Speaking our Truth

Ballaghdereen Controversy

Mary Gallagher’s Shop in Ballaghderreen

The recent announcement of the Irish Government’s decision to locate 80 Syrian refugees in a recently refurbished hotel in Ballaghdereen in County Roscommon has prompted much comment, both local and national. Much of the commentary has focused on the absence of consultation with the local community in advance. Some of it has been of the humorous variety: “Roscommon? Refugees don’t deserve this!”.

The Government’s intends to establish the Abbeyfield hotel as an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) which will receive Syrian refugees for a limited period of time. On completion of the EROC programme refugees will be dispersed and housed in different parts of the country, mostly in donated accommodation suitable for families.

The issue has activated a neuralgic nerve in the public consciousness. While most people are openly welcoming to refugees, there are also many who feel that “locals” should come first, including the local homeless and people on the housing list. As it happens, there are 286 vacant houses in and around Ballaghdereen, the so-called “ghost estates” built during the boom era when so much money flowed into speculative construction. The local area plan (LAP) compiled by Roscommon County Council notes:

Growth in Ballaghaderreen particularly, was fuelled by the presence of the tax incentives (at 21.5% between 2002 and 2006) which has left many unoccupied and unfinished houses in the town (Local Area Plan 2012–2018, page 9).

The local public representatives support the LAP in its ambition to rid the town once and for all of its ‘backwater’ image and to create, in the words of the plan “a culturally rich town that celebrates cultural diversity”. A refugee reception centre was probably not envisaged by the planners. In addition, locals interviewed by the media expressed disappointment that the newly-refurbished hotel which, they believed, would be a key element in implementing the plan for a more vibrant local economy would no longer be available.

John O'Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)
John O’Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)

The Ballaghderreen situation could probably be replicated across rural Ireland wherever a similar proposal might be made. Speaking at the Céifin Institute Conference in 1999, the late John O’Donohue, noted that one of the persistent and corrosive problems afflicting Irish society i the urban-rural divide. The city simply does not understand rural life. The language used by the city bureaucrats, he said, “is a language determined by the city and is usually not an understanding language” (John O’Donohue, *Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”, 2015, p. 139). In light of Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, we are only too well aware of the dangers to society posed by elite biases and prejudices.

On the other hand, the Ballaghderreen narrative is not entirely shaped by opposition and prejudice. In fact, quite the contrary. Many from the local community have expressed their desire to be welcoming to refugees and newcomers. One lady, interviewed on RTE’s Prime Time programme, the owner of the haberdashery and clothes shop in the town, has become something of a national celebrity for her straightforward assertion of traditional moral values, shaped by generations of living and working together in community:

We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy — I’m not talking about someone who just come to work and they’re alright, they’re okay, they’ve money coming in every week. But it somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?

How could you say no? You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.

That statement is at once an unashamed espousal of inherited deeply held community values as well as an equally generous welcoming of ‘the stranger in our midst’.

Pope Francis, in his statement for World Refugee and Migration Day, 2017, confronted us with a similar challenge, couched in biblical language, to that offered by Mary Gallagher. Citing the Hebrew Bible he said:

“Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.

It is difficult for us, in these turbulent and disruptive times, to grasp the profound implications of what is happening. Sometimes, the events in history that have, in the long run, the most positive longer term effects are those which are born in chaos and disruption. A bit like the story of the universe itself.

In the Pope’s remarks it is not too difficult to hear the voice of Teilhard de Chardin. Something is being born in the present chaos. Something that brings us that nano-step nearer to universal communion. As Catholics, every time we gather for Eucharist we are reminded of this ultimate goal of human history, what the liturgy often refers to in the language of ‘gathering together’. This is not a reference to an initial pre-historic unity but a yet-to-be-realised future realisation of God’s dream for the Universe, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians, 1:10).

So, despite the practical political difficulties arising from the present situation, we can, on reflection, being to discover and appreciate a wider horizon for hope and action.


Refugees: The Resettlement Option

We have all been rightly horrified at the plight of refugees who are faced to confront the dangers of the sea in their journeys to Europe. These journeys are undertaken not only at great personal risk, the refugees who find themselves in this precarious predicament are victims of an exploitative multi-billion dollar trafficking industry.

After World War II thousands of displaced people within Europe are facilitated in finding a new home elsewhere in Europe or even in the United States. Some were assisted in relocating in countries as diverse as Ireland and Israel.

