Sunday 16 June 2019

Philip Ryan: 'New Irish forced to fight their way on to the ballot'

Parties lecture about diversity but make little effort to embrace minority candidates

BOX SEAT: Yemi Adenuga, from Nigeria, is running for Fine Gael in Navan
BOX SEAT: Yemi Adenuga, from Nigeria, is running for Fine Gael in Navan
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Leinster House is easily one of the least diverse working environments in the entire country. The corridors of power are stuffed to the brim with white Irish people rubbing their chins while making thoughtful comments about the diversity.

With the exception of our half-Indian Taoiseach, the Dail and Seanad chambers are awash with white Irish politicians debating equality, the plight of refugees and the conditions of direct provision centres. The press gallery is not much better, so hands up there.

In fact, the most diversity to be found in Leinster House is among the hard-working service staff who feed and water the country's politicians.

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Women and members of the LGBT community are represented in the Oireachtas, albeit not to a great extent.

However, there are no TDs or senators from minority ethnic backgrounds and there are none selected to run for the main political parties in the next general election.

Local authorities are similarly lacking in diversity. There are just three non-Irish- born sitting councillors. They are the Labour Party's Elena Secas, who is originally from Moldova, Sinn Fein's Edmond Lukusa, who is Congolese, and People Before Profit councillor Madeleine Johansson, who is from Sweden. That's the extent of it. Secas and Johansson are running this time but Lukusa is not running for family reasons.

The Sinn Fein man told the Sunday Independent he enjoyed his time working on the council and felt he was treated equally by the other elected members. In other words, he did not leave the system disillusioned and hopes to one day return to politics.

In every other aspect of daily life, especially for those of us living in urban areas, we interact with and meet non-Irish people. They are driving our buses, serving in our restaurants, working in our offices, operating in our hospitals, and teaching in our schools. More and more we are also cheering them on during GAA or soccer matches. But they are not legislating in our parliament or, for the most part, working in our local authorities.

There are more than 535,000 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland, according to last census. So more than one in 10 (11.6pc) people living in this country are non-Irish. That's quite a sizeable chunk of the population by anybody's estimation.

It's easy to pontificate about equality and weigh in with worthy comments on social media about the latest identity politics storm. Politicians, mostly those on the left, love to wag the digital finger at us all about diversity, equality and the rights of the disadvantaged group de jour. In the Dail, Opposition TDs and senators constantly lecture the Government about their immigration policies and the conditions faced by those who are allowed settle in Ireland after years of scrutiny under asylum-seeker system.

You might also remember Leo Varadkar's 'republic of opportunity' slogan during his campaign to muscle Enda Kenny out of the Fine Gael leadership. I'm fairly sure the republic the Taoiseach was proposing was not one ruled by white Irish men and women on behalf of those excluded from the political system.

Before totally dismissing the Taoiseach's efforts to cultivate a more inclusive Irish society, it should be said that Fine Gael is fielding more non-Irish candidates in the local elections than any of the other parties.

Eight of 404 candidates running for Fine Gael are of minority heritage or new Irish. This compares to five out of 414 candidates in Fianna Fail. Surprisingly, none of Sinn Fein's 233 candidates have a non-Irish background, despite it claiming to be a party which represents marginal communities. However, it serves to highlight the lack of any real change under Mary Lou McDonald's stewardship.

You would also think after losing 37 public representatives over a two-year period, which mostly involved councillors leaving amid allegations of bullying, the party would try change things up a bit. But no, McDonald is keeping it Irish.

Four of the Green Party's 79 candidates have moved to Ireland, coming from France, Ukraine, Uganda and the UK. Two others were born here to parents who moved here.

Four of the Labour Party's 111 candidates are new Irish, while People Before Profit has three new Irish candidates.

In the Taoiseach's constituency of Dublin West, there are two candidates who are originally from India, Jagannadha Reddy Muttumula in the Ongar local election area and Punam Rane in the Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart ward.

Elsewhere in Dublin, Okezie Emmanuel Emuaga from Nigeria is running in Balbriggan, Obinna Ekoba in Ballyfermot-Drimnagh, Baby Pereppadan from India in Tallaght and Kazi Ahmed from Bangladesh in Glencullen-Sandyford.

Outside Dublin, Fine Gael is running Yemi Adenuga from Nigeria in Navan, Co Meath (whom you may recognise from her appearances on the Irish version of Goggle Box) and Chantel Kangowa in Arklow, Co Wicklow.

None of these candidates has been added to tickets - they all went before Fine Gael selection conventions and were selected to represent the party in the forthcoming election. Some went before their branches uncontested but none was parachuted in. They all fought for their right to compete.

Jagannadha Reddy Muttumula's path to candidacy was particularly interesting. Ahead of the 2014 local elections, sitting Fine Gael councillor Kieran Dennison cultivated the Indian vote in his West Dublin electoral area and it propelled him into a second term in Fingal County Council.

However, in recent times, the Indian communities of Ongar, Mulhuddart and Blanchardstown decided they would like to represent themselves on the council. Step forward Mr Muttumula, who went on to beat the long-serving councillor for a place on the ticket at a Fine Gael selection convention. Dennison was subsequently added.

However, it shows the local Indian community, undoubtedly inspired by the rise of Leo Varadkar, have mobilised in the western regions of the capital. Whether it results in a seat on the council for the Indian candidates remains to be seen.

Fianna Fail is running Uruemu Adejinmi, who is of Nigerian origin, in Longford and Abul Kalam Azad Talukder from Bangladesh in Limerick. In Dublin, Amma Ali, who is Pakistani, is running in the south-west of the inner city and his fellow countryman, Imran Khurshid is running in the north inner city, while Nigerian JK Onwemereh is contesting in Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart.

Again, all of the above candidates made it through selection conventions to earn their right to run for Fianna Fail.

Ireland is unusual in that every resident in the country can vote in local elections - it doesn't matter where you were born or why you are here. This includes migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan is introducing a system which would reward parties with funding to hire an equality officer if they run a certain proportion of female and/or minority candidates. Fine Gael also has an internal party committee focused on integrating migrants into politics.

At present, it is the new Irish themselves who are fighting to create their own place in the political system with minimum support from the main parties.

Quotas and incentives may not be necessary if other communities organise in the same way the above mentioned candidates have for this election. The Irish successfully infiltrated American politics and now we should embrace the new Irish in our elections.

Sunday Independent

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