Jamie Smyth, Irish Times (Dublin), May 10, 2010
MINISTER OF State for Equality and Integration Mary White has vowed to root out “pockets” of racism in society and called for a radical reform of the asylum system.
She has also pledged to tackle rising discrimination against minority groups during the recession–a downturn she believes could, in the long-term, make Ireland a nicer place to live.
In her first major interview since being appointed, Ms White said she had no doubt “there were pockets of Ireland where racism rears its ugly head” and she would do everything she could to support people to embrace multiculturalism.
“While I am Minister in this brief I don’t want any covert or overt racism, whether its awful graffiti spray painted on walls or whether its the nudge, nudge, wink, wink in the place of work or in the school yard.
“We have to be absolutely clear in our hearts and our minds that there is absolutely no place for racism and xenophobia in this country,” she said.
Ms White said the legal system would decide what happened in the case of the recent killing of 15-year-old Nigerian schoolboy Toyosi Shittabey, who was stabbed to death in Tyrrelstown–an area with many immigrants.
She said she had spoken to many of Toyosi’s school friends, who were traumatised by his death and she promised to speak out against racism at every opportunity.
Ms White said she would travel around the country to speak to migrants, to hear their concerns as part of a new ministerial council on integration. She plans to set up a new integration taskforce, which will include Irish representatives, to consider how to better deliver services to immigrants. A third body of academic and Civil Service experts will sit on an integration commission to consider all aspects of integration, she added.
“I am a good listener. I want to hear their voices,” she said.
Ms White also hoped the Government would overhaul its asylum system and extend the right to work to asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their cases.
“I would certainly like asylum seekers to be able to work. The Government position is that this is not tenable at the current time but I’m hoping that during the report at committee stage of the new immigration Bill that we may see some positive changes. That’s a personal view,” she said.
The Department of Justice argues that giving the right to work to people seeking asylum would encourage bogus asylum seekers to come to Ireland.
It is likely to strongly oppose any amendments to the new Bill proposing to allow asylum seekers to work. Ms White said she recognised the huge frustration felt by asylum seekers who have to wait sometimes up to six years for decisions. She said there was a need to cut back on the timescale so asylum cases could be heard fairly, speedily and justly.
Ms White also criticised rules in direct provision hostels for asylum seekers, which prevent families preparing food in their rooms and close kitchens in hostels outside of designated meal times.
“I would like more flexibility in kitchen opening hours. I know the rule about food in rooms, which may be a health and safety issue. But children don’t feed on demand,” said Ms White, who added strict rules put additional stress on families at the centres.
Ms White said the issues at the heart of her new job–social inclusion and equality–were close to “core Green principles” and denied Fianna Fáil had ridden roughshod over the Green Party over the last three years.
She said “Green handprints” promoting equality were all over the revised programme for government, which was negotiated during tough economic times.
“I want to make sure no one suffers because we are in hard times,” said Ms White, who noted a big increase in racial and gender-based discrimination cases heard recently at the Equality Tribunal.
She said she agreed with people who said Ireland would be a nicer place to live after this recession because people now value basic qualities of life rather than money.
“The uncertainty out there means people are focusing on the basic qualities of life . . . people have time to talk to each other.
“We will be a fitter country because people are exercising and more people are volunteering,” she said.