The fat policeman was out of breath and irate. The Eritreans were just out of his reach. But he kept running. They dodged and ducked. He reached for his tear gas canister. They speeded up and disappeared between the lines of lorries. Behind me, a man was scampering across the roof of a truck while a policewoman screamed at him to get down. A group of migrants, tired of the drama, sat on the grass. "We are men like you. We are not animals," one shouted at the fat cop. A truck driver called me over. "It's madness this. Every bloody day the same thing."
Madness indeed. On the shores of the Mediterranean, Europe is spending millions rescuing refugees and economic migrants. At the other end, riot police are chasing them around the port of Calais. In the time it takes to travel from Sicily to northern France they transition from being objects of compassion to targets of frustration.
Spurred on by media images of misery, the politicians sent the navies of the EU, including our own, to rescue those abandoned by smugglers on the high seas. The traffickers quickly understood that the EU had done them a great service. Now they could tell the desperate people struggling to reach Europe that there was a very good chance they would actually survive the journey. Business has never been better. As for those threats of military action to destroy the traffickers' boats? Another 'policy' knocked out on the back of an envelope and doomed to failure.
I wandered into the so called 'Jungle', the rapidly expanding camp outside Calais, where three thousand people are surviving in plastic shelters and small tents. It looked and smelled the same as the refugee camps of the world's war zones. Except that I was two hours from Paris and not much further from London. Here, there were no bright-eyed and T-shirted aid workers, no UN to ensure clean water and food supplies, no politicians parading their compassion, and precious few journalists, despite the abundant display of human wretchedness. Nearby, the French state and local charities provide a meal a day and washing facilities. But that is the limit of assistance.
The camp smelled of waste and woodsmoke. Trash covered the ground. I passed the burned remnants of shelters destroyed when Eritrean and Sudanese groups fought each other a week ago. An argument had erupted over who could use a specific smuggling route.
A 13-year-old boy called Mohammed told me he had spent four months crossing desert and sea from Eritrea. On the way, he'd seen people die of thirst and hunger and others beaten to death by traffickers. It is impossible to convey the position which Europe, and Britain in particular, occupy in the minds of those joining this great migration. I kept wondering: has nobody told them that there is scant welcome here? Has word not filtered back about the fear and resentment, the dread of a migration which challenges the sense of security of so many in Europe ? The questions are moot. Even if you went to every village in Eritrea or Sudan or Afghanistan preaching chapter and verse about the realities of Fortress Europe, you would be ignored. To those ground down by war and poverty, Europe will always seem the continent of promise.
I sat around an open fire with a group of Eritreans. "If I go back to Eritrea I will be sent to jail," one told me. Another spoke of his desire for education and work. For two years in Calais I have heard these stories.
There is a popular narrative among liberal-minded folk that goes something like this: the West caused the wars from which these people flee, or at least colonialism fostered the mess into which their countries have collapsed. Ergo it is the responsibility of the West to deal with the crisis.
That is an argument that may comfort the polemicists and campaigners.
But how do we deal with the mess we are in right now? There are long-term solutions to do with tackling structural economic injustice, stopping our support for brutal regimes and building foreign policy that has a just vision. But we are not about to deploy forces to try and end the wars in Africa and the Middle East. We have been down the road of regime change with disastrous consequences.
Nor do we have the means or desire to cater for all those who wish to flee to Europe. Just imagine the reaction if the LE Eithne were to turn towards the Straits of Gibraltar and deliver the refugees to Dublin or Cork, and if she were to repeat that journey every month until all those who wished to reach a safe haven had been offered a new home in Ireland. Newspaper columnists are not supposed to admit they lack answers. I should by this point have worked my way towards a logical conclusion. But there is none. I admit failure. I have no idea how to fix this mess. Neither do the politicians. All I would recommend is that we lay off the sanctimony and the certainty, that left and right abandon harsh language and simplistic analyses. We are in a deep hole and desperate for ideas.
My apologies to the people of Borris. I should have been there last weekend for the Festival of Writing and Ideas but medical complications got in the way. I spent the earlier part of the week having a minor operation. The wound was still very sore as the festival loomed. I had to cancel. But next year, if they have me, I promise I will be there. I loathe being incapacitated. Lying staring at the ceiling, I invariably turn to contemplation of past sins. All the regrets of life come floating up from the murk. My grandmother in Cork used to describe such rumination as the 'nadgers'. An excessive case was known as the 'dreaded nadge'. I had a touch of the former while convalescing. I wondered about all the promises I had broken because I'd allowed work to dominate my life. Having ruminated, I decided to get up off my backside, endure the ache of the wound and…work on my book. I threw myself into the lighthearted business of researching the massacre and famine caused by the Munster Plantation. I might even get to finish the book if I can conjure up another illness.