I do my best on this platform not to sound like a populist, but I can’t think of many better adverts for populism than the Taoiseach, in a suit and tie, telling working class people with concerns for their communities that they should “know better”:
'It's not the Irish way of doing things..we should know better.' Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the rise of the far right and racism in Ireland. pic.twitter.com/SB8TgJTbsi
— NewstalkFM (@NewstalkFM) February 2, 2023
Watch that whole clip, and you’ll see that the protests have, in fact, had a tangible impact on government rhetoric, if not government policy. We’re now getting assurances that those who come here and have no merit to their application will be “returned”. If that were true, it would not only be a change of rhetoric, but a change of policy: Ireland has the lowest asylum refusal rate in the EU, and a piddling number of deportations compared to just about any similar EU country.
The problem of course is that there is no real reason to believe that the shift in rhetoric has been, or is likely to be, accompanied by a change in policy:
For example, up until now, the Government’s position has been that accepting all comers is, in effect, an EU obligation, and that turning people away – “returning” them – is simply not legally possible. It would have been nice, yesterday, if some inquiring journalist had asked the Taoiseach about how his new stance about returning people accords with his previous stance that such a thing simply isn’t possible. Especially when his Government has not changed any laws on the matter. There are only two explanations: If it is now possible, then it was always possible, and he has been spoofing for weeks.
But if he was not spoofing for weeks, and the law made it impossible, then there in the absence of legislation, he is spoofing now. It’s a choice of spoofery, really. Pick which one you believe.
Then there’s the matter of credibility: You are free to differ, but it strikes me as hard to credit for the leader of the Government to stand there and announce that unmerited applicants will be returned the literal day after figures emerged showing that 5,000 people were admitted to the state last year without documents. I have not commissioned a poll on the matter, but I would wager a substantial sum that the large majority of the public believe turning up with no documents – having gotten on a plane with documents – makes you an unmerited applicant.
Then there’s this, reported by Newstalk yesterday, on the matter of the 5,000 document-free visitors:
Asylum seekers speaking to the show said they pay large sums of money for fake documents and transport to travel to Ireland.
One man said that Ireland is seen as a soft touch internationally.
“After corona came, everything is changed you know?” he said.
“When corona gone, the people start hearing about Ireland. That, in Ireland, they give people the asylum, the papers and they give them the work permit – everybody comes to Ireland. This is the problem.
Anecdotal, obviously, but it speaks for itself. And 5,000 people arriving here without documents makes it more than an anecdote – it makes it a relatively convincing explanation, at least in my opinion.
All of this brings us back to Mr. Varadkar’s admonition. We should know better, apparently, than to protest any of this, or question it. He tosses in some good old-fashioned moralising there, as well: Sure wasn’t it the Irish once? Haven’t we gone all over the world?
This is, incidentally, an argument entirely based on appealing to our national sense of self-importance. One could say the same about Spanish people, or Italians, or, indeed, Indians. One could say it of many Asian countries. There are descendants of all those countries in almost every country on the planet, and yet, nobody ever talks about the global spanish.
And it’s also an inherently stupid point: It says to people that they are unable to take a view on an issue because of what some long since dead antecedent did. We do not live, someone might tell the Taoiseach, in 1845. We live in 2023, and our duty is not to live in the past, but to protect and govern our country effectively today.
Memos released yesterday and reported by my colleague Matt show that the Government knew that there would be major challenges as long ago as this time last year. They did not prepare for those challenges – and simply assumed that the public could be browbeaten, as they were during covid, by a compliant media, into going along with whatever they wished to do. They were wrong.
It is not the public that should know better. It is Mr. Varadkar.