Report on Intercultural Society: Discussion

We are in public session. Please turn off all mobile phones because they interfere with the broadcasting system. Apologies have been received from Senator Prendergast and Senator Donohoe.

We are discussing today the European Cultural Foundation report on how people live their lives in an intercultural society. Deputy Quinn wrote to the committee and asked that we might hear a submission from the foundation. It is an important submission at this time, because we have an intercultural society and how we deal with it as it evolves remains to be seen. I would like to welcome Ms Miriam Hederman O'Brien, chairperson of the project steering group of the Irish committee of the European Cultural Foundation, Dr. Timothy King of the project steering group, Mr. Reginald Okoflex Inya from the New Communities Partnership, and Ms Catherine Heaney, director of DHR Communications.

The usual procedure is a short presentation, followed by a question and answer session. We have a long agenda today. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence you are to give this committee. If you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I am sorry for that long dissertation, but it is a statutory requirement. I welcome the witnesses and I call on Ms Hederman O'Brien to make her presentation.

Ms Miriam Hederman O’Brien

Thank you, Chairman. We made a presentation to another committee dealing with migration and culture, but I am not precisely sure of its title because it has changed a few times. We welcome the opportunity to talk to the Joint Committee on European Affairs because this comes from our European experience and it will be extremely important. It has dropped from the front pages of the newspapers now, but the problem in Ireland is that it is only when something goes badly wrong that it comes back onto the front pages.

The European Cultural Foundation was set up in 1984. At that time, it was apolitical in the sense that it supported anything to do with European culture. Those who wanted to be more political joined European Movement Ireland or European movements in their own parties. One of the things that came out after 2001 was the attitude of people to migration and the interaction of new communities. In 2008, we were encouraged by the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to undertake what we called a series of conversations. There is a body of research being done in Trinity College and there has been other research studies. The idea of the conversations was to bring together people who would not be delegates but representatives. I found it to be an interesting idea and I asked whether we would be able to do this, but it worked extremely well. It did take much preliminary work.

Mr. Peter Cassells, who unfortunately is in Africa at the moment, was the facilitator at these conversations, while Ms Heaney was one of the main organisers and she did a fantastic job, because it is not an easy thing to do. The funding was initially provided by the Minister of State with responsibility for integration, and we were also supported by Atlantic Philanthropies and the European Cultural Foundation itself. We had six of these local conversations in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Tallaght, Dundalk and Sligo. Some 25 nationalities participated and about 50% of the participants were Irish. People thought they were there in one capacity, but then they found out that as well as being part of one particular group, they were also parents and were interested in what was happening in schools, or they were interested in sport and so a cross-fertilisation occurred.

The issues raised were cultural identity, the role of sport, the value of language support for new communities and indeed for the Irish community as well, and the importance of education in promoting the awareness of new cultures. One of the things that kept coming up was the fact that there was no physical place in which people could come together to discuss issues that have arisen. The majority of the participants felt that spaces were needed within communities to socialise and to get to know each other. We hosted a national conversation in 2009 to draw on the issues that had emerged. That group had leaders and specialists from civic society organisations ranging from business, sport, health and religious groups. Naturally enough, the resulting conversations bore out the issues that had been raised by the participants in the earlier conversations. In February 2010, we had a second one. We really felt the context was totally changing. When we started in 2008, it was a different economic society. Things had changed by 2010. The lesson we could learn from countries with a long tradition of immigration is that when things change, attitudes to immigrants, particularly those who are employed, also change. We did not have to go to other countries to learn that because it became apparent here.

The other issue was how to integrate people smoothly into Irish society. In 2010, we held a national conference to highlight the results of the project. The report in question was circulated to members - at least I hope it was. For most people, it was their first experience of coming together to discuss interculturalism in the community in Ireland. The issues raised obviously reflected the concerns of the participants. During those conversations, there was a major focus on local factors, such as those pertaining to Globe House in Sligo. In some institutions, such as reception centres, there is little room to express cultural identity. In some cases, financial support is needed to enable new communities to promote their culture. We always come back to the question of finance.

All communities identified misunderstanding and suspicion as a problem. An expression of this, xenophobia, has been experienced by some of the participants in the survey. Urban myths were frequently cited and challenged during the conversations. The question of what is culturally acceptable in different cultures arose as a regular issue. It was made clear that communities require opportunities to create better cultural understanding of each other's norms and better public relations. The issues that were discussed were those one would expect. Those involved kept coming back to the issue of formal and non-formal education. Schools bring parents and children together. Cultural issues may be more fraught in schools than elsewhere. The admissions policies of faith-based schools are regarded by many groups as a threat to integration, although some minority groups believe such policies can help. It depends on where one is coming from. Although language education and support for children and adults is not always accessible, it is certainly needed.

Policy and public service provision are considered by some to be disjointed and a barrier to integration. I say with some trepidation that if the equivalent of the one-stop-shop which is provided by IDA Ireland were to be made available in social services and education, it would be a tremendous help not only for new communities but also for us. The current disjointed approach, whereby one group does not know what another group is doing, means that people are sent around to many groups. It is not confined to people who have recently arrived in Ireland. It is a question of consulting and sharing information. We asked the people what they think the way forward should be. It is quite obvious that high-level political leadership is required. When we held our final conference of 2010, I said publicly that the European Cultural Foundation was not in a position to do anything further about this. It is a European issue. It is being encountered across the EU. When I say it requires greater political involvement or commitment, I do not necessarily mean party political commitment. While we might give such a commitment, we are not in a position to deliver it. Most people know that Ireland is a multicultural society, but I am not sure they understand the implications of that.

