East Wall and the Plantations: Ireland and Its New Migrants - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
East Wall and the Plantations: Ireland and Its New Migrants
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A local resident explains his presence at protests in East Wall, Dublin, against government’s lack of consultation with residents about the growing influx of migrants (GriptMedia/YouTube)

If you are reading this back home in the United States, or anywhere else beyond Ireland’s borders, it is not all that likely that you have heard about the several protests in East Wall — a neighborhood in North Dublin. Still, the dispute and disputants will not be difficult to recognize.

Economic migrants and traditional asylum seekers continue to come, in large numbers, to Europe. That includes Ireland. They come from Afghanistan, Syria, Georgia, the Balkans, and Africa, and, now, they come from Ukraine (and Russia too).

Many, perhaps most, are unattached adult men. That said, accurate numbers are sparse. The Irish authorities have not produced anything like a handy online guide with statistics on aliens. Irish nongovernmental and civil-liberty organizations tell the public that there is nothing odd about the apparent male bias among these aliens. Those organizations assert that it is not uncommon that men arrive first, find a livelihood, and then work to bring their wives and children (and, perhaps, siblings and parents) from abroad. Furthermore, many men are fleeing war zones for reasons that do not squarely apply to women and children — they are fleeing conscription against wars to which they object. So, again, they are told that the apparent abundance of males among these aliens is not surprising. Lastly, many, perhaps most, are undocumented — they arrive absent passports, vaccination and other medical records, and so on. These organizations say that the aliens’ undocumented status cannot be helped. Their homelands are in disarray, and, even where not in disarray, those that control the production of such identity documents are frequently at odds with those who have left. On the other hand, it is also reported that migrants are actively destroying what documentation they have.

At this juncture, the elected Irish government has not yet seized private housing. Instead, it has rented hotel rooms up and down the country and placed the migrants there.

So, the aliens have come, are coming, and are very likely to continue to come. They are coming to Ireland — a country with too little housing and high rent by European standards. Even before the arrival of this cohort of migrants, this country was and is unable to house its own domestic poor and vulnerable — especially those with addiction problems who quite literally die in the streets of Dublin, some on the very doorstep of the Oireachtas (the Irish national parliament). Moreover, as new (state-owned and state-controlled) housing stock opens up from time to time, it is alleged that migrants are moved to the top band even ahead of Irish nationals. It is further alleged that this policy was adopted in order to honor international (and, perhaps, EU/European) commitments. In any event, this policy and the perception of this policy create friction because the poorest and most vulnerable elements of Irish society lose out — at least in the short run — to newcomers.

Some left-wing Irish political players have been calling for the seizure of privately owned second and vacation homes and also the vacant homes of those living abroad — all of which could be used now to house migrants. This policy’s proponents do not clarify what sort of compensation (if any) the owners would receive and who would be responsible to maintain the property as habitable. Whether this policy should be tried or whether it would “work” is something I leave to the Irish demos. What I note is that a few years ago, before this wave of migrants arrived, few (if any) notable people here were loudly advocating any such policy to house the Irish poor and vulnerable. Similarly, it has been reported that legal exemptions designed to fast-track the construction of modular homes for refugees will not be available to Irish nationals. The fact that such policies are now being debated and implemented on behalf of foreigners is a threat to social cohesion. It reduces the Irish poor and vulnerable to the unwanted.

At this juncture, the elected Irish government has not yet seized private housing. Instead, it has rented hotel rooms up and down the country and placed the migrants there. The knock-on effect is to deny the country foreign exchange, and, concomitantly, all those other businesses in tourist areas now lack tourists with money to spend. The other policy that the government is now trying is to house migrants in office buildings — particularly buildings belonging to the state or statutory bodies. That is what happened in East Wall, Dublin, where the government populated a building belonging to a state-affiliated electrical company (the ESB Group) with several hundred migrants. Apparently, the building was not otherwise in use. The local inhabitants were not given any heads-up. And when they found out, some complained to their elected officials and others protested, for several days, in front of and in the vicinity of the ESB building housing the migrants. Now, around the corner from the ESB building is a lonely sign that reads, “Irish Lives Matter.”

Again, there are no surprises here. Why were there protests? First, the locals complained that they were not given any notice and that they were not consulted. This lack of consultation makes the government’s housing policy for migrants look suspicious. But it was more than a lack of consultation. It was a lack of sharing in perceived risk. If the government’s ministers believe these migrants are safe, why does not each government minister take one such person into his or her personal home — even on a temporary basis? Why does not the government minister having oversight of this policy take two migrants home? Why not place two migrant extended families in Áras an Uachtaráin — the residence of the Irish president? Surely there are some unused guest bedrooms there. At the very least, if the president and the government’s ministers have no room in their own homes, perhaps community-based migrant housing could be (and should be) arranged on the same streets where those officials and their families reside? Because the government made no effort, or at least no transparent effort, to share this risk, there is the perception that these migrants were dumped into a neighborhood while others with greater political power, connections, and wealth go to their homes and neighborhoods unaffected. This cannot be good for social cohesion. It reduces the people of East Wall to the unwanted.

