Bertie must confont Noel O'Flynn's full-frontal defiance

Alan Ruddock

Political parties must purge racism from their ranks, says Alan Ruddock

BERTIE Ahern got tough last week. The Taoiseach, usually a man to side-step confrontation with alacrity, told the Fianna Fail parliamentary party that he had had enough of Noel O'Flynn, the Cork TD who decided to play the race card early and often.

According to one TD, quoted anonymously in the Irish Times: "Bertie was very strong on this, not hedging his bets like he normally does. He said Noel O'Flynn was defying the party leader and he would be off the field if he continued."

If Mr O'Flynn is running scared of his party leader, he wasn't showing it last week. He did not bother attending the parliamentary party meeting, even though Mr Ahern had specifically asked him to, and while his colleagues listened to the Taoiseach get tough, Mr O'Flynn went on Cork radio to develop his theme that many asylum seekers are spongers and criminals. Mr O'Flynn was full-frontal: he could not have insulted his party leader more directly, or indicated his defiance more openly.

Having spoken tough and presumably indicated that he was happy to see such toughness leaked to the press Mr Ahern must now act tough. Mr O'Flynn should be kicked out of the Fianna Fail party without delay. If he wants to stand in the next election as a disgruntled independent with a nasty sideline on racism, so be it, but Fianna Fail should make it clear that it will not tolerate people like Mr O'Flynn in its ranks.

His offence is real, and dangerous. Racism will be an issue in this general election, and there will be a number of candidates who will seek to exploit people's ignorance and fears. In a democratic society, that is their right so long as they do not fall foul of the law on incitement. But it is incumbent on the political parties to purge such cynical, opportunistic racism from their ranks.

Mr O'Flynn talks of spongers, freeloaders and people "screwing the system". He believes that Ireland should shut its doors on immigrants, many of whom are "thumbing their noses at Irish hospitality".

He is entitled to those views, and to debate Ireland's poor track record on managing its immigration policy with anyone who wants to listen. Where he oversteps the mark is with his sweeping generalisations that seek to demonise and criminalise a group of people who are already facing an increasingly hostile reception in this country. And by doing so in such intemperate language, he makes it less, rather than more, likely that there will be an informed and considered debate on our policy towards asylum seekers in this election.

Already there is talk of all political parties signing up to a non-racism pledge: something that sounds all right on paper, but which inevitably stymies proper debate. There are some simple realities: Ireland cannot turn back the clock and become a mono-cultural society; we need immigration, and will continue to need it; and we need to address the glaring flaws in our immigration policies.

Ireland can be a better place because of immigration, but the longer asylum seekers have to wait to hear their fate, the longer they are prevented from working and contributing to Irish society, the more they will grow resentful and be resented.

It is deliberately disingenuous of Mr O'Flynn and his ilk to accuse asylum seekers of sponging when the system allows them to do nothing else. He might as well berate the unemployed of Cork for their laziness, or pensioners for taking their pensions.

Mr O'Flynn's attitude, both to his party leader and to asylum seekers, smacks of a man desperate to scrabble together enough votes, from whatever quarter, to squeeze back into the Dail. Nothing new there, then.

Given the tight mathematics that will apply after the election, it is understandable if Mr Ahern is reluctant to risk a seat, and what could be a critical vote. Understandable, but intolerable.

If Mr O'Flynn is not excised from the party, others like him will spread their poison at local level, hiding their opportunistic racism behind weasel phrases. They will claim they are merely reflecting the concerns of their constituents, when in reality they will be feeding base fears and prejudices for their own gain.

For once, Mr Ahern will have to both talk tough and act tough, because if he does nothing now, his weakness will backfire on him two-fold: not only will he be seen as a man soft on racism in his own ranks, but as a leader who has gone soft on discipline. The result will be an election campaign marked by racism and a concurrent failure to debate the issues surrounding asylum seekers with any honesty for fear of being branded racist. The distinction must be made, but if Mr O'Flynn remains within the party, that distinction is blurred.

He must go, and now.