Opting In or Copping Out?

(The Nationalist, 6 October 2000, published with the title ‘Ireland, wake up, grow up’.)


Some twenty years ago, through a very happy series of coincidences, I found myself spending two weeks in Mauritius. It’s one of the smallest countries in the world, an island in the Indian Ocean with a population of over one million people in an area less than that of County Louth. Everywhere you go and everywhere you look there are people. There are those of African origin who comprise a large minority; there are those from the Indian subcontinent who are also large in number; there are ethnic Chinese and Europeans, the latter being less than 1% in numbers but large in money and influence.

The official language of the country is English as it was a British colony before becoming independent in the 1960’s. But French is the language most widely used. I had the unusual experience of concelebrating Mass in French with a Chinese priest and a congregation of Indians and Creoles. Newspapers are published in several languages including Urdu, a Pakistani language.

There are Christians, Moslems, Tamils, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and even a small Jewish community.

There were social tensions in the country but people were able to cope with them through a system of parliamentary democracy, and especially through the practice of tolerance. They respected and accepted each other despite their differences.

Mauritius comes back to my mind whenever I hear of racially motivated attacks on foreigners living in Ireland. Such attacks are becoming increasingly common and also more vicious, going beyond verbal abuse and public humiliation to physical beating. I cannot help but contrast in my mind the success of the people of Mauritius in creating a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-religious community, despite problems of over-population and poverty, with our neurotic touchiness on the issue of race.

I spent over 25 years living outside of Ireland, mostly in Africa. In that time I was never insulted because of my race or colour. I never felt under threat because of it. When I hear of Irish people attacking foreigners on the street – an Englishman stabbed in the neck, a German girl slashed in the face with a broken bottle, Africans told to go back up the trees – I feel ashamed. What combination of ignorance and arrogance is it that allows people to believe that they have a right to say and do such things?

Ireland, wake up and grow up! It is past time for us to leave behind our small-minded insularity and recognize that we are moving into a world in which we will have to learn to live with and respect people who are different from us. It’s an exercise in maturing. Have we the moral courage to welcome it as an opportunity, or will we shrink back into fearing it as a threat? Do we opt in or do we cop out?