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‘There’s a difference in Ireland’s national identity’

Last update - Friday, July 15, 2011, 22:20 By Metro Éireann

Michaela Dwyer speaks to Killian Forde, new chief executive of the Integration Centre, about his goals for the organisation and his hopes for Ireland’s future

MD: How has your experience been since you took over the management of the Integration Centre? What have you been doing?

KF: There’s a lot of work to do, particularly on the side of policy changes. Our sector itself needs to clarify and distill what is it we want to change. We talk about grandiose ideas about having a more diverse society – but I think we have to recognise that the civil servants and politicians in charge don’t know what that means. Therefore we have to be more prescriptive in what those changes should be.

What in particular have you taken from your experience with civil servants?

I don’t believe that they are racist. I think there’s an assumption within the NGO sector that civil servants are hostile to us, but they’re not. They’re mostly indifferent and too busy. Once you recognise that that’s the case, and see that we can work with them in partnership, we can get changes done.
There are no advantages in starting rows with civil servants. I think that’s one of the flaws we take as a sector – we tend to look for confrontation rather than co-operation. We’re not going to be calling for massive, huge societal changes because they’re not going to happen.
We have a very conservative state apparatus that changes incrementally. We need to recognize that first. There is no money in the country. We’re developing a series of policies that will be very prescriptive. The idea is that they’re achievable and affordable; therefore, we can measure our own impact after we’ve written the policy.

How do you view your organisation as different from other groups and NGOs serving or working with the migrant and refugee communities in Dublin?

There’s a huge concentration on immigration policy [among other organisations] as opposed to integration policy. One is when you’re at the door, and the other is when you’re in the room.
We think the ‘at the door’  immigration policy is well covered by good groups who have really strong legal teams. Instead, we’re moving into things that are already here and more established.
Dealing with those in the country who have difficulty with services or experience discrimination – that is where I’d like to see us move towards. I think that area is more or less open.
One of reasons why a lot of people drift towards immigration policy is because it’s probably easier; there are particular laws that can be changed that will impact. When you get into integration you’re not too far away from a sort of soft social engineering, which happens organically more often than not. I think that’s where we’d like to go.

One of your stated goals is to “enhance minority participation”. What have you done towards achieving this so far?

Let me give you a few examples of where minorities are underrepresented. The first is in the Dáil itself. The simplest, most effective, and probably the only way to change that is to change the electoral system itself, which would require a referendum. We would need to change [procedures to include] a list system or at least a partial list system.
Irish politics is just too parochial for an immigrant to be able to make a breakthrough. To get into the Dáil as an immigrant, in my view, won’t happen for 20 years or so, so we either accept that that’s the situation, or we say there’s a serious problem here. And it’s not just migrants; it’s women as well. We have about 14 per cent representation of women in the Dáil.
There are other areas, on more of a community level, where migrants are not included, such as school boards. You need to detach the Catholic Church from the almost monopoly they have on some of the schools, plus make the school boards much more open so that migrants are influencing policy of the education of their own children.
What we found is that some of the schools are really good at integration and some are really bad. A lot [of success at integration] seems to be correlated with those schools that have pretty good participation from the local parents.
In terms of the State itself, and how policy is made and what people think about it –it’s around people being employed. Migrants are seriously underrepresented within the state sector itself. The civil service has about nine per cent of those with a migrant background. We would suggest that once the current freeze is lifted there would be a target program to try to increase the level of migrants actually employed within the civil services. [To do this] the Irish language requirement needs to be dropped. It’s acting as a barrier for people.
From a migrant point of view, in terms of other sectors, we need to get down to the nitty-gritty of integration. We plan to try and work with groups and explain to them the roles of, say, residence groups, and explain how [migrants] can get involved. Instead of the State constantly trying to attract migrants, we would be encouraging migrants to do it themselves.

What about the connections between immigration, integration, and the media?

There’s such a huge shift. I think the biggest shift from immigration patterns 50 years ago to now is that it’s so much easier now not to integrate.
We’re doing a piece for the IOM (International Organiz-ation for Migration) about information channels – for example, where people get their information. There’s a tendency for migrants, especially those who don’t know if they’re staying [in Ireland], to access the news [from home rather than Ireland]. That’s the relevance to them. I’m not too sure how you break that, because I don’t necessarily believe that by having a programme that says ‘multiculturalism’ on it will attract the kind of integration you want.
I think in a way you almost have to normalise the idea of ‘people of colour’ and move away from a sort of situation whereby papers are using [exclusively race-based images and commentary] to talk about immigrant issues.

Forecasting the future – in the next five years, what can we expect from the Integration Centre?

We’ll move into a situation where we’re working with at least 20 local authorities throughout the country, advising them about integration. We’ll be planning integration activities, trying to get services much more open to people so that there’s not discrimination.
We’ll be working with commercial sectors and semi-State bodies in terms of the work force, including diversity management and cultural profiling. Hopefully as well we’ll have influenced the Government enough to create a body needed to monitor both integration planning and also levels of racism and discrimination that exist in and around the country. That would be an important body to be re-established.
The Integration Centre will be training citizens’ information boards to do that themselves. We’ll use cases within this project to advocate on an individual basis to influence policy.

How do you define integration?

I think integration is about us becoming a little less Irish and a lot more different things. It means a shared sense of responsibility, identity and rights.

What about the opposite of that, in terms of the possible value in pluralism and difference?

Ireland is different than other European countries because we have no colonial background. We don’t have a history within the European context of territorial nationalism. Our nationalism in theory is very open, so that it’s almost about denying other people’s identities, or ignoring other people’s identities. It’s not a malign approach.
There’s flexibility in encompassing and welcoming other people, and that’s where there’s hope. [It’s usually typical here] that a black Irish person is recognised as completely Irish. It’s a different story in England and France.
That’s why I’m optimistic, that there is a difference in Ireland’s internal identity, in how we see ourselves as different from other European countries. That’s a hope.

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