I refer to the question of ethnicity. Members will be aware that different approaches to ethnic backgrounds are taken in different EU countries. The message we have been given is that if people's ethnic backgrounds were documented, it would assist with the planning and delivery of services. It is vital for staff and volunteers to be trained in how to get information, in the interests of efficiencies and joined-up public service planning. I feel like I am talking about motherhood and apple pie. I am not sure motherhood is generally popular at the moment, although apple pie is. I am stating the obvious when I say we need joined-up public service planning. Best practice needs to be shared. We need for resources to be used more efficiently for intercultural work. More efficiency is required in processing permits and residency applications. When a Minister of State was given responsibility for integration, we expected him or her to take a lead in organising means of intercultural dialogue. I am digressing slightly when I say anyone in public life can take such a lead.

The European implications of what we did and what we were looking at are twofold. First, Ireland has obligations as an EU member state. We can look at what is happening in other countries. It may be of limited value. One of the issues for Ireland is that we do not have a long tradition of people coming here. We never had an empire. It is a new phenomenon. We changed from emigration to immigration. I am stating the obvious when I say it altered our perspective. Second, it should be borne in mind that countries like Poland, for example, are changing economically and politically, just as we changed. While they will not be inundated, they will experience an inflow of people from other cultures. The lessons from Ireland are likely to be of wider use in Europe.

On the need to use this resource, a genuine multicultural input into policies and into what we are doing is likely to be much better than a monocultural input. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take this and do something with it. I hope I have not spoken for too long. I have set out the European side of the issue, as we see it. My colleagues are much better equipped to answer questions. We are at the committee's disposal.

I thank Dr. Hederman O'Brien for her interesting and timely presentation. I thank her for discussing this matter with the committee. I compliment Deputy Quinn on bringing it to our attention. The points raised by Dr. Hederman O'Brien are very pertinent at the present time and will be pertinent for the foreseeable future. It was correctly identified that there are possible experiences that we can learn from and then relay to our European colleagues with good effect. The points raised were interesting and the comments on political leadership are correct. It does require political leadership from politicians everywhere. It requires institutional leadership in the various institutions as well. The sensitive areas were identified as education, housing and ghettoisation. These are the areas that require attention in the future. This places a great responsibility on those who must deal with the situation on a daily basis because in public we must give a balanced response to a situation as it arises. We cannot give a rhetorical response or one that is politically safe and could garner electoral support for one at the expense of another. This is an issue of significant importance and I thank the steering group for its report.

I call speakers in the following order: Senator Feargal Quinn, Deputies Seán Barrett and Brendan Howlin and Senator Mark Dearey.

It is a delight to see Ms Hederman O'Brien and I thank her for opening our eyes to a problem which has been around for some years. Some ten years ago or more I spoke in the Seanad on this issue and suggested that it was necessary to appoint a Minister with responsibility for integration because at that stage we had begun to see the need for it. I was delighted that in the following year a Minister was appointed.

We have five children and we sent them all to school on the Continent because we had been told that if you learn a language before the age of 14, it is possible to speak it without an accent and therefore it is much easier to integrate in a modern Europe. The only problem we had was that the two girls fell in love with French men at the age of 13 and are now married to French men. Seven of our grandchildren speak French before they speak English and later Irish. We are delighted and some of them are living in Ireland again.

The difficulty I have with integration is how people will be assimilated. In Ireland we set an example over the past 200 years of sending missionaries to Africa. We were trying to teach them our faith and to change their religion and we were supportive of that. However, we find it somewhat difficult when others come to our country and want to change us. We must acknowledge that in our missionary work we have been doing this for hundreds of years. We have to strike a balance with those who come to Ireland and want to maintain their own culture and not integrate into Irish society. We employed significant numbers of such people in the company and found some who assimilated, integrated, learned the language and became involved in our traditions and habits very easily. However, others did not and found it difficult to learn the language and stayed with their people in almost ghettos in Dublin and elsewhere. If somebody is coming to live in our country, one of our tasks is to make them welcome. We love to learn from them and to discover the joys of their culture, but we expect them to assimilate into our culture in ways that might upset us otherwise. My colleague, Senator Norris, spoke out some years ago. He would be very welcoming of other cultures but he became upset by the fact that many who came to live had habits such as spitting in public, which he found very uncomfortable. When I was growing up, it was more common for Irish people to do that but we have got out of that habit and when we see newcomers with traditions that upset us, we have to remind them that when they come they must assimilate and integrate with our culture and that they must avoid reintroducing habits that we have got out of. The one such habit I think of in particular is begging. We had to a very large extent got out of the habit of begging on the streets. It seems to have come back in and although not exclusively, it is being done by those from eastern Europe or other countries. We find this uncomfortable. There must be a way of being able to remind people with those habits that they must understand our traditions and our code of dress. Recently as I walked in Merrion Square I saw a number of women wearing theburqa with only their eyes visible. I realised that I could understand the problems that this creates in France where it is more common, whereas we have not had that tradition. There may be reasons that this is not easily changed but when we welcome people to our country, we must point out that there are some traditions that we find uncomfortable. It would be easier for people to integrate and assimilate if they could find the things with which we are uncomfortable, so that they are able to adjust to them. I do not know how we can do this, but it is an area we can work towards. If we are to be a multicultural society and a nation that is able to assimilate these new cultures, both sides must be willing to change.

It is great to see the work that is being done in this area. I thank the delegation for their report.

I welcome the delegation and thank them for their attendance and for educating us on this issue. People assume that politicians know everything about everything but this is far from the truth. It is good to hear from people who can expand our knowledge.

It is more difficult for immigrants to relocate in Ireland than in European countries because we are an island. In mainland Europe, it is more common for people to move from one country to another and they do not experience the difficulties we have.

