Ireland learns to accept others


Racism: After centuries of its people emigrating, the now-affluent nation struggles with how to treat immigrants.

March 28, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

DUBLIN, Ireland - When Ninja Mandiangu arrived here with his wife and five children after fleeing from civil war in their native Congo seven years ago, the welcome could not have been warmer.

"Everyone was so friendly, `Welcome to Ireland, how are you?'" Mandiangu recalled. A few years later, the greeting changed.

"They said on the news that the black man is coming," he said at his home in the South Dublin community of Tallaght. "They said, `Get back to your country.' Some people don't like the skin."

Today's Ireland is gaining something it hadn't during centuries as an impoverished island - immigrants. And that's triggering an increase in racism - an emotion that was less pronounced when virtually all residents shared common roots and the country was losing people.

It's an ironic and uncomfortable position for a land whose countrymen faced bigotry when they immigrated to the United States, England and elsewhere.

Colonial Maryland required that voters swear oaths against Catholicism, principally affecting Irish immigrants. Later waves of Irish to the United States were confronted with "No Irish Need Apply" signs in major cities.

"The Irish in a sense have not reacted as well as they should, particularly for a people who have profited from immigration," said Lawrence J. McCaffrey, an author of 11 books on Ireland and Irish-Americans, and history professor emeritus at Loyola University in Chicago. "Next to the Jewish people, the Irish are probably the most migratory people in the world."

To Ireland's credit, it has mounted a major campaign to combat racism and passed anti-discrimination laws, but recent headlines have been disturbing.

In January, a gang with iron clubs fatally beat a 29-year-old Chinese student here in what was described as a hate crime. Police are still investigating the murder, which sparked anti-racism demonstrations in the Irish capital. In another case, two women were sentenced last month to three years in prison for severely beating a black Moroccan woman in Cork while they shouted racial slurs.

Since October, 40 complaints of racial attacks or discrimination have been reported to the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Multiculturalism.

Ireland has long known religious strife. Just months ago in Northern Ireland, police in riot gear escorted children to parochial school past angry mobs in a scene that was compared to Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. But racial hate is a newer and growing malignancy.

The Irish government has responded in recent years with laws against discrimination in housing, education and business. And voices of tolerance are building.

Billboards dot Dublin with the picture of Jason Sherlock, a Gaelic football star who is part Asian, as a caution against prejudice. In the press recently, writers debated whether the state-run television station should quit its daily broadcast of the Angelus, a Catholic prayer, because the country, while still predominantly Catholic, is fast becoming home to others.

"It's like a little bubble that's ready to burst," said Joe McDonagh, a former Irish sports official who chairs the nonprofit National Anti-Racism Awareness Program. "We've been on the periphery of Europe for so long. This is a new animal for us, to welcome people to our shores."

McDonagh presides over a new, nonprofit education campaign, "Know Racism." The "K" and the "w" are shaded on signs to deliver the underlying message. Singer Sinead O'Connor, actor Liam Neeson and Waterford Crystal designer John Rocha are among celebrities who have lent their names and talents to the effort.

The drive began after the Irish government recognized the problem in 1997 and decided it had to come to grips with it. A total of $5 million (in U.S. dollars) has been budgeted for the next three years.

The initiative - more conspicuous than President Bill Clinton's "Conversation about Race" in the United States - is similar to public service campaigns against teen smoking and drunken driving.

Ireland was losing 30,000 residents a year through the economically depressed 1980s. But the mid-1990s brought a surge of technology jobs - and more reasons to remain or move here.

The country's net gain in population last year was 26,000, according to the Central Statistics Office in Cork.

Nearly 300,000 people have immigrated to the Irish Republic since 1995 - about 10 percent of the nation's current total population. Refugees have arrived from more than 100 countries, including Bosnia, Somalia and Vietnam.

In turn, forces that have historically fueled racism around the globe have revealed themselves. Natives began fearing the loss of jobs to foreigners as the "Celtic Tiger" economy turned a poor nation into a land of haves and have-nots.

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