The Folly of Racism

Citizenship Referendum:Politicians played the race card and most workers were fooled

Racism is alive and well in Ireland. Only the very dishonest or the very naive can deny it. We all knew it was bad, we only had to listen to our friends, neighbours and workmates. We only had to look at how generations of Travellers were treated. But the result of the citizenship referendum really opened our eyes to how widespread it is.

The referendum was carried by 4:1 (79.17% to 20.83%). An RTE exit poll of over 3,000 voters taken immediately after voting ended indicated that 36% voted Yes because the country was being "exploited by immigrants" and a further 27% voted Yes because there were "too many immigrants". That's 2 out of 3 Yes voters giving an explicitly racist reason for their vote.

To conclude that all these voters across the country are hardened racists would be silly. The handful of self-proclaimed anti-immigrant campaigners standing in the local elections got a pathetically small vote.

But there is a "soft" racism out there. The Yes vote said that some children are less equal than others - because of where their parents come from. To treat someone worse because of their race is racism. It's that simple.

The referendum arguments got lost and deliberately confused in a mess of jargon and lies: of 'non-national babies' 'flooding' our hospitals; irrelevant EU cases; allegations of 'citizenship tourism' and 'abuse' of 'liberal' Irish citizenship laws. The government didn't have to win these arguments. It was enough to raise them.

And this was nothing new. Over the last ten years the parties in power have been consistantly blaming refugees and asylum seekers for everything. Faced with anger at the terrible state of our health care system or the housing crises the government convienently deflects the blame from themselves - the true culprits - and instead point the finger at the 'hoards' of invading asylum seekers.

Thanks to government lies, most people in Ireland today would be surprised to learn that in fact only 14.7% of those who immigrate to Ireland are asylum seekers1. Instead of allowing asylum seekers to work, and become really integrated into Irish society, the government prefers to isolate and marginalise them.

Sucessive governments' campaigns to scapegoat asylum seekers have resulted in widespread ignorance about immigration. Rumours that immigrants get priority on the housing list and get higher welfare payments are accepted as fact. To some, everyone from Africa or Asia is an asylum-seeker and everything they have must come from social welfare. That they might be on work permits, or student visas, or even be Irish doesn't seem to get a thought. And the government has no interest in correcting this.

In Northern Ireland in recent times, there has been a marked increase in violent racist attacks. It's not coincidental that this happened when politicians and newspaper editors were demonising asylum seekers.

It's all about divide and rule. Rulers keep the majority in their place by dividing and playing us off against each other. We gain absolutely nothing from racism, just a false feeling of superiority to distract us while the rich get richer and the rest of us struggle to build a reasonable life for ourselves and our children.

The important difference is not between white and black (or Protestant and Catholic), but between rulers and ruled. Instead of looking for scapegoats, it would make a lot more sense for working people of all colours to get together, end the rule of the millionaires and make the world a better place for all of us.


1. 2002. The Needs of Asylum Seekers in Cork, Cork: NASC, The Irish Immigrant Support Centre

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This edition is No82 published in September 2004