On the question of integration policies for non-nationals, we are a member of the European Union of 27 member states. Where does one begin and end with a policy on non-nationals? The Council of Ministers of the European Union created what it called the common basic principles and these principles emphasise integration through better knowledge of the host society's culture and language. However, the common features of this policy at national level are a move from voluntary to mandatory civic integration courses as well as penalties for non-compliance. I was unaware of this until I read up on it in preparing for this meeting. It also refers to a closer relationship between integration and immigration policies. On a personal level, I was not surprised that sport was one of the areas in which people find it easier to get involved and to integrate themselves. Not enough is done in this regard.

We have a good vocational education committee structure. I am a great fan of the colleges of further education, which are run by the VECs, and I often think they are an ideal body to help with an integration programme, because they are flexible. There are basic things that anybody coming to a country should be taught. If I was going to settle in another country, I would like to be taught these things. For example, people could be taught Irish law and what is acceptable and not acceptable under the law, and language skills. If they are going to work in the hospitality sector, they could be taught what is normal practice and what are the things that make people like coming to Ireland to visit. I have heard people say that things have changed in hotels and that one does not get the same warm and friendly welcome. That is because the person who has been taken on in a hotel has not been told there is a certain way of dealing with people in that area. We have allowed people to come in and find employment but never go to the trouble of learning the basics.

I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on whether a move from voluntary to mandatory civic integration courses should be pursued. What do they think of this? It sounds very dictatorial, but is it better that people have to do certain things to become properly integrated, and that they know things and learn new skills?

Senator Quinn was talking about how his grandchildren learned a language. One of the big weaknesses in our education system begins at primary level where, I believe, every child should be taught at least one European language. That would be a start. We seem to have a desire to retain mandatory learning of Irish for 14 years yet, at the end of it all, I would say that 75% of people do not speak it, and after another couple of years, they cannot speak it. One would often wonder about how we are teaching language and where we should begin. There is a major gap in language skills in this country, and I include myself in that. We did not have the facility at primary level. As Senator Quinn said, his grandchildren picked it up like that. It is a fact about people who emigrate from this island and go somewhere else that their children pick up the local language easily. Children can learn very quickly.

The important thing is to make people feel part of what we are while retaining their identity, but also to educate them in the way things are done. How does a person who comes here know how to start up his or her own business and conform with Irish requirements, down to registering for tax purposes? Where do they go to get this information? That is why the colleges of further education would be good places to provide these courses, where people can learn the basics. We always assume that people go and work for somebody else. Why can they not start their own businesses, but in a way which they know conforms to Irish law and tax provisions? They should be able to find that information easily.

That is the sort of basic thing we need to consider. We must give people a sense that they can develop their own talents rather than depend on working for somebody else forever. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on compulsory rather than voluntary integration courses. What are the pros and cons of such an approach? I do not mean to insult people, but if we are doing things for their good, that is the way it should be approached, rather than making people feel unwelcome. Anybody we allow into this country should be made extremely welcome. If they are not entitled to be here they should not be here, but if they are allowed in they should be allowed to integrate and become part of the community as quickly as possible. It is in our interests that we change our structures to allow them to achieve that. I am interested in the views of the witnesses on these matters.

Like other members, I welcome the delegation, including the distinguished Dr. Miriam Hederman O'Brien, and thank them for their submission, which I have read. My colleagues have talked around the central issue, on which I would like to hear the views of the delegates. Many of the proposals from the conversations that took place are about process. To me, the more profound question is the objective of this process. The precursor of this document, an earlier document in 2003, was entitled "Mosaic or melting pot?". We need to have a discussion about what sort of result we want. From my perspective, multiculturalism is a wonderful rejuvenation of our nation. We were a monocultural people for a long time, a poor country that had not attracted others since the time of the Normans and Vikings, who came to my constituency. There have been other newcomers through the years, but none in recent centuries. Now all of that has changed, and we must determine how we are going to face up to it. A mature conversation, to use Ms Hederman O'Brien's own word, is extremely important. Is the objective to achieve what the Americans declare, "E pluribus unum”? Is it that we value all the component parts of the mosaic, but acknowledge that they are part of one mosaic? In America, everyone enters the melting pot to create a unique society with particular values predicated on the constitution, the Bill of Rights and so on.

The experiences of many of our European colleagues have been very different. Dr. Hederman O'Brien spoke of old empires, and obviously the experience of France or the UK is connected with their past empires. The German experience is different; after the war, the attraction was economic. Our attraction in the last decade, up to the last couple of years, was the same. The ways in which these countries have dealt with immigration have been very different, and the issues facing their societies now are also different. I have had interesting conversations with my Dutch colleagues on this. I always regarded the Netherlands as a model society - progressive, tolerant and so on. However, it is fundamentally fractured now, with the resurgence of the right and of racism. This is mainly because of the practice of allowing people to ghettoise themselves by having separate education, for example, which has fractured society. We are in the position of being able to learn from the mistakes of the Dutch. Part of it is a conversation that we need not be shy about. We must talk about these things in an open way and see how the people coming in want to deal with things. One of my colleagues referred to these people as "visitors", but they are much more than visitors; they are the new Irish. I remember one of my Dutch colleagues asking me a very profound question of whether we can tolerate intolerance, if that is a cultural norm that comes in. Progressive forces in Europe have spent 500 years trying to move away from intolerance. Should we have a situation where a cultural view, for example, of women being less than equal could possibly be tolerated? I know my answer to that question. It is a profound question in terms of cultural values of people who are resettling here. Perhaps I am missing something but I would be interested in the structural dialogue. We need better integration in sports clubs. I am all in favour of that as I am pinning great hopes on the future of Wexford hurling on some of the new migrants. If we do not have the open conversation there will be subterranean conversations on these issues as has happened and is happening in countries that were regarded as very progressive in Europe. The organisation present has an opportunity to develop that conversation and we should facilitate it as a committee and as a Parliament.

