New People to Kick Around and New People to Attack

Sandy Boyer (SB) interviews Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (BDM) via telephone from Coalisland, Co.Tyrone about the treatment of immigrants in Ireland.

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
30 August 2014

SB: And now we're going over to Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, to talk to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Bernadette, nice to have you with us again. 

BDM: Hi, Sandy.

SB: So we probably wouldn't know that there's a huge influx of new immigrants into Northern Ireland except that they've been unmercifully attacked – we've heard of people being driven out of their homes, fire bombs, people beaten up on the streets. Now, at least as it's been reported in the press, it seems to be overwhelmingly in Protestant areas. Why is that and why are these people being attacked?

BDM: Well, it's a complex enough question, Sandy. I think first of all it should be said while these attacks are disgraceful they are a minority of reaction to inward migration. For example in Dungannon, we have the highest percentage of new immigrants in our own area per head of the population than anywhere else in The North. And a very, very high level of active integration and part of that is around the nature of political and social activism in the town that was there before immigration. So people like myself and others working on human rights and equality issues have continued that work in the context of a more diverse population. But the endemic sectarianism that exists in Northern Ireland lends itself very easily to expression as racism against new people to kick around and new people to attack.

Why in the Protestant working class areas more than anywhere else? I think that in itself is complex. There's a bigger battle for paramilitary territory in those areas. And the PSNI and others would admit that a lot of the orchestrated violence against new immigrants is these armed organisations playing on the fears of local Protestant people in the communities who feel disengaged from society.

You know when I was going to America first, it was the first time I ever in my life heard the expression – and it still shocks me when I think of it today – I'd never heard the expression “white trash” - “poor white trash” in my life until I went to America in the late '60s. And because we had a fairly homogeneous population here that was white I had no concept of it here.

But many of these Protestant working class or non-working people with poor educational backgrounds and opportunities are basically today treated and looked on as Northern Ireland's poor white trash.

So that is to say that they ought to be – if you'd like - their skin is the same colour as the government. Their culture's the same as the government. Their loyalty is to the Crown. And yet they feel that - as a result of the peace process and as a result of the growing confidence of the Catholic population, as the growing confidence the Nationalist population - that they are kind of leaderless and rudderless. And then from their perspective, they see a whole new change in the demography and other people coming into the country and also by-passing them. That doesn't justify their behaviour. It doesn't excuse their behaviour. But it explains why in many ways they are vulnerable to tolerating the behaviour of the armed Loyalists.

And when you hear – you know - much more frightening for us - is the quiet, endemic racism of the state. The racism that will allow the police who are investigating these incidents to write-off clear evidence of racist violence as anti-social behaviour to try to explain away a racially motivated assault on a person as “aggravated burglary”.

And when you had the First, the highest ... the holder of the highest office in Northern Ireland, who is (First Minister of Northern Ireland) Peter Robinson, refer to people of the Muslim faith as people who couldn't be trusted but he would trust them to go to the shop! Not much further than that. But he said publicly he would trust Muslims to go to the shop and bring back the right change.

How could you not expect at the very underbelly of society – if that's what you're getting at the top, in racism -how would you not expect that at the very bottom to be getting the kind of racist violence that was displayed as sectarian and anti-Catholic attacks maybe twenty-forty years ago?

SB: But Bernadette, does all this mean that there's no racism in the Nationalist/Catholic population?

BDM: No. There's plenty of racism. There's plenty of racism in the Catholic areas as well – it manifests itself very differently. There are fewer attacks – but that's not to say that they don't exist – they're not orchestrated so there'll be the individual insulting of people, there'll be the individual writing of graffiti on people's windows - it's not by any means the whole story. But I don't believe that there's a predisposition in the Protestant areas to racism that does not exist in the Nationalist areas or the Catholic areas - I don't see that.

I see that there isn't a ready-made vehicle for that most vulgar of racism – which is at the bottom of society - that instant, verbal, physical attack on an individual person. And I don't think that that's any less in one community as the other. The Catholic community I think has a greater resilience to it – let's put it that way - that the anti-racist forces within the Catholic or Nationalist communities are also more mobile. And so when you see anti-racist networks developing they will tend to be the people who have been involved in anti-sectarian work, they'll be people who have been involved in human rights/civil rights work and predominantly that of course would have been in the Nationalist areas. So the opportunity to have the experience and the skills and the organising capacity and the ability to organise against racism at a community level is stronger in the Catholic communities because of it's history. It has nothing to do with them being Catholics or Nationalists.

SB: Yes, needless to say. But Bernadette, let's talk for a minute about these new immigrants themselves. Who are they? Where do they come from?

BDM: Well, I do a lot of work in Dungannon that's in part of the mainstay of STEP, the organisation I work in, is working with new immigrants and helping them to get settled in and to know the lay of the land and get the kids into school and get registered for votes and lots of that stuff.

