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Racist referendum result sends out a clear message: No more ‘cead mile failte.’

Joe Craig

21st June 2004

If your Irish come into the parlour
There’s a welcome there for you
If your name is Timothy or Pat
There's welcome here in Ireland
As long as you’re not black

The referendum restricting Irish citizenship to those children whose parents were already Irish, British or who had been legally resident in Ireland for three of the previous four years was passed overwhelmingly by a decisive majority of 79.2 per cent to 20.8per cent.

The change was initially motivated by the claim by Justice minister Michael McDowell that foreign, that is black, women were putting significant strain on the Irish State’s maternity hospitals through arriving late into the country in order to give birth and claim Irish citizenship for their children.  The ‘integrity’ of the citizenship laws had to be upheld and this ‘loophole’ closed. It was claimed these women were ‘citizenship tourists’ who were unfairly gaining rights to live within other countries of the EU - since the Irish Supreme Court allowed the expulsion of the parents they were no longer allowed to remain in the Irish State.  They were thus gaining citizenship while having little or no commitment or loyalty to the Irish State.

No reliable figures were ever presented on the extent of this ‘abuse’ but whatever numbers were quoted made clear the phenomenon was insignificant.  The ‘integrity’ of the law had not previously been questioned except by acknowledged extremists and the change to the constitution and proposed legislation did not propose to take citizenship rights off those Irish-Americans who had a grandparent from the emerald isle but who had never, and given American desires and opportunities never would, set foot on Irish soil.  Their rights were not to be called into question despite their profession of allegiance to another state.

The arguments for the change involving foreigners’ claims on resources and Irish ‘integrity’ were thus unsubstantiated, incoherent and racist to the core.  They received widespread endorsement.  In all areas of the country the change won substantial support.  Its staging has been held to have encouraged a higher turn-out in the local and European elections held the same day.  There can therefore be no excuses for the defeat because of the low turn out, which was almost 60 per cent.  In only three areas did opposition to the change exceed 25 per cent – in Donegal (25.3%), DunLaoghaire/Rathdown (29.1%) and Sligo (26.6%).  In the Dublin region the yes vote was 78.1 per cent while in Ulster it was 77.2 per cent.  Urban or rural – all areas heavily backed the constitutional amendment.

When the proposal to hold the referendum was first announced it was widely characterised as racist and those opposed to it denounced it as such.  If it wasn’t why oppose it?  Some opponents however recoiled at such a characterisation fearing it would be wrong to describe all those who would support the racist proposal as racist.  Behind such views may have laid well-founded fears of the extent of racist views in the country.

That racist views motivated much of the yes vote was made clear by views expressed by voters in an RTE exit poll on the day of the vote.  Opposition to immigrants was the main motivation for supporters of the amendment.  The ‘Irish Times’ columnist John Waters who opposed the amendment and forecast its decisive defeat reported a comment to him by a member of the great Irish public who responded to the arguments and claims Waters had made in his newspaper column.: ‘You’re missing the point.  This is about keeping the niggers out.’ 

Questions and Answers

Two questions must now be asked.  Why was the vote carried and what does it represent?

Before the vote Socialist Democracy said in its statement that we would ‘not be surprised if large numbers of workers vote yes… Irish workers have endured years of racist propaganda and this has led to a pervasive racist sentiment’

In our statement we made it clear that the primary target of this referendum proposal was the Irish working class – both native and immigrant.  The division of the working class through racism and xenophobia weakens the whole class and strengthens the State and employers.  Attacks on the rights of asylum seekers and immigrant workers weaken the protection of all workers not just by attacking the most vulnerable but by undermining the grounds for defending native workers rights and conditions.

Attacks on immigrants exposes them to increased exploitation which can be used as a battering ram against the conditions of native workers.  The old trade union cry – an injury to one is an injury to all – expresses this truth.  And this brings us nicely to the trade union movement, the largest organisation of Irish workers.  What was it doing while this racist attack on the Irish working class was taking place?

It would be wrong to say it did nothing (because it had not campaigned against the referendum.)  While the governing parties were campaigning to enshrine racism into the constitution the trade unions were negotiating a new social partnership deal with the government.  Partners with racists – by their friends shall ye know them.

As we explained in our statement, the Irish working class has been without a leadership that defends its interests for a very long time.  It would be incredible if during that time reactionary ideas had not taken a hold on some workers.  This is what has happened.

Social partnership has been an integral part of a Celtic Tiger which has so disappointed many workers.  It has been at the heart of the policies and programme that the government and all establishment parties have espoused and which legacy workers have increasingly rejected.  The vast majority of workers therefore have no conception of a progressive alternative to the failed policies of the establishment, supported by the trade unions: its restriction of wage demands, privatisation agenda, parsimonious funding of public services, utility charges, stroke politics and wholesale corruption.  In these circumstances both the anger and blame can be displaced onto immigrants and asylum seekers - for stealing the resources meant for native workers – precisely the argument of the referendum’s sponsors.

