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How can immigrants, or the children of immigrants, be against immigration? Do they not see the utter hypocrisy of it? What […] is with Kevin Sharkey?

Your question is quite a complex one. There are several moving pieces, such as the politics of race, belonging, borders, freedom, access to the media and even identity.

Firstly it racializes Kevin Sharkey as an immigrant, or the child of immigrants. Because of the colour of his skin you look at him and see a person who is not really “Irish”, who has in some way come from elsewhere.

Born to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, Sharkey was raised in Co. Donegal. He is in fact an Irish citizen, nothing more and nothing less.

But it seems clear that “black Irish citizen” means “less”. You seem to assume that he is not speaking as an Irish person or for Irish people and society.

Princeton Professor Matthew Desmond and University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Mustafa Emirbayer, wrote about five fallacies that pertain to race and racism. Among these is the legalistic fallacy, in which people assume that the existence of laws will result in automatic protection.

But we see that although Sharkey meets all the criteria to be viewed as an Irish citizen some in society still see him as an immigrant and will treat him as such.

Sharkey’s beliefs are actually very Irish if you look at the media, public discourse, political rhetoric, attitude surveys, research – and the experiences of the people of colour living on this island.

Racism is ever-present here. Around half of the population believe that some races are superior to others, according to a recent study by the Economic and Social Research Institute. The anti-immigrant sentiments that Sharkey’s statements reflect are mirrored in current state practices.

The belief in “Irishness” being solely white, and the politics of voice – of who has enough social capital to be deemed a citizen and representative of the people – are both clearly illustrated in this YouTube clip, in which an interviewer goes around and asks mainly white people their thoughts on immigrants.

Why associate Sharkey with immigration, and not white Irish people? Clearly some Irish people do not instinctively think of white people as “immigrants”, yet the Irish have been the among the largest exporters of people, with a diaspora now estimated by some at over 70 million. I am sure we can all point to certain friends and family members that have emigrated and are emigrating to various countries, looking for a better life.

Beyond the fact that Sharkey’s comments reflect the beliefs of many other Irish citizens, I also find them unsurprising given his aspirations for a career in politics – especially given the current trend of using anti-immigration sentiments to win political campaigns (see: Trump, Brexit).

We should also keep in mind another of Desmond and Emirbayer’s five fallacies: the idea that racism is only present within individuals.

Hence your interest in Sharkey, rather than institutions such as the Department of Justice and Equality, and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service – which run the direct-provision system in Ireland.

Instead of choosing to focus on Sharkey, the individual, let’s focus on the societal context and structures that give people like him licence to spread ideologies of racism masked as xenophobia.

There has been a great deal of talk recently about Ireland’s two recent referendum “yes” votes and how “progressive” these show the Irish to be. But 14 years ago, we had a different referendum in Ireland.

On that occasion, a “yes” vote meant that those born in the Republic of Ireland “would not have a constitutional right to be Irish citizens, unless, at the time of their birth, one of their parents was an Irish citizen or was entitled to be an Irish citizen”.

A large majority voted yes (79 percent). “The people” decided that the constitution must prioritise one’s “Irishness” first. This vote reinforced the idea that the “imagined community” that makes up our nation is one of cultural homogeneity. This provides a fertile ground for exclusionary politics to resurface again.

Notions of ethnicity and race may be socially constructed, but they have real-life ramifications (see, as just one example, “racist murder“of Stephen Lawrence). They determine how we keep “us” safe from “them”. This same rhetoric of a cultural “other” has made it possible for the Irish state to view the Traveller population as non-Irish and in some cases, non-human.

The 2004 referendum was a reaction to the steady increase in migration, which only became unwanted once the “other” was perceived to be getting rights and benefits that were earlier reserved for the host population. As a result of the vote, a person can have been born here, but still be relegated to second-class status, without the benefits given to citizens.

There is a veneer of acceptance and tolerance within Irish and other European societies that only hides the systemic instruments that concentrate power within certain races.

This brings us to another fallacy from Desmond and Emirbayer’s list: the ahistorical fallacy, which renders the past as irrelevant regarding the theme of race, asserting that racial relations of the past do not in any way influence the current status quo.

But studies have shown that people of certain races do feel superior to people of other races, and that is somewhat reflected by the fact and way you put the question forward – the way it is centred around Kevin Sharkey, who clearly does not, in your opinion, have the authority to speak about immigration in Ireland as he in himself is an immigrant in your eyes.

Your question sheds light on the self-perception of the Irish – and to a large extent the European – identity as being hereditarily “white”. Given this view, as a person of colour, one must question whether legally becoming a citizen makes any difference to the way one’s fellow citizens view and treat one.

You might want to check out the discussions around the #IAMIRISH exhibition, which questions the concept of “Irishness” and what that means for Irish communities and people today.

Also, if we truly are living in a cosmopolitan society rooted in egalitarian beliefs, then we should all support current campaigns against social injustices. Have a look, for example, at the right-to-work campaign of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), a group led by migrants for migrants.

Do you have questions about issues of race and identity in contemporary Ireland? You can send them through this form, for our regular columnist Emma Dabiri. Today’s guest column was written by Chinedum Muotto.

Chinedum Muotto

Chinedum Muotto is completing master's programme in Race, Migration and Decolonial Studies at UCD. He is part of the IIEA Emerging Voices Panel, he curated an event exploring cultures and identities at...

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  1. One aspect of racism and being Irish not covered in this piece is the bizarre situation that Irish people were, and maybe still are, treated in a racialist fashion themselves. A recent BBC documentary apropos of the deportation of people of Carribian origin long term residents of UK, showed a well recognized message in a house window “no dogs, no Irish, no blacks” So, we should be more sensitive than others.

  2. I think you’re being a bit unfair to whoever posed this question here, because you want to deliver a clever, meaty response to what’s really quite a banal question. There clearly *is* some tension in a person who might fall (or be pushed) outside certain boundaries of Irishness seeking to tighten those boundaries further. Sharkey is hacking at the roots of his own tree, you might say. The question-poser notes this tension (which is obvious) and wants a pat on the head for it; needing to fill up an article, you’ve given him a little thump instead. “Isn’t the question-poser the one *really* being exclusionary here?” you ask. No, fairly and truthfully, he’s not. You should have just picked/invented a better question in the first place.

    But rather than me moaning, here’s a better formulation of a similar question for you: since Sharkey’s anti-immigrant agitating is probably somewhat personally damaging (he may be giving grist to people who hate him), are we on the left to find anything admirable in the solidarity he’s showing with his imagined Irish community, to his own personal detriment (putting to one side the fact that we may very much disagree with the aim of his politics)? Is the certain selflessness to Sharkey’s position worthy of any respect?

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