5th July 2020

ELECTIONS: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR RACISM?

Memet Uludağ, United Against Racism

Elections supposed to be about advancing policies and politics; giving people choices and democratic options in the race for governing the country. They supposed to be about projects for building the future of our communities, not an open season for racism and hate-speech for votes. At least that’s what we the ordinary people are told by our politicians and the media.

But, increasingly and alarmingly, elections are used by some politicians as an opportunity for creating an atmosphere of suspicion, hate and outright racism directed at Travellers, minorities, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, Muslims etc.

In Ireland, as we are approaching another by-election, potentially followed by a general election in 2020, we are witnessing a rise in ‘political racism’ at every level of the political spectrum directed at vulnerable groups. From local councillors to by-election candidates, from Ministers to party leaders the trend of creating a racially motivated debate seems to be on the rise.

Mainstream politicians never speak in a hurry. Their speeches are written, carefully read and re-read before made public. They plan their speeches. They adjust their tones. They rehearse them. Their words are chosen carefully. Nothing they say is simply random, expressed in a moment of excitement.

Politicians know what they are doing and why they are doing it. Their words are more than just words. People listen to them. People listening to them come to their own conclusions and sometimes act on them. Racist statements made by politicians end up fuelling myths and lies. And myth and lies are what the racist and far right need to mobilise.

In recent years political racism has taken a central place in In Ireland. We remember the debates of the presidential campaign. During local elections we have seen the outright racist leaflets targeting minorities and migrants.

This has to stop. We have to reject all forms of racism, and especially racism coming from opportunist politicians.

The past decade has been a period of worst economic crisis in Europe in the recent history. It has also been an era of worsening global refugee crisis. We have seen millions of people fleeing conditions such as war, torture and oppression as we also witness the drowning of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. During the same period we have also faced rising unemployment across Europe, harsh austerity programs, cuts and increased levels of poverty. In Ireland housing and health have become massive crises due to government policies.

In Europe there has been the emergence of far right/fascist forces in various places. In some countries these forces have gained electoral successes and taken significant numbers of seats in local and national parliaments. Many of these nasty forces used the failures of the mainstream governments as an opportunity to present themselves as defenders of ordinary people.

These forces have nothing positive to offer to working people, the homeless, unemployed and to the wider communities but  they have used the worsening refugee crisis to spread their far right, fascist and racist views.

In Ireland a number of individual fascists and far right elements have utilised social media to spread racist myths and lies about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This was followed by a number of “direct provision” protests in various towns. Many people protesting are not hard racists and they don’t share far right ideology but those hiding behind “local concerns” have at times successfully lead the confused campaigns and created a toxic racist atmosphere. Starting with ‘direct provision’ protests the racists aim to target all migrants and minorities.  

THE REAL PROBLEM – RACIST POLITICIANS and POLICIES

Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the small number of individuals trying stir racist hate and division in communities. Local politicians have opportunistically used the atmosphere of confusion, anxiety and racism to bring their names to national media headlines. In Oughterard, Independent TD Noel Grealish told a meeting of hundreds of people that African migrants arriving into Ireland were ‘economic migrants’ who ‘sponge’ off the system.

Some weeks later he misled the Dail by giving wrong figures on monies sent home by Nigerians in Ireland. Mr Grealish has been accused of racism. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said the question asked by Mr Grealish was “disgusting and potentially dangerous”. Other TDs also expressed their disgust with Mr Grealish.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has called for Noel Grealish TD to withdraw the remarks he made about African migrants, but he himself as the Taoiseach came up with a bizarre statement claiming majority of applications from Georgia and Albania are ‘groundless’. As the chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) Nick Henderson said it was “dangerous to be picking out nationalities and suggesting that a country is safe for all people”. I would like to be more direct than Nick and say: Leo Varadkar’s comments were outright racist.

Fine Gael by-election candidate in Wexford and president of the Irish Road Haulage Association Verona Murphy made a very generalised – and yet again headline catching – comment, speaking on RTÉ’s This Week Programme. She said, “There people are coming from such war-torn countries that they have to be deprogrammed, for the want of a better word, but through support services. They carry angst that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, possibly infiltrated by ISIS, and we have to protect ourselves against that.” What expertise does Ms Murphy have on such matters?

She knew what she was doing. She knew how to become a national name. Despite apologizing later, she has created an ongoing and racist debate.

The two-party system is Ireland continues on the racism front: Fianna Fáil has backed Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee who is facing calls to resign over a series of tweets in which she used the words “knacker” and “Traveller” in a derogatory manner. FF vows to back Dáil by-election candidate instead of asking her to step down.

We can add to this list many previous incidents from previous years and elections.

Finally, their names are not worth the mention but we have a small group of so called “independent” and “concerned” candidates and campaigners who are trying their best to win seats based on their far-right lies and myths. Their electoral plans are based on heavy presence on social media; use the housing and health crises to blame the migrants and minorities and hope that they will win enough votes.

Ireland is better than that, much better but we are not immune to this dangerous trend by the far right.

DIRECT PROVISION

Direct Provision is an inhumane system of institutionalisation with racism in its core. It was established 20 years ago and subsequent governments have maintained the system and allowed it to grow, to become the monster it is today. It must end and asylum seekers must be given the full right to work and education.

Recent weeks have seen large mobilizations against the opening of a Direct Provision centre in Oughterard. Some on these protests condemned the ‘inhumane’ system Direct Provision system but it is obvious there was a significant element of racism and xenophobia in these protests. These protests claiming to reject the ‘inhumane direct provision system’ failed to welcome asylum seekers and join them in their struggle for a decent life without direct provision. They are, therefore, insincere in their claims of being concerned for people in direct provision.

We want to be absolutely clear. We welcome asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants to Ireland – we do not see them as a threat to our communities or society. But Direct Provision is inhumane and should end. And the government policy of uprooting asylum seekers and their families, sometimes just as they got settled, and forcibly dispersing them round the country, deliberately placing them in areas that are massively under resourced, is cruel and provocative. This has to end as well.

TRADE UNIONS IN THE FIGTH AGAINST RACISM

I am a migrant; I am a trade union worker.

In trade unions we are a family of international working class. Racism is a tool those in power use to divide us and weaken our struggles. Trade unions have a central role in combating racism. Trade unions have a proud history of standing up to racism and fascism and this legacy must continue today.

I fully agree with Brendan Ogle, Unite Senior Officer in the Republic of Ireland, who said, “We know that dividing workers on the basis of ethnicity, religion or national origin only serves to divert attention away from the right-wing policies pursued by successive governments – policies which have caused a housing emergency, over-stretched public services and chronic low pay.”

Among many other things trade unions must continue to fight for workers rights including migrant workers and the right to free movement of workers.

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