behaviour of individual members does not necessarily reflect party policy, Fine Gael’s youth wing contains prominent members who attended the Young American Conference, an organisation whose alumni boasts George W. Bush, and Steve Miller, senior advisor for Donald Trump.  

Ireland has a notoriously fractured left, and while all public representatives of People before Profit, Solidarity, Rise, Social Democrats and the Workers’ Party of Ireland are in favour of the abolition of direct provision, what they can do in opposition is limited.

As is the case with any progressive social movement, the brunt of the work is done by grassroots activists and groups in the wake of parliamentary apathy.

As is the case with any progressive social movement, the brunt of the work is done by grassroots activists and groups in the wake of parliamentary apathy. Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) have done Trojan work since their inception in 2014, demanding freedom, justice and equality for those seeking asylum. They demand an end to direct provision and deportation, as well as the right to work and education as part of moving towards a more humane asylum process. Refugee and Migrant and Solidarity Ireland (RAMSI) and Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ) are also at the forefront of this campaign. 

Earlier this year, election posters promised us “A Future To Look Forward To” and “An Ireland for Al”, but based on Irish politicians’ record on tackling racism and improving the lives of the most marginalised in our society, you’d have to ask whose future they really mean. 

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.