I also welcome the delegation and thank it for its submission. I wish to reflect on a couple of items that have not been addressed so far. I have experience of dealing with the African community, in particular, in County Louth. Women's experience is quite different from that of men who come to Ireland. There is almost a double isolation and a double distance from services and information in some communities. In some cases that is reinforced not only by cultural but religious norms. How can we use the apparatus available to us to reach out further to women? Inevitably the children will also be affected by that sense of isolation.

Dr. Hederman O'Brien said that reception centres do not allow culture to survive not to mention thrive. I agree with that statement. The amount of time people spend in those centres and their treatment in them, varies wildly from one centre to the next. How can we facilitate cultural expression in that context?

One area I have worked on is minors and the sundering experience they all go through on reaching the age of 18, when they move from one set of services to another. That is a real problem and there is no continuity as far as I can see, to the point of education being interrupted; a leaving certificate programme may have started in one place and finished in another.

Racism is wrong. I attended a champions programme event in Newry, County Down, recently. There were many people present from around the world but there were no Africans in the audience of approximately 60 to 80 people who were there for the event. I was amazed and I mentioned this to some of my African friends when I got home to Dundalk. They said it was because it is not safe for us to live there. It reflected part of what I heard from some of the community leaders in Newry that day who spoke about the legacy of sectarianism forming a perfect breeding ground for racism. We can reflect with some satisfaction that has not happened to the same extent that African people can say they are afraid to live in a certain place.

In terms of the conversation, I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Mary White, on the establishment of the Ministerial Council on Integration which is beginning to cause some of those conversations to happen around the country. It is an opportunity for the Minister of State to hear directly from the range of nationalities who have moved to Ireland to make it their home.

We have some serious process problems to deal with. I would like to hear the answers to Deputy Howlin's questions about the end gain, the end vision. We have serious process problems but we are not as encumbered by some of the legacy issues I came across recently in the North.

Members of the committee have presented all the issues that arise on a regular basis when we deal with them in our constituency clinics. Modern analysts decry and denigrate politicians meeting constituents on a one-to-one basis but as we know that is where one learns most. Members have emphasised that the issues emerging are a challenge to us in this country, a challenge to our culture and a challenge to Europe and its culture and multicultural society, as mentioned by Deputy Howlin. It is a very big issue and from it will emerge the degree to which we as a European multicultural people have matured over the past 50 or 60 years. That is very important.

I have heard criticisms in recent years, as I am sure everyone has, of immigrants to this country on the basis that they are economic immigrants. That is an unfortunate assessment of the position as members have already said. We as a society have been economic emigrants for a long time and, perhaps, we forget that. There is a lesson for us here. If we study the Irish in the US, we find there are two groups: one which integrated and one which did not. In the UK, there are also two Irish societies: one which integrated and one which did not. In our various capacities we have visited them. In respect of those who did not integrate, they felt a little unsure of themselves in the beginning and uneasy about going into the wider open space and, as a result, tended to resile from responsibilities and the rough and tumble of society. That continued with subsequent generations. There was also the group who integrated from day one. They created a certain amount of resentment among their contemporaries because the response was, "Who do you think you are?", and "Where do you think you are going?"

It is interesting to note that in Brazil the various societies have integrated to a fair extent, which includes background, race, religion, colour and creed. The other issue is that in the institutional systems in Ireland there are contradictions. I think it was Deputy Seán Barrett who said the immigration policy must be determined and we should take what we are able to absorb and treat in a proper fashion rather than bring everybody into reception centres where they go around in circles and, after ten or 12 years, are told they should not be in Ireland in the first place. What an appalling nonsense and mess. That is totally and absolutely wrong. The sad part is that at the end of the day those people are disillusioned and often sent back to a country about which they know nothing. Children who arrived here at four or five years of age, whose family may be deceased, are being returned to a country about which they know nothing. They may have read about it. It is history. When we were five or ten years old we read about history. However, it was not the same version we learned when we became a little older. That is what happens in this type of case.

I wish to mention briefly the issue of fairness. There are a great many people who want fair play. They are to be found throughout the spectrum of society. No one area has a monopoly on that and they like to believe that we treat everybody fairly. This is endemic in parts of our society, it is a good thing and will win through in the end.

For instance, if people want to make a racist reference to other cultures, they will begin with, "I know you don't want to hear me say this". My response, always, is to ask, "How do you know?" That is their own sense of fair play when they have reached the conclusion. At a time of economic crisis we need to be particularly cautious because this is when everybody is under pressure and feeling the pinch. Eventually it comes down to the individual, and in all walks of life people are feeling the pinch at this difficult time.

Deputy Brendan Howlin mentioned the issue of tolerance throughout Europe and we are working on that. A good deal of work has still to be done on this throughout the various societies in Europe. Europe's history, in fact, is sufficiently illustrative to keep that in mind. We can go back 50, 100 or 500 years and find that racial tolerance was never a runner. Therefore this report is very timely and has generated a very useful debate. We need to streamline the one-stop-shop type initiative we are talking about and to emphasise this within the education system. Some schools have up to 45 nationalities in attendance and this is a good thing. As Deputy Howlin said, this is good for our society. It is important for the gene pool here at this or at any time. It is also important for our general mind set and attitude.

The point I emphasise is the need for everybody to be treated fairly. People who emigrated from Ireland many years ago and integrated into their respective societies managed to come right up through the system and achieve the highest offices in various lands, as we well know. Resiling from immigration is not necessarily a good thing, so we must encourage those who come into the country to integrate. We must also try to ensure that we politicians - sometimes called, disparagingly, the political establishment - have a leadership role to play, too, in this regard. Members of Parliament have a particularly important role to play in giving leadership at a critical time. I now hand over to Ms Hederman O'Brien to respond to any of the comments made.

