It sounds like a rude sort of phrase but ‘pulling a Peter’ is about to enter the lexicon of Irish politics. Haven’t you heard it yet?
It’s Irish for finding a handy target, preferably an ethnic minority, then accusing it of criminality and in turn blaming it for all our economic ills, in order to win votes.
While it’s a staple of the Trumpian approach, Peter Casey was the first politician in recent Irish history to try it. Didn’t really work for him, despite the best efforts of keyboard warriors who say things like “ded rIGHT PetrR get out of r cUNTRY luck after r own,” but never actually bother to get out and vote.
And now it’s the turn of Noel Grealish, a Galway TD whose other claim to fame is that he was the last leader of the Progressive Democrats. The crown crafted for more illustrious heads fitted poorly and the party wound up in 2009. So if a certain cohort is looking for leadership material, well… they haven’t found it.
The recent controversies around emergency accommodation for asylum seekers who, like everyone else, are falling foul of Fine Gael’s failure to build houses, have shined a light on a corner of Irish society that up to now, was pretty quiet.
All the people who are extremely concerned about the dire conditions in which asylum seekers are living had been fairly quiet up to now, but luckily they have come out just in time to prevent them moving to the places they live. And their bravery has ensured that those 13 vulnerable women who were due to move to Achill, as well as families who were supposed to go and live in Ballinamore, will now remain in the overcrowded Balseskin centre, or moving, often nightly, between hotels & B&Bs, for the foreseeable future.
It turns out that this distinguished collection of human rights campaigners are also experts in international trade and economics, and disparities in the balance of payments are their next target.
Well, it does and it doesn’t.
While some of the people campaigning against emergency accommodation centres in poorly serviced rural areas have a point to make (some of these areas, like Macroom in County Cork, don’t even have a GP taking on new patients, not to mind sufficient public transport and schools), it’s indisputable that there is a massive racial element to their pronouncements.
Vox pops in towns expecting direct provision centres focusing on the supposed danger presented to local women and children from asylum centres have shown that, no matter what the well presented campaign spokespersons are saying, someone, somewhere is spreading dangerous lies and stoking fears that are unquestionably bound up in racism.
And now that the Pandora’s Box of racism has been opened up and it’s suddenly started being ok to say things that are not ok, it all starts flooding out.
Noel Grealish’s statement – for it was not really a question – during Leader’s Questions in the Dail on Tuesday evening focused on remittances from Ireland being sent to other countries. He listed the amounts sent to different countries from which our immigrants originate. They include France and the UK but, for some reason I can’t possibly begin to imagine, the country Grealish chose to focus on was Nigeria.
Citing World Bank figures, which are based on an estimate extrapolated from GDP (a figure which is widely understood not to be useful in the Irish context due to the number of paper companies filing accounts here), he claimed Nigerians here had sent €3.54 billion abroad over the past eight years and went on to insinuate that this ‘astronomical’ amount of money must have been the proceeds of crime.
What has emerged since is that our own figures for remittances to Nigeria – compiled by the CSO and Eurostat – are closer to €16 million per annum or about €950 for every Nigerian citizen in Ireland. Economist Gerard Brady spent much of Wednesday patiently explaining how these figures differ on Twitter.
The Dail record shows that Grealish was given these figures in a written response last month. Instead of using them, he chose to use a vastly inflated estimate from the World Bank, for maximum shock value.
Instead of looking at, for example, the huge remittances between Ireland and Switzerland (where many Irish corporates or individuals are legally based to cut down on the tax they pay in Ireland), and asking why Ireland is missing out on that tax, Grealish has adopted the Trumpian strategy of kicking down.
Why bother kicking millionaires when you can kick the doctor in your local hospital who is sending money home to educate their brothers and sisters, or the cleaner in your local nursing home keeping her elderly mother fed from a distance?
For most of our history we have been a country of outward migration, welcomed in some places but belittled and mistrusted in others.
Ironically, Noel Grealish’s biography on his own website tells a typical West of Ireland emigration story.
“Like so many in the West of Ireland, many of the Grealish family had to emigrate in search of work — at one point there were seven of them abroad, and currently Noel has three siblings living in Boston and one each in Copenhagen, Chicago and Nebraska.”
The shoe is on the other foot now. And we are using it to kick the ladder out from under us.
While this country is experiencing problems, we are a wealthy developed country with a far higher quality of life than almost anywhere else on earth. That means we are a place where people should be welcome to come and improve their lot. While we are under pressure, notably in housing and health, the irony is that bringing in more people is part of the solution, not the problem. But you won’t hear that from Grealish or his racist supporters.