Opinion

Jake O'Kane: The Ireland of cead mile failte is a myth – we need to make it a reality

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

A United Against Racism rally was held in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square this week in protest against a series of racist epidodes in the city. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
A United Against Racism rally was held in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square this week in protest against a series of racist epidodes in the city. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN A United Against Racism rally was held in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square this week in protest against a series of racist epidodes in the city. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

There can be few who haven't heard of the sign once displayed in the window of an English B&B which read: 'No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.' Sadly, the experience of those Irish forced to face such discrimination is now being sullied by homegrown racism.

For most of the 20th century, Ireland remained one of the most homogeneously white nations on earth. Today, thankfully, a black face in Belfast no longer stands out.

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Post-Troubles Northern Ireland is slowing crawling into the 21st century, becoming a multicultural society. While the vast majority welcome this change, a vocal minority see it as a threat.

Proof of how white Northern Ireland once was is demonstrated in a story told to me by the black stand-up comedian, Junior Simpson from London, who played Belfast in the early '90s. Like most comics with a few hours to kill before his show, Junior went for a walk into the city centre only to have an army Land Rover pull up beside him and a soldier bark: "What you doin'? Get inside."

They weren't arresting Junior but rather presumed he was an off-duty soldier who had stupidly wandered into town – back in those days, pretty much the only black people in Belfast were members of the British army. Having explained who he was, and why he was in Belfast, he was advised to go back to his hotel and not leave until it was time to do his show.

The self-serving myth of the Irish being welcoming was dealt a heavy blow last week with horrific scenes of racism outside Dáil Éireann in Dublin. Around 200 anti-immigration protestors surrounded the seat of government and heckled and harassed TDs and their staff. Having erected makeshift gallows on which were displayed the heads of prominent politicians, 13 of them were arrested.

This was not an isolated incident, with anti-social media regularly awash with videos of such racism, including one example filmed outside the GPO in Dublin where a woman, microphone in hand, screamed insane racist conspiracy theories.

In response, new hate speech legislation is being rushed through, bringing Ireland into line with other European countries.

The anti-racism rally was held in response to a series of hate crime incidents in south Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
The anti-racism rally was held in response to a series of hate crime incidents in south Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN The anti-racism rally was held in response to a series of hate crime incidents in south Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

An anti-racism rally was held in Belfast on Tuesday after a growing number of hate crimes on local businesses, the latest being an arson attack on a shop owned by a Syrian businessman.

Director of Amnesty International, Patrick Corrigan, said: "We fear it is only a matter of time before lives are lost." He went on to highlight police inaction saying: "What's even more worrying is that we rarely see prosecutions follow these attacks."

Nor can we wait on politicians to act, given that they're on permanent holiday. Therefore, each one of us has a responsibility to face down the fascists and both welcome and protect our newest citizens.

Ireland has an historic obligation to welcome the world's distressed, hungry and dispossessed as the world once welcomed the Irish. To fully appreciate the hypocrisy of Irish citizens denouncing migration, you need only look to the great famine of 1845-52 when two million Irish emigrated, with emigration remaining constant since that time.

The motivation of those who argue we now pull up the drawbridge against immigrants in similar need can be summed up in one word: 'Fear.' They fear immigrants will take jobs they don't want to do, date their daughters, or take up medical capacity when, in all probability, migrants will help fill our growing health staff shortage.

I recently silenced a man arguing Belfast was being 'overrun' with immigrant-orientated shops by asking if he could name me one major city in the world which didn't have an Irish pub.

I'm not so naive as to believe we can open our borders to everyone, but we could do more.

Although a small country we are one of the richest in the world, with our wealth not measured solely in pounds or euros but also by our generosity and sense of humanity. We have never been found wanting when asked to help at a time of crisis; few countries can match our willingness to donate money and resources when needed.

So, I don't think it is asking too much to offer a home to people displaced by terrible circumstances beyond their control. If we step up to this challenge, our reward will be turning the myth of the welcoming Irish into a reality, undermining the racists by proving that when you strip away culture, colour and creed, there's only one race – the human race.