Ms Miriam Hederman O’Brien

Perhaps I might ask my colleague, Ms Catherine Heaney, to brief the committee.

Ms Catherine Heaney

There are a great number of points to be addressed and I am not sure whether we can get through them all.

Ms Miriam Hederman O’Brien

Ms Heaney can deal with some, Dr. Timothy King can take a couple and I will finish.

Ms Catherine Heaney

The purpose of the project was to discern the views of people on how they live their lives in a multicultural society. From conversation to conversation we found that different communities reacted differently. For example, if there was a really motivated principal, a school might encourage many activities. It might, for instance, have intercultural days where children and their parents would come along with different varieties of food from different countries, or a new dynamic might be introduced into a geography session to facilitate learning about other cultures. Other schools might approach this purely from the viewpoint of language, sport or whatever.

Quite a number of members asked about the objective of the project. It is really about pulling out the best examples of what is happening and making this information available to others so that we can learn from each other. Senator Quinn asked how behavioural patterns that we do not tolerate any longer might be addressed and this arose frequently in the conversations. Irish people might say that they did not like the fact that Africans do not queue very well, or whatever, but equally representatives of the high proportion of African women that participated said that the behaviour of Irish children was really poor in that they were quite mischievous and not respectful of adults. They indicated there was the potential for us to learn from new communities about better behaviour. That is the whole purpose of having conversations and exploring these issues, from talking frankly and more openly.

Deputy Barrett asked whether there should be some type of mandatory induction programme. One of the problems that Ms Hederman O'Brien has cited several times in her presentation is that the legislative framework here to deal with the whole asylum process as well as our infrastructure to do with schools, housing and whatever, are quite far behind what is actually needed. Many people from new communities who participated in the conversations were quite frustrated. Once they got here they suddenly became really angry because it had taken five to seven years for their asylum applications to be processed. In some cases it could take even longer and Mr. Reginald Okoflex Inya can give further details in that regard.

Mandatory education about our laws and norms might follow naturally from a better process that deals immediately with people as they come into the country, so that they are not just left hanging there assuming they might have asylum granted to them in ten years or whatever. A problem that members of the committee will be familiar with arises when the children of immigrants go through the education system up to leaving certificate and find, after the age of 18 that they cannot avail of free education any longer, because of the stamp system to which their parents do not have access. Should they then go back to their home countries? The first thing that must be put right is our legislative and social infrastructure, and then perhaps we can look at ways of promoting integration more efficiently.

Some of the issues raised by Deputy Howlin have already been dealt with in terms of the objectives, as I have indicated. It was not just a matter of saying, in effect, "We want this mosaic society, in which people are living in whatever manner". The objective of this was to pull out the best practice. On Senator Dearey's comments on women, certainly that was something which came up a good deal. It was believed, in particular, that women were often the people who left their children at the school gate, and so there is a real opportunity to engage with women in the education system. They rely heavily on their children, particularly if there is a language barrier issue, to navigate all the social services and cope with the integration processes. Again, the education system is a great way to draw people together, but we can exploit this initiative beyond the school gate by engaging parents, by capturing them, particularly the women, at the school gate. This is something that came up frequently, all over the country.

In terms of the frustrations the Senator said existed, and the shortcomings in our legislative processes and infrastructure, quite a number of those who participated in the conversations were people who run institutions, from VECs, county managers and so on and there was a good participation, too, from members of the Garda Síochána who were fundamentally frustrated by the process with which they were engaging. The gardaí believed they were earning a bad name for themselves in some instances, but it was not their fault that the law was so far behind. The frustrations were widespread. I believe I have addressed most of the questions.

Unfortunately, when we talk about this issue we seem to hark back to those who are seeking asylum, but it goes way beyond just asylum seekers. I agree entirely with Ms Heaney that our procedures leave a great deal to be desired. How someone can hang around for seven or eight years to find out whether he or she will be granted asylum seems extraordinary to me. However, I am talking about other cases. We have all sorts of other people from EU member states as well as others coming here to settle and to work, whether in the medical services or whatever. Are we just talking about asylum seekers here or are we expanding the whole process to include anybody coming to settle in Ireland?

Asylum is an issue in itself that should be debated. Are we and other countries adhering to UN procedures? Are people being trafficked, in some cases? There is a whole issue there that needs to be brought out into the open, debated and discussed. If somebody is a genuine asylum seeker, he or she should be dealt with quickly and given a prompt response. If there are other issues let us know about them, but I should be concerned in this regard in trying to put a policy together. It is always dangerous to talk about "voluntary" or "mandatory". I was only quoting from a set of guidelines produced by the Council of the European Union, which a number of countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have signed up to.

We should just leave the asylum system aside for one moment. These countries seem to have signed up to a system whereby there is a compulsory obligation for immigrants to join in civic integration classes or programmes. That is, presumably, for the good of the person, not for the good of the rest of us. Is there any experience whether that works, from a professional viewpoint? Asylum can very often blind us to the proper integration of people who are here to settle, who will remain here, become part of Irish society, and whose children will integrate. It is a question of getting the adults integrated more quickly than the children. The children will integrate far more quickly, so I am concerned about getting adults integrated.

Ms Catherine Heaney

The asylum question came up a good deal because it was the thing that people were most mobilised over. The conversations involved many different nationalities. There were people from Lithuania, Poland or whatever. Those are the people who came some eight to ten years ago to find employment here, and many of those suggested that they have probably integrated better because of marrying into Irish families, for example. While many Polish immigrants had returned to Poland, people who had married Irish partners were now here to stay and they said there still was not acceptance that they were permanent residents in Ireland as opposed to being economic migrants who would return home. That element of frustration surfaced somewhat.

