Senator Rónán Mullen

Welcome immigrants – but don’t shut down the debate

By Senator Rónán Mullen

For a long time, an Irish and Christian tradition of welcome informed our personal and public attitudes. There was majority goodwill towards the stranger at home and abroad, helped by the fact that many of our own people emigrated and were outsiders in the countries they went to. We were proud too of the work of our missionaries and NGOs abroad, not just in spreading the Christian faith but in ‘building the kingdom’ through humanitarian relief, education, healthcare and other development work.

But I wondered when I saw in the Sunday Independent last week that 56% of people think that the country has taken in too many refugees, as opposed to 30% who think not, if things have changed forever. And whether this shift in public attitudes is connected with a decline in believing Christianity.

Maybe this poll shows that the new, more secular Ireland which many of our political and cultural leaders have pushed for so hard is actually a harsher place as a result of social transformation. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Says who?

Some may disagree. After all, among those least attracted by institutional religion are many who are strongly pro-immigration. But will this last? Outside of a war or some similar national emergency, it takes a lot to motivate people to do good and beautiful things for inconvenient strangers. “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart,” Yeats says. Don’t we need a strong culture to get the best out of ourselves? And for a culture don’t we need a ‘cult’ – some unifying set of beliefs that helps us rise above our individual fears and ambitions and factor others into our plans? That is what Christian culture, at its best, did for this country.

Let’s focus on the positive. Many of us are still open to the stranger. We have 74,000 refugees and international protection applicants being catered for in State-funded accommodation, including 49,227 Ukrainians and 23,382 asylum seekers. We can take more if we plan for it.

But one thing the State and the media must do is level with people. No manipulation of public opinion. Expressions of disquiet, worry or concern are not of themselves proof of racism or of violent intent. That is why, in the Seanad, I called on The Irish Times to explain itself over its report that its journalist, Kitty Holland, ‘witnessed’ immigrants being set on, attacked and brutalised. Such a serious claim should have been backed up by evidence, and it hasn’t been so far. If mainstream media, accidentally or otherwise, exaggerate stories at a time of crisis then we can’t know who to trust. And unscrupulous people on social media will get a wider audience for dishonest and fake reports like we saw on RTE’s Prime Time last week.

Truth matters. And facts, even inconvenient ones, must be given oxygen.

We are currently failing to develop our housing and health services to cater for the needs of everyone on the island. Realistic manageable responses to these crises are not yet on the table.

People breaking international law and international agreements (around 5,000 at least in the past year, it is reported) have been allowed to clog up our refugee and asylum system.

Significant numbers of young migrant children vanish from Tusla care each year, and the evidence points to existing high levels of international sex trafficking of minors.

Unsuitable solutions like putting large numbers of unemployed males into close knit communities without real consultation are an indictment of our bureaucracy.

There are people, not just on the political left, but in government, in NGOs and in our bureaucracy who don’t believe in national borders and who will hide this belief behind deliberate misinterpretations of our international obligations.

All of the above are points relevant to the immigration debate and need to be heard and debated. None of them justify meanness towards immigrants. I believe in generous but structured, structured but generous, immigration policy. Why? Because there are higher moral principles that should make sense to us all. All human lives, born and unborn, are precious, regardless of difference. Charity begins at home, yes, but in any Christian understanding of society (and a ‘Christian’ understanding is the best thing going, right now), this must extend very quickly to the ‘other’. We should be wary of racism, which has been and will always be among us, and which can be easily stoked.

Some want to blame migrants for all our woes. They are wrong. But such reactions are all too common, particularly in a culture losing sight of higher values like love of neighbour. If our Government fails come up with meaningful responses to problems like housing and healthcare crises, then those words from the Trocaire advertisement may well be inverted and ‘fear will conquer love’. We will not succeed in welcoming the stranger, as all Irish people of goodwill should want.

Published in Connacht Tribune, Friday, February 17, 2023