Twenty years a-changing – Ireland has gone from boom to bust in less than a generation. Our leaders have the gall to tell us it’s because we all ‘partied’ through the Celtic Tiger era. I suppose the patriarchal powers deem juggling work and children a right old rave… Reality, however, is more sobering. Most people never revelled with the bons vivants. Yet we’re still paying dearly for their extravagance. Though, apparently, this small country is in recovery mode. We’re courting multinationals again – the cranes are back on the skyline. Progress, some would say.
It depends on what you value, how you rate a nation’s assets. Often we don’t notice the true wealth we’ve accrued over the last two decades. It’s visible on our streets, in schools, workplaces, shops, on transport systems. A worldwide range of faces, the many languages and cultures that now enrich our land. But do we appreciate this priceless treasure? Sadly, not enough. Racism, both overt and institutional, blemishes a place that prides itself as the home of ‘céad míle fáilte’. We boast of the warm welcome we offer tourists. However, at the same time, Ireland exploits migrant workers and treats victims of persecution to the inhumanity of ‘direct provision’.
According to the prevailing narrative, we’re living in a ‘pluralistic’ society. Though, sometimes, it seems our notion of diversity is limited. Is it merely the substitution of one, sanctimonious, indigenous elite for a similar, if less ‘God-deluded’, clique? For when it comes to responding to cultural difference, interest appears to wane. Especially within official circles. Beyond occasional tokenism, there’s little commitment to fostering integration as a dynamic, immigrant/native joint production. Yet this kind of process – based on co-operation and equality – could help to create a vibrant Ireland.
Instead, we have expert consultations. Reports are commissioned but few positive shifts in policy emerge. Speaking for the marginalised has become the stuff prestigious careers are made on. Ministers stand over injustice as, on a daily basis, their procrastination allows the state to violate the rights of those in search of refuge. Intermittent platitudes are issued. But when asylum seekers dare to protest against the conditions they endure, who bothers to listen?
In the media, in the Oireachtas, where are our culturally diverse voices? As a people, are we as tolerant as we claim to be? Or is it safer for immigrants to assimilate and keep their mouths shut? Recently, for example, when Muslims expressed concerns about portrayals they found offensive, public reaction was largely hostile. But in today’s world, more than ever, we need dialogue. Views must be shared, challenges overcome. Interculturalism can’t be just a bland appropriation of ‘ethnic’ commodities, while expecting those classifiable as other than ‘white Irish’ to blend silently into the population.
We brighten our national festival with a bit of global pizzazz. Colourful floats and displays represent our ‘new communities’. But what comes after the parade? For me, St. Patrick’s Day is a time to remember. The anniversary of my first date with a lad who hailed from bombed-out Sarajevo. Starting from a refugee centre in Dublin, the journey we’ve taken since 1995 has brought both pain and joy. Above all, though, it’s blessed us with three Bosnian-Irish daughters. And, like thousands of kids growing up in Ireland, their heritage is deeply infused with elsewhere. Minarets and church spires mingle as, in their memories, Balkan sunshine breaks through Atlantic rain and the steep mountains of Bosnia sweep down to the Irish Sea.
The diverse identities of children from immigrant backgrounds could hugely benefit Ireland. Enabling these girls and boys to maintain and develop their home languages could enhance this country’s pool of linguistic resources. Recognising and respecting their experiences and beliefs could also nurture mutual understanding. In this regard, intercultural education is essential. It’s vital in the fight against racism. And, as a catalyst for social harmony, it deserves prioritisation and investment. That is, if we’re serious about cherishing all who belong to this nation. So that we can proudly say – each in our own unique way – we are ‘of Ireland’.