Qualified welcome

After the whirlwind election campaign in which equality, immigration or integration did not feature, we have a new government, to which I would like to extend a qualified welcome. Appointing Alan Shatter to Justice was a foregone conclusion. Shatter has a good record of speaking about equality issues while in opposition, but coupling his Justice portfolio with Defence sends the wrong message, at least at the level of public discourse. Justice and Defence wreaks of security, crime prevention, the Gardai, the military forces – all important issues, but say little about equality, which, as Vincent Browne argued in The Irish Times, this Fine Gael-Labour coalition has so far failed to embrace.

I said‘qualified welcome’because I am faintly hopeful that Shatter might do what he spoke about while in opposition and, among other things, reform the toothless 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act, which he rightly told me at the time, is a weak piece of legislation which would never result in convictions.

He might also pay some attention, as the programme for government mentions, almost as an aside, to introducing  ‘comprehensive reforms of the immigration, residency and asylum

systems, which will include a statutory appeals system and set out rights and obligations in a transparent way.’ Bearing in mind, however, that over 6,000 asylum seekers are still lingering in direct provision ‘holding camps’, reforming the asylum and residency systems is crucial, though I wonder whether such reform will bring about further tightening.  And what, I wonder, of the Immigration, Residency and Protection Bill – will the new government enact it, taking on board important issues such as summary deportations and racial profiling?

While Minister Shatter is responsible for Justice and Defence, his department is responsible for Justice, Equality and Defence but the Minister of State appointed, Kathleen Lynch, will take charge of disability, equality and mental health. This is interesting – the first Fianna Fail Minister of State for Integration, Conor Lenihan, focused on equality and worked closely with migrant-led groups. His successor, John Curran, dealt with both equality and drugs policy – it was no surprise where the emphasis lay. The brief of the final incumbent, the Greens’ Mary White, was equality, human rights and integration – again too broad.  Minister Lynch’s brief, and particularly the mental health part, will hardly leave her time to focus on integration. I wonder whether Lenihan was appointed when there was EU funding for integration and whether this budget has now dried up, hence the low emphasis on integrating migrants and ethnic minorities.

According to the New Communities Partnership (NCP), in 2010 MIPEX (Migrant Integration Policy Index), which assesses governments’ commitment to integration throughout Europe, found that Ireland’s policies are still viewed as extremely unfavourable to integration, below the UK, Spain, Italy and on a par with Greece and Slovenia. Ireland’s family reunification and long-term residence procedures are ranked as the least favourable conditions for integration in Europe and North America.  Much room for improvement here.

So, you can see why my welcome to Ministers Shatter and Lynch is qualified. Immigration  and integration have fallen off the Irish radar and in order to maximise the contribution made by migrants to Ireland’s economic, social, cultural and political life, we need the government to take a lead, provide much needed funding for migrant-led associations, and, at the public discourse level, remind everyone that migrants are here to stay.