It gets worse. Elected officials criticized the East Wall protesters — Irish voters — as ignorant (at best) and racist (at worst). The gravamen of the protesters’ position was the lack of notice, consultation, and transparency, along with the facts that large numbers (perhaps most) of the migrants were unattached adult males and that many (perhaps most) of the migrants came without documentation. Instead of recognizing that these positions had some merit and that the people of East Wall had some good reason to be concerned, the major political parties either were silent or criticized the locals. What is more, elected officials said that the protest had been hijacked by the far Right and that the East Wall locals were being manipulated by malign outside forces. The press, private and state radio and television, NGOs, and civil-liberties organizations were in lockstep with these elected officials. That is hardly surprising because the former (including elements of the private press) are now, in substantial part, funded by the Irish state.

The whole situation was and is unsurprisingly drab. The play and players fit the stereotypes established in countless similar situations that we have seen in the past — if not in Ireland, then elsewhere in the West. That said, there were two small rays of light that offer a glimmer of hope.

First, the protests were peaceful. I do not doubt, though, that some of the migrants are themselves vulnerable people, in difficult personal and family circumstances, and that they felt threatened by the protests and protesters.

Second, the protesters characterized the new status quo, namely, the housing of the migrants in the ESB building in East Wall, as a “plantation.” I am an American. When Americans hear the word “plantation,” we tend to think it refers to Tara — from Gone With the Wind — or some other fictional or real, but long defunct, agricultural slave enterprise in the antebellum South (of the United States). We might also think of quaint old names for some of our states: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The latter no longer carries much meaning — apart from a specific geographic location. My recollection is that, when I was young, the term “plantation” carried little deep meaning for many, if not most, Americans. Of course, now, perhaps under the influence of new thinking, or perhaps under the influence of political correctness, it may be different in the United States.

But it is certainly different in Ireland.

In Ireland, a “plantation” refers to a foreign government’s policy (i.e., the English crown’s policy) of introducing and implanting an organized foreign population (i.e., mostly English and Scots) into Ireland, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries. The word “plantation” records a long history of the displacement of the indigenous people by aliens. This is the standard Irish historical national narrative. It is what is taught in Irish schools, following the state-approved curriculum, in state-approved textbooks. Nor is this understanding of plantation history linked exclusively to the deep past. The standard narrative is that the modern political division of this island and what remains of its ethnic and religious divide originate from the “plantation.” So, in Ireland, the word “plantation” is more than a somewhat charged term: It carries deep historical resonance.

Indeed, the East Wall protesters are not the first to compare today’s migration to yesteryear’s plantations. Former Irish President Mary McAleese stated:

Today, 17% of our population comes from somewhere else…. The last time that happened was probably the Plantation. But this has been a different kind of absorption, and I think in general we have done a really, really wonderful job…. That is not to say we don’t have racism in our midst.

Undoubtedly, the analogy, between the historic plantations and East Wall, is not a perfect one. The historical plantations were creations of the Tudors and Stuarts — foreign English and Scottish monarchies. By contrast, here, in East Wall, the “plantation” is a creation — in no small part — of a government elected by the Irish people. That’s an important distinction. Moreover, I believe that the protesters’ seeing their circumstances through the prism of their country’s history and national narrative is mostly a positive sign. Granted, this is an intuition on my part. I think it is positive because the protesters are not speaking the language of Cambodia’s “year zero” or calling for a strictly homogenous polity. The language of “plantation” means that they do not wish to become the unwanted or the dispossessed. When people understand their situation through the historical context that they have always applied to themselves and others, it is less likely that they are reaching to commit a new injustice — as they would be if they were fabricating new moral rules or announcing an entirely new, faux history to justify their actions.

I could be wrong about this. If the language of “plantation” is being used not to characterize the speaker’s loss but to display and encourage hostility and lawless violence against the migrants, then this may be the beginning of a descent to less-than-desirable consequences and places. That is another reason why the elected Irish government and its ministers have to share — and be seen to share — in this burden.

The first step is a free and open debate about the consequences, geographic concentration, and rate of migration into Ireland.

Seth Barrett Tillman is Associate Professor at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology, Ireland/Scoil an Dlí agus na Coireolaíochta Ollscoil Mhá Nuad. Tillman is a United States citizen who moved to Ireland in 2011, and he holds an Irish work permit. He was awarded the North Carolina Society of Historians’ 2021 Award of Excellence.

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