In the 1970’s there was a catchy Joe Jackson single with the lyric “Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?”. People back then already knew that females had a different experience of sex and relationships and the song surprises us by inverting our expectations.
What is the connection between this and the Dublin Riots?
For approx. 30 years I worked in the same large secondary school with approximately 45 teaching staff and like all large schools we employed roughly 20 cleaning staff who between 3pm and 6pm would restore order and cleanliness to our classrooms.
During my time we had a significant turnover of teaching staff but at any one time only 2-3 of the teachers would have been born outside the UK & Ireland & one of those was a French teacher who was actually French; it was extremely unusual to find teachers from the USA or Europe applying for our jobs.
By contrast, when I started work in that school all the cleaning staff were local ladies, but as the years passed the composition of the cleaning staff changed dramatically and long before I retired the overwhelming majority of the cleaners were born outside the UK & Ireland. As our cleaners gathered in the evening at the end of work Polish and Russian seemed to be the dominant languages.
Some will be uneasy that I mention this change, but ask yourself what point am I making?
Immigration is experienced differently by working-class communities.
I grew up in a working-class family receiving free school meals like so many others, but by virtue of going to university and taking up a middle-class teaching job I am now middle class. In my profession I experienced almost no competition from migrant workers.
By contrast, working class people are much more likely to experience migrant workers as being in competition for their jobs and this applies to housing as well. My house is not particularly grand but it is semi-detached and I can think of only one migrant worker family living nearby. In some working-class communities, there is a markedly different experience and in more dense terraced housing with no front garden, being on comfortable speaking terms with your neighbour matters more.
The Disaster of Brexit
Back in 2016 in I remember my disappointment at the dreadful Brexit referendum result being overshadowed by obvious distress of some of our pupils from Estonia and other European nations who no longer felt welcome. All we could do on that day was sympathise.
Back then, I wrote a letter to press (I kept it anonymous because I still worked in the school) where I outlined the differences above and argued that by failing to engage with working class communities honestly on the subject of immigration, we had allowed Britain to make the tragic mistake of Brexit. Middle class friends were shocked that I raised this socially unacceptable issue. They will no doubt be shocked again, but I fear that Ireland is about to make a similar mistake to Britain, not leading to an Irish Brexit, but leading to a rise in racial tensions and that failing to talk about it is a poor strategy.
On many social occasions over the past few years, I have heard people whisper about problems with immigration, about the numbers of young foreign males appearing in small communities. I have absolutely no doubt that some of the problems are exaggerated but I also have no doubt that a failure to discuss the problems that do exist will backfire.
For a decade we have seen the rise of right-wing populist politicians in Britain, in the USA, in Argentina and across Europe, most recently in the Netherlands. Far right social media organisers have Ireland in their sights. They will be delighted to make use of the undercurrent of unease over immigration, redirecting any worries over poverty and housing costs onto the migrant workers in the same way British Tories use their ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign to deflect from the economic incompetence of the Conservative Party.
Talking about the stresses experienced by working class communities over immigration is not the same as being anti-migrant worker. We need to engage with communities and to solve problems where they occur. By ensuring that the pace of change is reasonable and that the burden is discussed and fairly shared by all sections of society we will be in a better place to help people resist the malign influence of those who would stir up racial tensions in Ireland for political advantage.
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.