Closing a `back door' into the EU
Closing a `back door' into the EU

By John Waters (for the Irish Times)

One of the boasts of those who impelled us towards what they called ``European integration'' has been that this would make Ireland a more tolerant, inclusive and pluralist place.

Central to their logic was a polarity between the allegedly reactionary, insular nature of Ireland as it was, and the enlightenment possible through exposure to European ``ideals''. Indeed, one of the weapons employed to prod us towards their objective was a ritualistic shaming of the Irish character, a variant on the pigs-in-the-parlour taunts of old: our laws, culture, mindset, had to be dragged out of the Stygian darkness by exposure to the laws, culture and mindset of Europe.

Well, here we are now, about to vote on an amendment designed to prevent black babies who conspire to be born in Ireland from exploiting a loophole in our Stygian law and culture to acquire citizenship of a free, modern, enlightened Europe. Oh dear.

Over the coming weeks, attempts will be made to twist this picture back into a more congenial shape, with much emphasis on the occasional opportunistic rantings of the more populist-minded election candidates. The concept of a ``racist referendum'' will be employed to further defame the Irish personality.

But this will all amount to a smokescreen. The essential truth about this referendum is that it seeks to close the ``back door'' Ireland currently offers into the EU. The image of Irish hospitals being swamped by foreigners is a graphic invocation of the issue; but it is not the issue. For all the undoubtedly utopian qualities of modern Ireland, it is doubtful if the allure of the Irish ``good life'' would alone exercise a sufficient ``pull factor'' to create a significant problem. Outsiders come here not because they long to live in Ireland, but to get into Europe. And that Europe, pluralist posturing notwithstanding, does not want them.

It is, then, our membership of the EU that threatens to have us now shamed before the world as a racist backwater. For that is how this will read. There is little hope of outsiders reading the small print or perceiving the complexity of our dilemmas. Those natives who have previously engaged in shaming their own country will lose no opportunity to do so again, queuing up to appear on Newsnight to condemn the troglodytes who allegedly seek to keep Ireland for the Irish.

Large numbers of immigrants is a new development, as starkly evidenced by the fact that the current difficulty stems from a Constitutional amendment framed just six years ago, when its present implications were undreamt of.

The future cohesion of our society depends on the inflow of foreigners being managed effectively and in a manner not only free, but demonstrably free, of racist intent. We also need to discuss the increasingly urgent subject of cultural integration. To these ends, Irish society desperately requires a full and frank discussion about its immigration policy. But this referendum will simply offer another opportunity for sanctity to the cultural and economic elite who, mainly by virtue of their immunity from the negative consequences of their prescriptions, can employ issues of race and immigration to demonstrate their moral credentials by comparison with the hoi polloi. Conversely, it is the hoi polloi who must deal with the everyday practicalities of the alleged moral generosity of those who, in addition to enhancing the shines on their haloes, get cheap house-cleaners, nannies and gardeners as a consequence of what they admit only as their virtue.

Those who will use the pretext provided by this referendum to shame their country before the world will largely be the same individuals who in the past sought to portray the very idea of Ireland as racist. Some of their bylines are to be found, at this time of year, on articles in British newspapers about the xenophobic nature of the Irish revolution and its leadership. This is a lie. The 1916 leaders were not foaming multiculturalists, but neither were they insular-minded. Padraic Pearse, in his essay ``The Spiritual Nation'' wrote: ``He who fancies some intrinsic objection to our nationality to lie in the co-existence of two languages, three or four great sects, and a dozen different races in Ireland, will learn that in Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, and America, different languages, creeds, and races flourish kindly side by side . . .'' The idea that Ireland is a racist backwater, saved from cultural barbarism only by EU membership and the enlightenment of its middle-classes is another lie. Nevertheless, and loophole or no loophole, there is something unedifying about this rush to snatch Irish passports from the hands of newborn babies.

There is a great risk in fundamental changes to our legal framework being effected in a climate characterised by, on the one hand moral posturing, and, on the other, elements of fear and ignorance which sometimes seem indistinguishable from racism. We need to have a conversation, but the wrong kind could leave us with the image, if not the reality, of an intolerant and culturally paranoid society.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News