The scale of the yes vote shows that no campaign against it in the last few months could have succeeded.  The ground for the widespread racist sentiment it revealed has been laid over many years –through the policies of the government and the collaboration of the worker’s own organisations.

The opposition

What could have been achieved during a campaign was promotion of the view that workers have their own interests and views to defend against racism and the racist arguments of the referendum.  This opportunity was missed.

The opposition to the referendum from the main parties was not the sort of principled kind that could inspire a real resistance.  Fine Gael initially opposed the referendum purely on the grounds of timing and then rowed in behind it.  The Labour Party put up posters (about the only ones who did) that exclaimed: no facts! no figures! (but ignored the argument).  Sinn Fein called for an undefined immigration policy that respected human rights.  We look forward to their devising the first ever non-discriminatory immigration controls.  Don’t hold your breath.

The campaign against the referendum created by the left was tiny and without resources and this has been the explanation for defeat put forward by its spokespeople.  That and the claim that the electorate had been ‘manipulated.’  The element of truth in both claims should not blind them or us to the deeper failures.

The roots of racism go far deeper and are far stronger that the government’s power of manipulation; powers which did not allow Fianna Fail to protect itself from the worst electoral result since the 1920s.  Lack of resources is partly the responsibility of the bigger forces of the left who prioritised their own electoral intervention and relegated in importance the challenge posed by the referendum.  Remedying this however could only tilt the balance very slightly.  The left will never be able to compete in money terms with the parties of the establishment and cannot expect the State to fund it.

Most important were the political failings of the campaign.  Its tone and content went little above the crying liberal one of ‘all children are equal.’  We said that such arguments would be unconvincing and they were.

Everyone who knows the gross inequality that characterises Irish society knows that not only are all children not equal but neither are the adults.  Such equality can only be achieved by the working class but little specific appeal was made to working class concerns.  Once again the left reduced its politics to the lowest common denominator of opposition in order to create a largely fictitious unity with others.  Such opposition has been woefully inadequate to resisting the attacks that have faced and will continue to face the working class.

The reasons for the defeat are therefore not hard to find but will lessons be learnt?

Where are we now?

The referendum revealed the widespread racism that exists in Irish society.  The large yes vote right across the country demonstrates its pervasiveness.  That the referendum encouraged a higher turnout is troubling, whatever its extent.  This racism pervades (even?) those forces that call themselves ‘left’.  An opinion poll before the referendum that predicted, but underestimated, a yes victory recorded that even among the supporters of those parties opposed to the referendum a majority were going to vote in favour.  The poll found that among Labour Party supporters 55 per cent said they would vote yes, among Green Party supporters 60 per cent said they would vote yes and among Sinn Fein supporters 57 per cent would do so.  Apologists for Sinn Fein who try to claim the gains by that party on the back of some popular radicalisation will have a hard job explaining this.

The referendum itself will have strengthened racism and the result will have legitimised it.  The government now has a blank cheque to legislate whatever changes it wants and this will allow it further opportunities to promote a racist agenda.  The liberals will call for clemency and magnanimity and asylum seekers will be cast more and more in the role of victims, when they are not castigated as cheats and spongers.  Racist attacks will probably increase.  The task of advancing working class consciousness has received a real blow and has been set back.  Will these facts be registered by those, the left, whose role it is to advance working class consciousness?

Ironically the lack of any focused radicalisation and pervasiveness of racism precludes, but only for the moment, the rise of a right wing populist movement seeking to build itself from the racism of Irish society.  (Although we have seen its first shoots)  This is not unimportant.  To this extent the still unfocused nature of much racist sentiment facilitates attempts to combat it.  But we have received more than a warning.

The left, the only irreconcilable opponents of racism, must realise that rejection of governments and growth of so-called radical alternatives that eschew working class and socialist politics will not automatically combat racism.  Indeed we have just seen it is perfectly compatible with it. The task of the left is not to reflect and simply capture the disenchantment and anger of growing sections of the working class with the present political establishment.  The task is to give it some political leadership and content, to give it a programme.  This is necessary not just to fight racism but to fight all the attacks on the working class.

In our analysis of the anti- bin charge campaign we drew a negative balance sheet of the campaign and of the role of the left.  The limited gains of the left in the elections do not alter this assessment.  The racist referendum, if it does nothing else, puts these tiny gains into context.

The task now is the same as that before and during the referendum.  It is to organise immigrant workers to defend themselves alongside their native colleagues.  More than ever a working class campaign against racism is needed, and creation of such a campaign is now a real priority for the left.  Its response to the convincing defeat of the referendum will be a test of their fitness to lead a workers fightback or to be consigned to the sidelines of their own private universe where sectarianism walks hand in hand with opportunism.



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