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The Vacuum Issue 5 spacer Issue 5
Come Foreigners And Bring The Future With You
by Daniel Jewesbury
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It's almost exactly a year since David Trimble described the Republic of Ireland as a 'pathetic, sectarian, monoethnic, monocultural state'. What most people didn't understand (for being misunderstood is one of Dave's greatest problems) was that this remark wasn't intended as a criticism. Coming from the MP for Redneck Central (or 'Upper Bann' as it's pronounced at Westminster) it should actually be read as tinged with envy. Gone forever, and much mourned by Dave, are the days when such a confident, rosy diagnosis could be made of our own wee Northern Ireland; and gone too are the times when the bastard statelet had a monopoly on sectarian or interethnic violence.
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Dave needn't be so pessimistic. The streets of Dublin, Cork and Galway are no longer exclusively filled with white faces (or rather, faces whose owners call them 'white', inasmuch as they think of calling them anything at all). This means that, even after the Sunset for Unionism so beautifully depicted on the front cover of the Good Friday Agreement, the North still has the running on the Republic in terms of sectarianism and monoethnicism. That's a fairly depressing analysis for anyone waiting for an increase in the gene pool.
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The indisputable fact, of course, is that Northern Ireland has not experienced immigration at anything like the levels that either the Republic or the rest of the UK have (although, according to the most recently available figures, there were still five asylum-seekers detained in Maghaberry in September 2002). It's obviously disingenuous for David Trimble to try and pretend that the British experience of 'multiculturalism' is somehow ours simply by dint of shared sovereignty. A cursory glance at the 2001 census figures (available at www.nisra.gov.uk) reveals that over 91% of people living in the North were born here, with another 4.8% born elsewhere in the UK and 2.3% born in the Republic. 0.6% were born in the rest of the EU, and the remaining 1.2% account for the whole of the rest of the world. (South Belfast is the most multicultural part of the North: a whopping 13.2% of the population were not born here!) Figures on ethnicity are equally revealing. Out of 1.68 million people living in the North, 99.15% call themselves White. It's hardly a melting pot.
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For the past year or so I've been working with refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers in Carlow on a public art commission. The project has generated very encouraging responses locally. This is not to suggest that racism and discrimination do not exist there, or that somehow they do not operate to deny people fair access to employment, housing and essential services in Carlow just as anywhere else. To some extent, however, Carlow has had a more positive experience of 'integration' than have other parts of the country; the bigotry seen in other towns and rural areas, or on the streets of Dublin, or in Longford courtrooms is more unusual there. It was suggested to me that this should come as no surprise given the history of radicalism in the south-east generally and Carlow in particular. Certainly the local institutions (schools, the media and the various arms and agencies of the local authorities) have committed themselves to increasing awareness and combating the ignorance that feeds racism. So my project has landed on fertile ground, where people were already willing to address the issues it draws on.
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Even while Belfast doesn't boast particularly sizeable ethnic minority communities, levels of racist violence are high. There have been numerous accounts over the last few years of attacks in the streets and of families being forced from their homes by threats and abuse. No political party has taken any particular interest in the issue. It's a Catch-22: politicians and other representatives won't make plans to deal with any further racist violence, because there are so few voters affected by racist violence. Even though we are in a position to learn from the experiences of both Britain and the Republic as they have, in their own inadequate ways, confronted racism, and to try and formulate some preventative action, we choose to wait until it becomes a more pressing problem. That means waiting until a few more families receive parcels of shit through their letterboxes and petrol bombs through their windows. It means waiting until a few more young men and women are set upon in the streets and beaten unconscious.
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Back in the good old days, Roddy Doyle proclaimed that the Irish were the Blacks of Europe (what did that make the Black people of Ireland?) and Luke Gibbons confidently asserted that racism wasn't a problem in Ireland simply because there were no immigrants to speak of. The Trimble argument is not really so far removed from such blithe assessments. In duplicitously aligning himself with general UK-wide statistics and ignoring the detail of the regional picture in the North, Trimble pretends that we don't have to face up to racism and to take account of cultural difference. Furthermore, that phrase 'cultural difference' doesn't just mean politics dressed up as culture and decorated with invented languages, but real differences between real cultures. The challenge to the stale deadlock between 'traditions' in the North will come only when we have to take account of Other cultures, Other traditions beyond those already encamped.
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This is not a prescription for lazy 'multiculturalism' either. Increasingly, this has come to mean the centrist 'toleration' or 'celebration' of Otherness, of difference, only insofar as it can be reduced to its affects, which is to say marketed and consumed as 'style' (whether in clothing or food or music). When Otherness actually challenges dominant belief systems, then it is constituted as a basic threat to liberal democracy. In Northern Ireland, where the words 'liberal democracy' are already subjected to fairly elastic interpretation, we have the opportunity to take account not just of bilateral differences between the imagined 'two communities', but to construct platforms that are genuinely multi-vocal, and to encourage a bit of productive dissonance. Perhaps Trimble should concentrate on trying to encourage immigrants to come and take part in our experiment, rather than throwing stones at the greenhouse nextdoor.
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Come Foreigners And Bring The Future With You
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