On the whole idea of learning norms, laws and whatever, everybody in the conversations conceded that there were responsibilities on both sides to start the learning and understanding process. The structure or framework within which this is to be done was not discussed in too much detail, apart from suggesting that perhaps the education system was an obvious starting point for an exchange as to what is acceptable and what is not. It was agreed there were responsibilities on both sides to learn, and that we could learn from each other. I do not know whether that answers the Deputy's points, but there was no in-depth discussion on whether this should be mandatory.

Dr. Timothy King

I was thinking about this mandatory system, which I find rather hard to envisage, and whether it should apply to people such as I who come from a neighbouring EU country. I cannot see that a system can be found, given the large diversity of immigrants here, temporarily in many cases, that could be mandatory and useful. However, it would be a good idea to have courses on Irish law and living in Ireland, perhaps through the VECs, which are widely publicised and designed for newcomers to Ireland, but not in any way compulsory, and containing no element of a formal examination to prove that somebody has participated n such a course.

I had been unaware of this non-binding document issued by the Council of the European Union. One of its policy features focuses on immigrants from developing countries and exemption of those from developed countries. It says, "The common features of this policy at national level include a move from voluntary to mandatory civic integration courses, as well as penalties for non-compliance", and a number of countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, France, Germany and the UK have signed up to it. It was news to me, to be honest, and the delegates obviously had no experience of it, so I wondered whether it had been working properly. That is why I asked the question.

I want to bring in Mr. Reginald Okoflex Inya, and Mr. Alan Kelly, MEP, as well.

Mr. Alan Kelly, MEP

I apologise for being late, but I got my times mixed up. I commend the delegates for the excellent work done, and I believe the conversations, if they continue, will be very interesting to measure over a period, to see how the responses may be gradually changing.

From my own perspective, I should like to have a percentage measurement on the difference of opinion on the various issues from the viewpoint of EU migrants and non-EU immigrants. This should be further broken down into the viewpoints of those from eastern parts of the EU as against those from its more western member states. That is a very pertinent exercise since there is a different scale of attitudes, depending on where people have come from. I suppose it is a matter of attitudes towards people on gaining employment, and the manner in which they are accessing education, along with various other issues. The issue of employment is particularly relevant because this is obviously one of the core issues.

The attitudes and frustrations of many people are based around how they are being treated with regard to accessing employment. Some of the commentary we have all heard and the general discourse among Irish people is based on what they perceive as myths as regards how immigrants have got access to employment, in particular, or social welfare. We all know these are myths, but if this could be broken down, it would be a great help.

We all know that the role of the education system is of paramount importance, as to how integration is to be brought about. The various religious authorities have a serious role to play. Last Sunday I attended Mass in my home town, Nenagh, which was basically an international service based around integration. It was a forum for bringing together the various cultures in the area, and a variety of ecumenical services have been taking place this week. It was an enormous success and it showed great leadership. I would not normally congratulate the local parish priest, but this was very well done and the comments made accorded very closely to what I believe in. This led me to believe that the leadership role of the various religious authorities in working with education is important.

The whole issue of xenophobia is discussed at length in various European forums in Brussels and so on, along with the unfortunate developments taking place in other countries. Are any comments being identified in this regard in the conversations which had not been noticed before?

Who wants to take that question? Dr. King?

Dr. Timothy King


Mr. Inya?

Mr. Reginald Okoflex Inya

Many issues were raised which I would like to talk about, but I will start by saying that in the area of interculturalism in Ireland, a fair bit of work has been done but a much more needs to be done still. Towards the end of last year, my organisation, the New Communities Partnership, hosted a delegation that had come from Finland to meet us because they said we were an example of best practice in this area, along with Dublin City Council and other bodies. They came to learn how we were dealing with the integration of new communities in Ireland. They are getting themselves prepared because they know that there will soon be a good influx of migrants into Finland. The delegates said that they know a particular area from which immigrants will want to come, and they want to start getting ready. It is interesting that people from other countries are coming to Ireland to hear how the Irish system is working in terms of the new communities.

We are talking about leadership from politicians and others. There was a family and intercultural day in the Dáil around 2005 - I do not know who the Ceann Comhairle was at the time. Every person was invited to come here, and the aim was to bring people closer to the Parliament by making them feel free to go in. They must know that this place is for everyone and that this is where rules and regulations are made, and they should know how these rules and regulations are made. It is clear that if people know what is expected of them, they will comport themselves much better.

In reply to Senator Quinn's comments I will say that the only way we can move forward in integrating new communities is through dialogue. Through dialogue we will be able to hear the views of everyone. Often, people feel unable to express their views, and they cannot let their feelings out. They do not have a way to release the steam that is building up inside. Sometimes there is ignorance around. I can remember many times when I met Irish people at events and some people still believed that every black person was from Nigeria. They also believed that all Nigerians and Africans are the same. I tell them I am not from Nigeria but from Ghana, and they say, "It does not matter; you are all Nigerians." This was widely believed, and people did not see anything wrong with it. There is a need for people to get together one-to-one and deal with issues through discussion, through celebrations and through sports, as members rightly mentioned.

As Ms Heaney said, often during our discussions and in the forums we set up we see situations of opposing cultures. There are so many cultures, and people have come here from many different places. In some places, when people laugh it means they are happy with the people they are talking to, while in other cultures people laugh because they are supposed to laugh, even though they do not really want to. We heard about a situation in which a person got himself into trouble because he saw children at the bus stop breaking the glass of the publicity material. The other people at the bus stop were all adults but they did not do anything. This person was an African, and in Africa, if a child is doing something wrong, the person who sees it must smack the child and tell it to stop. He was amazed that nobody else at the bus stop was interested in telling the children to stop. He went to do something, but he got in trouble, because the three kids started to stone him, and all the other people at the bus stop were looking at him but nobody did anything. What was he to do? He went home and tried to recount what had happened. It is a different culture here. People have to mind their own business and not mind anyone else's.

