Wednesday 26 October 2016

It's okay to fear change, but Ireland will be fine

There's no point in demonising Irish people who worry about the changing texture of the country, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Our own history leads to an understanding of oppressed peoples...
Our own history leads to an understanding of oppressed peoples...

When they breeze onto the pitch like some Namibian Gods

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the local girls wet themselves.

They say in a hurry, o-ma-god, o-ma-god!

Not good for your sons mother

Now the Namibian gods and the Bally Bane Taliban

are bringing the local yokels

to their menacing senses

and scoring more goals than Cú Chúllainn.

Ireland is changing mother

tell yourself, tell your sons.

From Ireland is changing Mother by Rita Ann Higgins

WE Irish have had to ask ourselves some hard questions these last few weeks, haven't we? We have had to challenge deeply held racial stereotypes. Mostly our stereotype of ourselves. The Irish are friendly and we give a great welcome to everyone don't we? And we are a compassionate people, a humane people. Shure we're not that long off our knees ourselves, barely a generation away from being the most oppressed people ever, so we understand oppressed peoples. We never had an empire, so we don't have that baggage either. And we are world leaders in tolerance, as evidenced by our same-sex-marriage referendum.

So we are uneasy at the thought that any of us might have concerns or fears about taking in thousands of refugees from the Middle East. But many of us do.

And not just the working classes or the welfare classes.

There seems to be a generally accepted notion in this country that the working classes and the welfare classes are a little bit racist. After all, the narrative goes, they are the ones who will be competing with these new people for scarce resources.

They are the ones who will have to live cheek by jowl with the Syrians. It's all very well to have the chattering classes espousing all this high-minded rhetoric about opening our hearts, people say, but the chattering classes won't be affected by all this. So the chattering classes assume that the working classes are not as enlightened as they are.

To which you might say that the working and welfare classes are far more likely to integrate and marry and have babies with the migrants than the chattering classes are. Some people may espouse views that make middle-class liberals uncomfortable, but the truth is they will be far more likely to open their hearts in a real, day-to-day way than well-meaning Foxrock Fannies and Montenotte Marys with their bags of old clothes.

When these well-meaning people want to express the fears they have in an acceptable way, they say things like "I'm not a racist, but we have our own homeless here and our own problems and we haven't the money or the resources to deal with that. So how can we be expected to take in these people and sort them out?"

It's not racist apparently, it's just patriotism, towards our own huddled masses. Charity begins at home and all that.

But really, for many people the fears run deeper than that. Four thousand refugees are not going to beggar the country. The real fear is something else. It is a fear of a changing Ireland. And it is a fear that cannot be expressed.

Because everywhere, people are being browbeaten if they express any small concern. There is only one narrative now. The Irish are a welcoming, compassionate people, we were ahead of our politicians on this. They are just catching up now. We want to open our houses. We want to give them our ghost estates. We should even give them hammers to fix them up. And no one dare be afraid or ask questions.

There is a sense in which Ireland is an extremely globalised country. We are an open economy that has always depended on the kindness of strangers, and the economic success of the great powers.

In recent years, we have welcomed all sorts of people to places like Silicon Docks in Dublin. The migrants who have come there to work in the big tech companies have totally changed the texture of that area, of the bars and restaurants of Grand Canal Dock and Bath Avenue. And that kind of changing of texture has been welcomed. Because these are people who we see as bringing success and jobs, so it eases the change.

And somehow we view them as making the place more cosmopolitan. And, to be honest, there aren't that many black faces there, and their English tends to be good. They are like us. Maybe a better version of us.

The texture has changed in towns all over the country too. The local lads are starting to marry the Poles; the Polski Sklep is a fixture in every town. The kids all grow up together. And everybody likes to say that it's no wonder we get on with the Poles and the Lits and the Lats, because they are so very like us. So the texture has changed, but not too much.

And overall, the place is still familiar to us. It still feels like the country we grew up in, still reassuringly homogenous. A lot of us still don't have a black friend. Many of us work only with Europeans. There are nods everywhere to diversity. But mainly, the norm in Ireland is Irish. Much more so than in other countries.

We have a past in common with most people we meet. The texture of their past and ours is the same. Things like Tayto crisps and Bosco and Peig and all the rituals and accoutrements of growing up in Ireland are like an unspoken glue that binds us all together. When we go to the UK or the US, they seem like very different places, where there are what older people would regard as foreigners everywhere.

For years, the unspoken agreement here was that we had no empire so no chickens came home to roost. We were born on this rock, we grew here together in our homogeneity and if we didn't leave for England or America or Oz, we perished together on this rock and we were buried surrounded by those who had known us a long time; people like us.

And of course, after years of that homogeneity, it scares some people that the country they die in may be unrecognisable from the one they were born in. And there is no point in hectoring or silencing them over this. And given time, they will come to accept it and not be afraid. Just as they came to accept that the black babies are no longer just in Africa and on the cover of the Trocaire box, that the black baby is now the parish priest.

And the grandson now has black babies going to school with him. And he plays hurling with some of them. And the nephew married a lovely girl from Lithuania. And no one seems to have a phone in the house any more but we talk to the daughter in Dubai on the Skype, having been afraid of all this technology. And in the end they realise that all this textural change has been a good thing. And it's been healthy for this homogenous rock, where we used to export or lock away anyone different, from gay people to the disabled to pregnant single women.

It is easy for many of us to open our hearts - easier still if we are secure in the knowledge that there will be no Syrians living in our area or competing with us for a job. But we should not condemn people, who are decent people, just because they yearn for a past that is slipping away.

And there's no point in pretending it will all be easy either. Despite the best made plans, there will be tension. It won't all be seamless. But we just need to let those who are afraid know it will be okay. And they are not bad people for fearing change. We have had to ask ourselves some hard questions these past few weeks, and in the main, the answers have been heartening. And we will bring along the others with us. Because Ireland is changing, mother. But it will all be OK in the end.

Sunday Independent

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