Yes, we have our own problems - but we should still welcome refugees
The Dáil debate and vigil calling for the Government to offer sanctuary to 200 refugee children stranded in Calais following the demolition of the so-called 'Jungle' camp presents a challenge.
So far, Ireland's response to the unprecedented migrant crisis, particularly since the start of the Syrian war, has been modest and slow. Despite agreeing last September to participate in the EU relocation programme of refugees in Greece and Italy to the tune of 4,000, only a few hundred have actually arrived here.
Bureaucracy has been blamed and a failure to agree appropriate sharing of the burden among EU countries has slowed down the whole process to a trickle.
The Jungle camp at Calais was an appalling example of failed politics and diplomacy, particularly between the United Kingdom and France. Thousands of migrants were living in squalor, making desperate and dangerous attempts to enter the UK illegally.
Last week, after years of inaction and a heavy-handed security approach, the French government finally demolished the camp which housed over 8,000 people and up to 1,600 unaccompanied minors. The adults were relocated to centres around France where they could apply for asylum.
A war of words ensued between French and British officials and politicians about the failure of the UK to accept those minors who have family members in the UK, entitling them to family reunification. This would be in line with best practice and international law relating to minors.
It would also give effect to the spirit and letter of the amendment by Labour peer Alf Dubs to the Immigration Act last March, which obliges the UK to give sanctuary to some of the thousands of unaccompanied refugee children travelling through Europe, estimated to be a staggering 88,000.
Mr Dubs is an 84-year-old with strong human rights credentials. He was a child refugee who came from the former Czechoslovakia on one of the kindertransport trains in 1938, fleeing the Nazis. He was six years old and he joined his father, who had earlier escaped to the UK.
He was Labour MP for Battersea South, former chairman of the Refugee Council, and at one stage junior minister at the Northern Ireland Office, where I knew and admired him.
His enlightened amendment in the Lords succeeded in forcing the UK government to show some humanity on the child refugee issue and received warm public support.
But he has been frustrated by the slow progress since May. The Brexit campaign hardened public and political sentiment against refugees and migration generally, so the Calais impasse continued.
Visiting the Calais Jungle and speaking to the children and volunteers in September, he was shocked that no formal arrangements or procedures had been agreed with French officials to identify and accept those children who were eligible and had "every right, legal and moral, to be with their families in the UK".
"It was shameful that they remain stuck in a field, surrounded by strangers, between two of the world's richest countries," he said.
Despite passage of the Dubs Amendment, it is only since the recent demolition of the camp that small numbers of minors, as few as 300, have arrived in the UK. Even these have caused controversy, with claims of inadequate checks about eligibility. There were calls for dental checks to verify the "real age" of the refugees who arrived and some resentment that some were "sturdy young men".
But Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said that several hundred more of the "most vulnerable" will be accepted in the coming weeks.
Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May was still resisting French pressure to agree to take all of them. Four in 10 of the 1,600 children bused out of the remains of the camp claim to have family in the UK. This stand-off between the French authorities and the UK has opened up the suggestion that Ireland would agree to take some of the unaccompanied refugee children, so as to make a helpful intervention in the impasse. Many of the child refugees are still anxious to enter the UK, but some have given up hope after such a long wait and having endured up to a year of fear, loneliness and violence in the camp.
Refugee support groups and some Irish politicians are advocating that Ireland steps up to the plate in this regard by offering asylum to at least 200 unaccompanied children.
These children will undoubtedly have complex needs, greater than the norm. They have been living on their wits for months and years, travelling, hiding, many of them making dozens of dangerous attempts to enter the UK by jumping on trucks. All will have been traumatised and will need specialist care and counselling. So it is not a simple ask given they are unaccompanied.
People fleeing war and persecution have unique needs. Ireland has looked after refugees well in the past, most recently those fleeing the Balkan War in 1999. I was a minister in the Government which received over 1,000 Kosovar refugees fleeing a genocidal war. Thanks to the generosity of various communities around Ireland, and because there was no doubt about their status, they were warmly welcomed. Many remained after the war and became citizens. Others decided to return home after the war with the assistance of a generous repatriation allowance.
Some people will oppose this proposal on the grounds that we have enough hardship closer to home and our first obligation should be to them. After all, figures for homeless families in Dublin passed the 1,000 figure this week. But the truth is we can and should respond humanely to both needs.
In good times and bad, Ireland has sustained solidarity with the poorest in the world by way of our overseas aid programme. We have a distinguished record in humanitarian response and peace-keeping. Our naval personnel have saved thousands of refugees from the Mediterranean and taken them to safety.
It is a natural progression, in my view, to give sanctuary to a relatively small number of children if requested. To their credit, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Children's Minister Katherine Zappone told the Dáil that Ireland would respond proactively and with humanity if required, mindful that the wishes of the children must be respected. Most of the Calais children have their hearts set on the UK as their preferred destination, because they have family members there. The main thing is that Ireland stands ready to help.