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Irish MEPs clash with UKIP over ‘racist’ leaflets

harkinNothing warms the cockles of my soft, liberal, anything-goes heart quite like watching US Republicans make buffoons of themselves in the eyes of the world by labelling any progress towards public options or universality in healthcare provisions as Stalinism by the back door. Their not-entirely-unsuccessful efforts to debase and distort all arguments about state regulation or welfare provisions with cries of “socialism” (perish the thought) or “communism” are a sure sign that the moral and philosophical arguments have been lost and all that is left is name-calling and ill-considered sobriquets. However, those of us who watch the US healthcare debate with both mirth and concern don’t need to look very far to see an Irish equivalent. The Irish Times unthinkingly repeats MEP Marian Harkin’s (left) assertion that the anti-Lisbon leaflets the UK Independence Party intends to send to all Irish homes attacking the Lisbon Treaty is “racist”.

The leaflets in question allege that Lisbon gives the EU full control of immigration and warns that Turkey’s entry to the EU will lead to more mass migration of cheap labour. It has the temerity to portray an image of a turkey with a medallion around its neck with the message: “Free movement for 75 million people” which led to Ms Harkin labelling he leaflet racist, when (at least in my interpretation) is a reference to old adage of turkeys voting for Christmas than a Lenihanesque slur on Anatolians.

It is only a passing remark by a minor politician and it’s important not to read too much into it, but it is symptomatic of an Irish failure to effectively oppose those who believe in draconian immigration controls. Every time immigration arises as an issue in Ireland, the term “racist” is brought up with the same wearisome regularity that Republicans shout “Communist”. Ireland’s self-identified liberals have a serious difficulty in distinguishing between people who for whatever reason advocate strict(ish) immigration controls and people who are bona fide racists. Racists might agree with people opposed to large-scale immigration in the same way that Communists (if indeed there are any stateside) might agree with universal and state-subsidised healthcare, but it doesn’t make them racists. The UKIP are unsavoury, but advocacy of strict (some might say in their case ridiculous) immigration controls does not make them racist. Their arguments are weak enough without recourse to emotive labelling.

The UKIP are not necessarily alone. Most countries in the EU have been reluctant to fully embrace the consequences of European unity as they relate to immigrants from Eastern Europe. Ireland, to its credit, immediately accepted them after the Nice Treaty when other states took advantage of the option to postpone freedom of movement to workers from Eastern European states. While this decision was borne more out of economic self-interest than philanthropy, it reinforces the idea that immigration is for most people a debate about economics, social balance, law and morality. As Conor McMorrow wrote in the Tribune a while back, “Few will admit publicly to voting no for this reason [immigration], but privately many politicians believe concerns among some voters about the huge influx of foreign workers – particularly against the backdrop of a downturn in the economy – is a factor in declining support for the EU in Ireland.” These people aren’t racist – at worst, they are guilty of excessive but understandable self-interest. To label those who disagree with us racist ignores the complexity of the debate and thereby undermines it. Ireland should have a liberal immigration policy, and we should make that argument rather than attempt to shut it down by using the language of racism.

It takes me back to the debates on the 27th Amendment to the Constitution on Irish citizenship of children born to non-national parents at a time when no other nation of the European Union granted citizenship by birth in the same manner as the Republic of Ireland. There was a very serious moral and economic case for extending citizenship to these families but it got lost amidst a welter of cries that its proponents were racists and that the amendment was motivated by xenophobia. The amendment was ultimately approved, by a large majority of almost 80% in favour. I can’t help but feel the margin could have been a lot smaller if people concentrated on debating the issues rather than engage in cheap labeling.

(Photo credit)

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