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Darragh O’Brien’s foul Dáil attack on Carol Nolan

I really would encourage you, if you have ten minutes and are interested in the public affairs of the nation, to watch this lengthy exchange between the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, and Independent TD Carol Nolan, in full:

The subject matter is Ukrainian refugees. Nolan’s question is a pretty straightforward one: Has the Government, she asks, conducted an impact assessment on how the very high number of Ukrainian arrivals will impact the Government’s ability to deliver services, including housing, to those who already live here?

That’s not, it should be said, either an unfair question, or an illegitmate one. It’s also not a trap: There’s a perfectly good answer available if the Government wants it. They could say, for example:

“Yes, the pressures brought on us by the Ukrainian war and the arrival of refugees will, sadly, mean some rationing of services. But the blame for that lies with Vladimir Putin. We have limited resources, and we want to allocate them as fairly as possible, including, in this instance, supporting Ukrainian refugees, which is something we have a moral responsibility to do.”

There are many other answers, too. That specific answer, to be clear, would be very unpopular with some people including, I’m sure, many of my own readers. But it would be a legitimate answer. That’s not what Darragh O’Brien says, though. Instead, he comes very close to denouncing Carol Nolan as a racist for asking the question, by saying that her question risks “undermining social cohesion”.

Nolan is, rightly, outraged. She did well, in fact, to remain as calm as she did. What O’Brien is suggesting there, at the end of the day, is that merely asking an obvious and fair question might be enough to inspire otherwise calm and rational people to turn into slavering anti-Ukrainian bigots. It’s not just an insult to Nolan – it’s an insult to the public who, apparently, can’t be trusted to have basic conversations about obvious and reasonable questions.

But it gets more interesting from there, when O’Brien gets into what the Government’s policy actually is. Go to 5 minutes and 30 seconds in the video above, if you are one of the (I presume many) people who didn’t accept my invitation to watch the whole thing. Here’s O’Brien’s quote:

Deputy Nolan has walked a very fine line here this afternoon. And what you’re calling for, effectively, is a cap on immigration and a cap on asylum into this country. Let’s be clear. I’m calling it. That’s what you’re calling for. We will not support that”.

In the first instance, that’s not what Deputy Nolan called for. All she did was ask a question about the Government’s impact assessments, or lack of impact assessments, on the impact of refugees. He’s mischaracterising her point.

But in the second instance, the question he does answer, though not the one he was asked, is fascinating. Government, he says, will not support a cap on immigration, or asylum. That’s perhaps the first time that a Government Minister has officially confirmed that Ireland’s immigration policy amounts to “come one, come all”. There are no limits. We will take 50,000, 100,000, or a million, per year, if they want to come.

That is, of course, a legitimate policy which the Government is free to pursue. But if the Government wishes to pursue that policy it is also perfectly legitimate for people like Deputy Nolan to ask questions about the impact the policy might have on the provision of services for people already living here. That’s not unfair. It’s not bigoted. It’s simply normal politics: “You’re doing X minister, but how will X impact the living standards of my constituents?”

Deputy Nolan is doing her job. Minister O’Brien is calling her names.

In fact, Deputy Nolan might be one of only two or three politicians in the Oireachtas who are doing their jobs on this. Immigration appears to be one area of public policy where no kind of debate at all is countenanced by mainstream, respectable fellows, even though it is objectively the case that the immigration policy outlined by the Minister above is extreme. It is much more extreme than the policy adopted by any other English speaking country, or any EU state.

And policies have consequences, which it is politically legitimate and important to highlight.

Ireland has a long, and perhaps unparalleled, history of groupthink. Sometimes, the groupthink is broadly right – as it was, for example, on the issue of our 12.5% corporation tax, or on the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, at least back in 1998. But at other times it lets us down badly, as on, for example, the housing and stamp duty bubble before 2008.

Immigration on this scale into Ireland will, undoubtedly, have major economic and social consequences, some of which are foreseeable. The foreseeable ones are pressure on domestic service delivery and housing and hotels, as Deputy Nolan pointed out. We do not know others – like the long term impact on our politics, social cohesion, and all the rest of it. These are things a sensible country would discuss, and invite dissenting voices to be more prominently platformed with their concerns.

Deputy Nolan was the person doing her job here. She should be commended for it. Instead, she got vilified by a Minister who, you’ll note, never even answered her question. The country deserves better.

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