So the new immigrants are - essentially are - explained by Northern Ireland catching up with the rest of Europe at the end of the period of conflict – which meant nobody was coming here. So we're beginning to play catch-up with the rest of Europe. So lots of other Europeans - now that it's peaceful and that there's opportunities for work – a lot of other Europeans are coming. Lots of Lithuanians - Polish. Some of the people just from outside Europe who are the close neighbours there then begin to come as well. We would have from the south – not a lot - but southern Italians – people coming from slightly poorer economies within Europe than our own and so we would have had people from northern Portugal - people from southern Italy.

Then, because of European colonisation and the way it works - the Portuguese colonies work quite different than the British colonies - so Portuguese-Africans have entitlement to residency in Portugal. So we would have a lot of people coming in within the European legislation through their entitlement to be here because of their links with Portugal – and these would be people from Cape Verde, people from Mozambique, some people from Macao, people from Guinea-Bissau – so we would have Portuguese-Africans or Afro-Portuguese.

We would have - because of our industries - people coming in from South America to bring skills – to bring skills to the agri-food beef industry. Moy Park in Dungannon is now of course a Brazilian company having started as a small, Dungannon company – it's a Brazilian company who've lots of people coming in teaching the local people skills in the meat industry. And lots of people coming in from the Philippines and from Asia to shore up our health service - so lots of nurses and doctors coming in from there.

Still, we have a balanced population because people are leaving here. We're still populating the USA – lots of people from Northern Ireland going to the USA – lots of people from Northern Ireland going to Australia.

So the face of Northern Ireland is changing - the dynamic of it – the place in which I work, Sandy – we have seven different languages spoken in my workplace … (crosstalk) … when people come into us to work for help we can speak to them – and there would be somebody there to help them who can speak in Lithuanian or Polish or Tetun - we have a sizable East Timoran population - and all of these people, all of the people coming in are holding the country up.

They're coming in. They're providing skills. They're taking up work that nobody here either knows how to do or wants to do. They're keeping our schools open. They're keeping our hospitals running. And there's not half enough of them coming. If you know anybody who wants to head to Northern Ireland tell them: We're open!

SB: Bernadette, it strikes me that you've come a long way from Wolfe Tone's Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. That does not really describe Ireland anymore.

BDM: No. Absolutely not. I think that people really have got to look - and I keep saying there's only two analyses that as things change you can see. There's only a class analysis and a human rights analysis because people will always be human beings – the particular groupings to which they belong may change but the country will always be populated by human beings who have rights to be protected and have entitlements. And the country will always be populated by two kinds of people: those who work for a living and those who profits from other people's work.

SB: And Bernadette, before we let you go: There's a caricature that you hear – and you hear it here as well – immigrants are only there to collect the dole – or welfare – and we hear that as well. Is there any truth to that?

BDM: No. All of the evidence and all of the statistics shows – for example – just the new statistics out yesterday show that broadly across the UK that twenty-five billion pounds of surplus income was generated solely by immigrants that wouldn't be there if they weren't working here. That's net profit.

Immigration to the whole of the UK produced a net profit for the country of twenty-five billion pounds. Because the immigrants coming into the country take up less of the benefits – they are actually entitled to less of the benefits - their lives are more precarious but they work harder – they pay tax. Up until very recently anybody coming into the country had to pay tax for an entire year without any entitlement to benefits if they needed them - and that tax year that they paid didn't count for any other year. They literally were paying taxes to keep people from Northern Ireland who weren't working in benefits.

They pay top-notch for the rents – they're exploited in housing – so they're paying high rents for poor property. They're working longer hours at lower rates. The new population is holding the country up and they're bringing – as all immigrants do – they're bringing a new energy – they're bringing a new determination – they're bringing a work ethic to Northern Ireland.

And they're bringing optimism! And they change the conversation – the biggest benefit they bring to this place, Sandy, is that new immigrants change the conversation because you can't any longer talk about Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters – Unionists and Nationalists - green and orange – there's just so many other colours here.

SB: Alright, Bernadette, before we let you go: We talked in the beginning about the racism. How do you move beyond that? How do you address that? Change that?

BDM: I think you have to take it on. You have to take it on at every level it is. That doesn't mean people have to put themselves in harm's way. But we have a shared – you know we do a lot of partnership work with the local council – we find ourselves sometimes working actually with the PSNI - which is quite interesting. We're working on the grounds with the local neighbourhoods. But we have a shared position in this town that: we may not be able to stop racist incidents from happening but we can guarantee that they will not happen without being reported, without being recorded, without being challenged and without us holding the people responsible for it to account.That's just what have to keep doing 'til racist behaviour no longer pays.

SB: And it sounds very much like what we have to do here.

BDM: Yes, the same. And again, Sandy, what do we do? We look to ... Much of the things that I find myself doing I find myself remembering: I know I saw this happen. This is what people ... I saw this in America ... and you draw in – as we did before - good practice and good experience from wherever we find it.

SB: Bernadette, thank you very much. It's always a pleasure.

BDM: Good to talk to you again.

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