Resettlement involves the sponsoring of refugees and the provision of protection and the possibility of beginning a new life in another country. For many refugees, returning home ie not an option. As Somali refugee Warsaw Shire said in her now famous poem, No One Leaves Home, “you only run for the border when the whole city runs as well.” There is no going back. That is the situation in which many find themselves.

European Response

In 2015, as Europe confronted its migration crisis with thousands pouring over borders heading for Germany and Sweden, the Council of Europe sought to enter into agreements with European countries to establish a resettlement option for refugees. This would mean that vulnerable people seeking asylum in a European country could do so without risking their lives. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the right to asylum, a person at risk can seek asylum in another country. Europe never envisaged the combination of factors which would lead to the current tidal wave of migrant flows. It is now time to put in place a structured policy for resettlement.

The European Union has ac very promoted refugee rest element over the past ten years, including rest element as an essential part of the external dimension of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Coordination and resourcing of European resettlement has been further strengthened by the 2013 establishment of the Joint EU Resettlement Programme.

Fourteen countries, including Ireland and the United Kingdom, have signed up to the resettlement policy. This is involves a commitment to the provision of resettlement place. At the moment this number is so small as to be almost derisory. Why is this? It is partly because states have not begun to reflect on the benefits of such a policy and how it might be implemented. It remains still as a ‘nice to have’ option. But it is not taken seriously.

International Catholic Commission for Migration

Enter the NGO sector. The International Catholic Commission for Migration (ICMC) has taken resettlement seriously. Working with partners in a number of European countries, it has begun to establish a viable option for resettlement of refugees.

ICMC has established a project called the SHARE Network. This project calls for a network of European cities willing to offer resettlement places to migrants.ICMC is advocating for the provision annually of 20,000 resettlement places across Europe. Currently, some 7000 people have been resettled by ICMC through this scheme. Obviously there is room for further development of this initiative across Europe. Given the need, there is an urgent need for an expansion of the programme.

A feature of the SHARE European Resettlement Network is that it is focused on local civil society organisations, including municipalities and local NGOs. Local communities can engage with this programme to offer resettlement places.

In Ireland St Catherine’s Community Services Centre in Carlow is a partner with ICMC in resettling refugees. The Centre has worked with State agencies to ensure the provision of services for incoming families:

Our Resettlement Committee ensured that ‘arrival plans’ for the families were put in place before the families arrived. We have met every six weeks since then to oversee the development of the programme. At each committee meeting, the resettlement worker updates us on the work that has taken place. The meetings also provide a forum to discuss important matters such as mainstreaming, education and health and then to agree a co-ordinated response to any issues.

Carlow has successfully integrated members of the vulnerable Myanmar Rohingya community whose lives are often in danger in their own country. The 13 families accepted by Carlow has been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh since 1992.

If only this programme could be expanded on a European basis linking municipalities and communities in a common humanitarian effort.

Homelessness in Manchester

Could you take a little time out to view the YouTube below. It is a powerful BBC documentary on the experience of being homeless in Manchester.

Manchester could be anywhere. It could be Dublin, Belfast, Salford, Washington or London.

No one seeks to be homelessness. Many people in our society are only one pay cheque away from being homeless.

One of the points made in the video is that family breakdown is (in Western countries) one of the major contributory factors to homelessness. Yet no one speaks about this.

Since the 1970s there has been a shift in public policy away from supporting families to supporting individuals. Both dimensions of support are essential. Blame the poet Philip Larkin. He was one of the first to articulate the view that families are ‘bad news’. Ever since, a suspicion of the family as an institution had become endemic among shapers of public polity.

Read the following review of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis in First Things. It is highly instructive on the correlation between family breakdown and social breakdown.

Two solutions are needed for homelessness:

  • More social housing for all who need it
  • Support for families in all their expressions

Creating Signs of Hope for Syria

Global Call for Acts of Solidarity and Days of Prayer and Fasting for Syria
In solidarity of all victims of this brutal war
15 March 2016: 5 years since the start of the protests

Pax Christi International is calling all people of good will to organise acts of solidarity and days of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria between 15 and 20 March 2016. We call on individuals and organisations to show solidarity with refugees and victims of war and violence and create signs of hope that peace can come again in Syria.

In March 2011, Syrian civilians started non-violent demonstrations to demand basic freedoms and rights. The regime’s extreme repression led to the militarisation of the protests, evolving to a systemic war that has affected the whole region.

In the five years since, more than 250.000 people have been killed, more than 13.5 million people inside Syria are in need of emergency relief and 6.5 million civilians are internally displaced, including hundreds of thousands in besieged cities, deprived of food and basic services. Moreover, more than 4.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries and the wider region.