It comes back to something that was mentioned by members: how do we let people know what are accepted norms? What is the culture and what are the values? Those things can always happen, formally and informally. In my organisation we feel strongly - the European Cultural Foundation feels the same - that for interculturalism to thrive in Ireland, there is a need for formal and informal education and support. There should be support for the establishment of a civic and community infrastructure. We now think the statutory agencies will allow this to happen, because in the process we will talk about cultural competency and delivering this education to the people.

If I walk into a Muslim enclave, the last thing I must do is to start shaking hands with the people in the mosque, especially the women. If I put my hand out and shake their hands, they will not take it lightly because, as a man, I am not supposed to shake hands with another person's wife. However, if I walk into an environment such as Leinster House, the first thing signal of welcome from any woman or man I meet is a handshake. That does not happen in other cultures. We need to know they do not mean anything wrong by it; it is their culture. Do we have to teach them how to behave? How do we teach the next person to understand that they should not shake the hand of a Muslim woman, and that they do not mean anything wrong by it because it is their culture? Do we have to change that culture?

This brings me back to the question of whether there should be mandatory education about cultural norms. My answer to that is "Yes and no." Yes, because we believe people have to understand how the system works and be aware of cultural norms and values so that they can do better in this country. Often in our office we have tried to teach people interview skills. Where I come from, I am not supposed to look at an elderly person face-to-face or in the eye, because it is disrespectful. Some people have retained that mind set, which has been ingrained in them. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they will try to avoid a person's eyes. When such a person goes for an interview, he or she will avoid the eye of the interviewer. However, in Ireland, if a person avoids looking at another person's face, he or she is thought to be hiding something or not telling the truth. That has become a problem. How can people get jobs if they cannot make eye contact and communicate well? There is a need for us to determine how we can teach people about cultural norms, values and customs. What is the culture? If a person want to progress, he or she needs to know this.

The majority of people who are members of ethnic minorities in Ireland have families, and their children are happy here. As Ms Heaney mentioned, the majority of them work here. How can we get to a place of dialogue so that the Irish population understands that ethnic minorities are not just economic migrants? Even if they are, they pay tax, and if a person pays tax, obeys the rules and stays away from trouble, he or she should be entitled to the protection and support of the State. The situation currently, as Ms Heaney said, is that many members of ethnic minorities work here for years and pay all their taxes, but their children are not entitled to free third-level education. This causes frustration, and they are looking for ways to understand why this is the case. This brings us back to the question of process and trying to make sure we have the right infrastructure in place - legally and from the point of view of policy - to help people who are going through the process.

We were talking about the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which has been going around the corridors of the Dáil since 2005. Now we have a new one in 2010, but what we get are more provisions on immigration, border control and protection. Only a small portion of the Bill deals with how people come into and live in this country. What do we expect from them? We must look at other things, and decide exactly what happens when people come here. This is what I mean when I say that my answer to the question of compulsory cultural education is "Yes and no." People need to understand what is expected from them because they cannot come here, as Deputy Howlin was saying, without learning anything. We must not allow intolerance to develop. When a person comes to Ireland, a person comes to that person to make sure one stays within the rightful order of the way things are done here. One does not come here to keep to exactly what one is doing.

The EU basic principles of integration are a two-way process. While we expect immigrants to learn exactly how the Irish system works, the Irish people also have a duty to learn how ethnic minorities and their cultures operate. If there was that understanding, we would be in a position to promote a vibrant society. If that does not happen as a two-way process, it will be very difficult because it feels as if one is trying to assimilate me inside. We all know that assimilation never worked. Through assimilation one tries to force one's ways on such people to be like Irish people.

I was telling somebody I have an Irish passport in my pocket. If a garda comes here and wants to search people, he or she will start with me because I do not look Irish, but I have a passport. No matter how I try, visually I will still be an immigrant. I went to a shop to pick my glasses and the lady asked where I was from. When I said I was from Glasnevin, she burst out laughing. She said, "Glasnevin". I said, "Yes, Glasnevin, what about it"? She said that is an interesting Irish name, to which I replied by saying, "Yes, indeed". She then asked where I came from originally and I said I came from Nigeria. She said that was what she was asking. I said, "What if I say I was born here, like my children who were born here"? They look like me but in 15 years they might be asked where they were born originally. If they say they were born in Glasnevin, the person will then ask where they were born originally. They will say they were born originally in Glasnevin but the pressure still continues. This is the kind of interaction and dialogue we have to go through.

As Dr. Hederman O'Brien said we know we are in a multicultural society but what it actually means is difficult to get across. I can see the desire in all of the members of the committee from making presentations that they want something tangible to happen and they want a better society where every person will have an opportunity. The good news is that within our work with ethnic minorities, new Irish people, as some might say, much of the benefit of new communities cannot be achieved to the maximum if most of the untrue urban myths are not handled and dispersed.The good news is that the people who actually migrate are the strongest people. They are educated and can handle themselves, which means that the receiving country actually gets extraordinary human capital. It is left to us to see how we can utilise this extraordinary human capital to the best of our ability. How can Ireland not benefit from the immigrants who have so much coming to this country? The majority have been helped by the State in one way or the other. Why is there not a system to tap into that human resource capital that they bring to Ireland?

Ireland has only to look at its history in the United States. We are talking of difficult times. How many times have we turned around and asked what ethnic minorities can do in difficult times in Ireland? It does not happen but it should be happening. Such discussions should be taking place. What can they do? How do we engage them in the discussion about the recession and the recovery? They are medical professionals, IT professionals and so on. In the US all immigrants are given an opportunity in a better way to explore and feel free and give to the state. We know all of them in the United States. They are all immigrants but they were given a very good chance. Why can Ireland not do the same? We need to get the process right. It is a process with which we will have to engage. We must make sure we strengthen the community infrastructure for the ethnic minorities because that is where the dialogue has to start.

