Loth in their campaigns to address minority issues, the mainstream parties have left all the momentum on immigration to the intolerant right.
By Stacy Wrenn.
For how long can something be ‘next’ before it’s allowed to become ‘current’? Direct provision has been referred to, in some variation, as ‘our next great shame’ in the mainstream media for years without experiencing this elevation. Working groups have come and gone, minor reforms have been made that benefit some asylum-seekers over others, and little has fundamentally changed.
Although it was established as a temporary measure for housing asylum-seekers awaiting refugee status in 1999, direct provision — or direct provision and dispersal as it is more accurately referred to — has remained constant in contrast to its perceived attention-worthiness.
This fleeting public shame appears in bursts, often for months at a time, sparked by major events that essentially serve as reminders that the system still exists.
In 2019, there were at least seven co-ordinated anti-asylum seeker protests in response to proposed accommodation centres, not including arson attacks on some of the properties themselves. On the morning of October 28th, the car of Sinn Féin TD for Sligo-Leitrim Martin Kenny was set alight in what was widely accepted to be a response to statements he had made in the Dáil the previous week condemning such protests. For weeks the Irish mainstream media had the direct provision system as their primary topic of conversation, with multiple discussions in the Dáil chamber after months of silence. With powerful addresses from Brendan Ryan, Labour Party TD, and Catherine Martin, Green Party TD, among others, it felt as if a meaningful national conversation had begun.
A swathe of documentaries, think pieces, and media exposés followed on the history of direct provision, the experiences of various sub-groups, with the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality report finding it “no longer fit for purpose”. The fifth-anniversary conference of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland [MASI] saw greater engagement from wider civil society than any outreach event in previous years.
Then Christmas came, the election was called, and it was as if none of this had happened. An argument could be made that it was difficult to maintain such momentum over what is traditionally a lull in the political calendar. However, this was also the optimal time to develop a coherent position to make direct provision an election issue, yet no left party sought to do this. Instead, the debate has focused on health and housing with little nuance — such as consideration of the experiences of those granted refugee status who are forced to remain in direct provision because of the shortage of affordable housing. With The National Party and Anti-Corruption Ireland running thirteen candidates between them on explicitly anti-immigration tickets, this is negligence that no progressive party can justify. The momentum on immigration in general and direct provision in particular, at election 2020, has all been with the intolerant right.
There is no doubt that the candidates on the right feel emboldened by the protests of last year: it’s clear in the openness of their messaging. Standing with two thumbs up and a broad grin, the National Party’s Longford-Westmeath candidate and deputy leader James Reynolds unveiled a large roadside poster with the message: “There are too many immigrants. Enough is enough!”.
At the start of the election, one columnist in The Irish Times had the optimistic take that this was not something to be concerned about, explained by some ‘attitudinal trends’ from European Social Surveys between 2002 and 2018. He claimed that the general public has reached the point of being so positive about immigration that any party that advocated for increased controls would be at a disadvantage: “Indeed, political parties both small and large that aim for broad-based support across Irish society would stand to lose more votes from adopting an anti-immigrant platform. While there is possibly some room for Independent political candidates to gain votes from playing the immigrant card this is likely to remain localised and context-bound – at least for the present time”.
This would make sense if we were in a different political climate. Alongside the manufactured struggle for resources that is the housing crisis, the threshold of what is publicly considered racist is consistently raised higher and higher – the increasingly frequent debates about ‘culture wars’ online and ‘snowflakes’ testifies to this. This has enfranchised voters on doorsteps across the country, according to canvassers, to raise the need to ‘house our own first’, apparently generating heterogeneous responses across the political spectrum.
It’s likely that if Fine Gael are to remain in government, they will continue with their cycle of working groups and consultations, and the occasional rehashed press statement about Albanian and Georgian immigrants. And in an interview with JOE.ie the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin who knows the importance of care in language when dealing with issues of tolerance, seemed to be taking the side of both the protestors in Oughterard and Rooskey and those who criticised them by saying that while some groups did exploit the “fear of the unknown”, only “some” of it was “completely unfounded”.
Although their candidates have been actively organising under the banner of United Against Racism and their track record is good we may take People Before Profit as an exemplar of how even the progressive parties do not have thought-through policies in in their manifestos though they do briefly state that they would “end Direct Provision and give asylum seekers the right to work”. This is a slogan, not a policy. There are no commitments to alternative accommodation or allowances, or indications on how they would implement this in practice.
Although election manifestos are predominantly communications exercises, the absence of detailed policies in relation to accommodation, welfare, and education, suggests that implementing their limited policy could leave many asylum-seekers in a worse position than now.
One party to directly address the sensitive topic of asylum-seeker accommodation in its manifestos is the Green Party, which in the ‘Migrant Integration’ section aims to end the direct provision system and replace it with “a not for profit system based on accommodation provided through existing or new approved housing bodies”. Their commitment to this alternative model is a positive step away from empty statements about simply wishing to ‘end’ the direct provision system, and towards honest discussions about how it will be ended and what will replace it. Individual candidates have also made personal statements in social media posts despite it going unmentioned at their press launch.
Both Labour and Sinn Féin candidates have made similar social media statements but the party have yet to confirm their policy in official literature.
Despite Martin Kenny’s experiences and the criticism of their response to local election candidate Paddy Holohan’s remarks about Leo Varadkar’s “blood” making him unsuitable to be Taoiseach, Sinn Féin have yet to utilise the expansion of their policy of ending direct provision as a signal to voters of the sincerity of their candidates’ welcoming stances.
The rights of minorities often fall by the wayside in general elections where parties often focus on the majority. In an economy built on precarious living, with no certainty in housing, employment, or health, voters can be quick to give in to the fiction of an ‘overburdened’ system full of ‘scroungers’.
Until now local organisers and activists have been left to push against this alone. While this is more often than not the most effective way of dealing with such narratives, we should expect more from our political representatives.
If there was enough vocal opposition from parties to this rhetoric — beyond signing an anti-racism pledge —would the far-right feel so comfortable? Such opposition does not necessarily require an organised coalition in order to make an impact, but more continuous affirmation by parties — from the centre to the hard left — of their pro-migration, anti-racism stances could help create a culture of acceptance to combat the negative undercurrent.