The conflict in Syria has also worsened the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Syria and Iraqi refugees living in the region. Their plight must not be forgotten. We are also in solidarity with the thousands of civil society activists in Syria. Despite scarce resources and limited solidarity, they continue their struggle for justice and are intensely engaged in humanitarian relief efforts.

This war has lasted too long and there is no perspective that it will end soon. The destruction of human lives and of a whole country must come to an end. We urge for the respect for human lives. The attacks against civilians and the bombardments need to stop, and the sieges should be lifted. The protection of civilians is at the forefront. Talks need to be intensified!

Organising an act of solidarity or day of fasting or prayer is also an occasion to meet with refugees in your own community. Please share your events and stories and photos with us via Facebook or Twitter (#HopeforSyria). In the course of the coming weeks we will provide you with update information so that you can prepare your actions.

Whatever resources you may have are welcome. Please share them with us. We will add them to https://hopeforsyria.wordpress.com/ that will be created on 18 February, 2016.

Pawns in the Game

The world is a cruel place and in these times it may be at its cruelest. When we think of our recent past, we tend to think of World War I and World War II as difficult passages for humanity. But we may well be entering upon one of the cruelest at the present time.

Is there a new Holocaust on the way? Maybe not in the planned organised bureaucratic manner of the Nazi regime. But it may happen in different parts of the world through the sheer impotence and neglect of the international community.

Let us focus on the Middle East right now. God knows how many thousands of Palestinians have spent most of their lives in camps of one kind or another. Add to this number the flood of refugees fleeing Syria at the moment. Last year we believe that one million refugees fled to Europe seeking a better life.

This year, things are shaping up to be a lot worse. Just this week we had new Russian air attacks on Syrian MSF hospitals in the rebel-held areas. Turkey is already invading northern Syria by stealth intent on wiping out the Kurdish opposition there.

But what is Russia up to just now? In Geneva there are diplomatic set-piece talks-about-talks going on. A supposed ceasefire that no one intends honouring is being arranged. Meanwhile Russian jets target hospitals. Yesterday, a school and MSF hospital was destroyed in Azaz in Northern Syria. And Assad assures us that he has no intention of engaging in any ceasefire until he has won back the whole of Syria.

A well-informed US military analyst, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a lecturer at the Catholic University of America, has concluded that together Syria and Russia are intent on destroying the Syrian opposition in all its forms, moderate and extreme, without distinction. Once that is achieved they will then turn their guns on ISIS. At that point the United States will be ‘invited’ to join in the fight against ISIS. Cumulative errors in the Middle East have fatally damaged the US capacity to act.

Putin will not tolerate weak versions of Western democracy in Syria or elsewhere. See this New Statesman article here. Chechnya and the Ukraine are the models for Russian interventions. It involves the cynical deployment of overwhelming force with the consent and support of local regimes.

Who are the pawns in this game? They are the millions, yes, millions who will be denied life and basic human rights because of Russian imperial ambitions, American weakness and European lack of courage.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst. Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand;. Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The poor, the weak, the sick, the children will be the fodder for the new holocaust.

The Red Cross and Migration

Last week I went to see the film, Brooklyn, based on a novel of the same name by Irish writer, Colm Toibín. It was at once both enjoyable and moving. For someone who grew up in 1950s Ireland the representation of the Ireland of that period is pitch-perfect. On the other hand, this is not a Frank McCourt a rain, gloom, and my-awful-Irish-Catholic-oppressive-childhood narrative. If anything, it portrays an Ireland, which by today’s standards (as we witness the presence of gangland crime in our cities), was a very safe place to grow up. What the film focuses from the outset was the limited range of life-options open to people at that time. People very often had to leave.

It is a tribute to the quality of Irish education at that time that many Irish people could leave Ireland to go to the United States and progress their education there very rapidly. Eilis, Saoirse Ronan’s character, is able to go to college to pursue an accountancy degree within her first year of employment.

Many of today’s migrants are similarly well-educated. A high proportion of migrants coming to our shores today have third-level degrees.

Our century has witnessed several waves of mass migration. The first took place in central Europe after World War I when populations resettled after the creation of many new States, especially following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A second similar mass dislocation of populations took place in Europe following World War II. It began with the rise of Hitler’s Germany and the departure of Jews and others to other countries to escape Nazi anti-Semitic violence and genocide. Later, mass evacuations took place as people sought to escape from the war. Following the war, as the borders of Europe were redefined millions of people were on the move as whole populations were relocated within the new European borders.

Hungarian Refugees at a refugee camp near Limerick city in 1956
Hungarian Refugees at a refugee camp near Limerick city in 1956

Following the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary we in Ireland welcomed Hungarian refugees with open arms. Their experience in Ireland was not entirely a happy one. Like today’s refugees, they had ambitions to go elsewhere. The United States was their preferred destination. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin intervened with the Irish government to assist their passage onward to the United States. Some however remained in Ireland to marry and raise families. The Hungarian refugee experience provides a salutary lesson that good will is not enough when it comes to welcoming newcomers to Ireland.

One organisation that was particularly active throughout this whole period was the Red Cross. National societies of the Red Cross have always been to the fore in assisting refugees and migrants. In 1995 the International Red Cross movement at its General Assembly highlighted “the restrictive measures taken by host countries and the expression of racism, xenophobia and discrimination among some of them” and requested National Societies “to consider action in favour of migrant populations” and invited them to “encourage migrants to take part in their activities”. From that point, the International Red Cross has been prominently active in the provision of assistance to migrants and refugees.

It is, therefore, understandable that in 2015, in response to the Europe-wide migration crisis, many governments, including the Irish government, assigned to national Red Cross societies a lead role in coordinating efforts on behalf of migrants. We can be justifiably proud of their activities.

Currently, the Irish Red Cross is coordinating the provision of accommodation for Syrian refugees arriving in Ireland. We wish them every success and pledge our support in this important humanitarian undertaking.

See this interesting article by Scott Boldt in the Belfast magazine Hub on the topic of migration. Scott is known to many in the world of education in Ireland because of his research work. He was associated for a long time with the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin. Today, he works with a variety of humanitarian agencies in Belfast.

Angela Merkel

In the early months of 2015 the situation of migrants and refugees seeking to enter Europe by land and sea had become increasingly precarious. Since the abandonment of the EU Mare Nostrum programme in 2014, a programme which the Italian Navy believed had saved over 120, 000 lives, the number of people drowning in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea was increasing week on week. In May 2015, in response to public opinion, the Irish Naval Service became involved in a new EU initiative to rescue migrants and refugees, mainly those travelling from the Libyan coastal route. Later, it became evident that even larger numbers were seeking to enter Europe by way of the short sea route from Turkey. In total, 137,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in the first six months of 2015.Throughout the Summer months this mass-migration of people had become a major issue for European public opinion.

Death of Aylan Kurdi

The death of the Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found on a beach at Bodrum, Turkey, following the capsizing of their boat on September 2nd, 2015, shocked public opinion across Europe. From that point on the plight of migrants and refugees seeking a new life in Europe became a major issue for public opinion, leading eventually to pressure on governments to participate in measures to alleviate the situation, including the free-flow of migrants to their desired destination. This mean, in practice, the virtual abandonment of the Dublin regulations applying to asylum seekers.

Angela Merkel, a Courageous Woman

As the nightly news broadcasts focused on the thousands massed on the borders of Macedonia, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia, there was a dramatic intervention from Germany, the preferred destination for the majority of the migrants and refugees.
Angela Merkel in a speech to the Bundestag on September 24th, 2015 spoke in favour of welcoming refugees to Germany in large numbers.

What was particularly influential in the Merkel speech was her enlarging of the issue beyond the Syrian crisis to the wider global context:

Speech to the Bundestag

At the moment almost 60 million refugees can be counted around the globe – this figure alone clearly illustrates the fact that we are not facing a German challenge, nor a European challenge, but a global challenge, that every region, every country, every political level, and every institution will have to help to resolve

When we speak of the ‘current refugee crisis’, it is this new and unprecedented mass migration of people that we have in mind. While at the moment our focus is on refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and the Middle East, the ‘old crisis’ of African migration to Europe will continue with ever larger numbers seeking access to a better life elsewhere.

Angela Merkel is one of those rare politicians, one who is prepared to take a principled position, even at the risk of the position being unpopular. She richly deserves to be Time magazine’s Person of the Year. We learn from her the difference between being a person of character whose moral judgments are based on principles rather than on a calculation on the basis of ‘what can I get away with her’. Angela Merkel has a deep sense of her own vocation to public life and to the promotion of the common good. As the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and someone who knew the emptiness of materialistic socialism, she has allowed her deep Christian convictions to inform her public actions.

On a related note, the TIME magazine cover shows a painting of Angela Merkel by Irish artist Colin Davidson from Northern Ireland. The story of the painting makes for interesting reading. See it here.

We can learn a lot from her.