Sometimes in discussions, people say that if they make a telephone call to one Department and then another Department, that Department does not know who they are. Ms Heaney was saying something about this and about the four stamp, three stamp and two stamp system that we have in place. There is a lot of confusion which even we do not understand. Interagency arrangements are important. Dr. Hederman O'Brien spoke about joined-up thinking, and that is the best way we can go. There is no way we can make progress if the State agencies and statutory bodies continue to work within themselves without opening up to engage everyone. We must all be engaged in that place. If something is planned for ethnic minorities, those minorities must make sure they are involved in the planning, design and implementation and not just there as the object of whatever is being planned.

Support for immigrants is very important. We should support ethnic-led organisations, just like we did. I was part of this dialogue and I know what emerged from that discussion. We encouraged immigrants to take part in that discussion. It was an opportunity for many of them to speak. We have all known for a very long time that there has not been a discussion or dialogue around integration or immigration in Ireland. There has been a lot of anger and some ignorance, and people need to find a way of exploring that. This project did open up that discussion and showed there are things in people's minds that need to be brought out. In that process we will be able to develop something. When we talk about integration, what are we trying to integrate into?

I thank Mr. Okoflex Inya. We have two other speakers. I call Senator Mark Dearey to be followed by Senator Rónán Mullen.

This is something that was prompted by what Deputy Seán Barrett said. I pay tribute to many pastors around the country who act as civic and religious leaders in what they do in the education programmes they initiate within their church communities. I acknowledge that as it is really important. It is a way in which education can be brought beyond the school gate. It is a possible entry point that ought to be considered.

During the forthcoming election it is extremely important that the debate around these issues mirrors the standard of commitment shown by the politicians who spoke here today. I would hate to see an unwarranted or deliberately offensive comment used by anybody in an effort to attract attention or popularity. That would be most unhelpful and parties need to guard against that.

I welcome the delegation. I apologise that I was unable to be present for the presentation but I have read it with great interest and delight. I add my voice to those who commend the delegation on the work it has done and support it. This gets to the essence of what our society needs in so many different areas, namely, structured conversations between people of different interests and values. We see so much conflict in our media and political culture and I hope we are rapidly coming to a conclusion about the limitations of the conflict-based approach.

I was taken by what Mr. Okoflex Inya had to say because I had that direct experience. I was on an interview panel on one occasion interviewing students for admission to courses in a third level college and several African students failed to make eye contact with me. I remember to this moment the negative feelings I started to have about them that they were not on the level with me. It was only later when I came to realise the cultural difference that I learned this was an attempt to show respect. What follows from that is how many times it happens that people who are in positions of responsibility do not have the cultural knowledge they need in order to discharge their duties responsibly.

In Ireland, of course, we must be concerned about negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities. There is enough evidence to show this is an issue in which we must be tremendously engaged. It would be a pity if we did not get it right because I think we have extra cultural capital here. Mr. Kelly, MEP, touched on it in terms of our faith groups, in particular, who have an opportunity to give leadership, precisely because they are in the reconciliation business they are in the fraternity business. Our great missionary tradition is of great support to us because many Irish people have been imbued with concepts of solidarity from an early age. Ghana was mentioned. I am aware of an excellent project run by the Holy Ghost Fathers in one of their schools, St. Mary's College, Rathmines. It is giving support and a solidarity that is practical but not patronising, where people engage in friendship and support each other.

I want to make one last comment in the context of the role of faith-based groups. I saw a bullet point to the effect that faith-based schools and their admission policies might be a threat to integration. I say this as somebody who has experience of visiting some Catholic schools where one sees the celebration of diverse ethnic traditions in a very conscious way. Over the last couple of years we saw ethnic communities being let down because of a failure of planning, where people had been advised of shortages of places. Any criterion for admission then, whether faith-based or any other, has the potential to be the indirect cause of problems in the absence of appropriate planning. However, the essence of the structured conversations we are talking about is such that people are in a position to advise each other on their core needs. There will be an ongoing core need for faith-based communities to be able to organise education, as taxpayers, the same as everyone else, in ways that reflect their values. It is fair to say that they will be at the forefront in ensuring that their schools are not places that are exclusive, but rather inclusive.

However, they will need the support from Government and the taxpayer to ensure that this can be achieved, so that there is not poor planning and a sudden ghettoisation in particular places, in the absence of the educational infrastructure to meet the needs that exist. Ongoing misuse of the issue then, perhaps by other agendas, can be a stick to beat faith-based education, as we saw when that controversy occurred a couple of years ago on the northside of Dublin.

I welcome the witnesses and thank them, in addition to making those observations.

I thank the Senator and invite Ms Hederman O'Brien to conclude on foot of a very interesting discussion.

Ms Miriam Hederman O’Brien

I thank the Chairman. We have identified the fact that the issue needs political leadership and where better to look for political leadership than here?

Senator Quinn talked about people doing things that are not acceptable in our society, and I am sorry to say that there are also Irish people who are doing things that are not acceptable in our society. If we were to have a test case in this respect, I would be reluctant to say that all the Irish people would succeed, whether as regards begging or anything else. This is a problem, but I would leave the committee with two thoughts. One is that there is no unanimity on this, apart from the fact that there was agreement on the need to pursue it further and that it was very important. How it is to be pursued will vary from place to place and from situation to situation. What is needed, however, is the political leadership and the fact that something will be done to see that this is in place.

The Chairman referred to the one-stop-shop, and this would be of enormous benefit to everybody in this country. One wants to find out something about one's social welfare entitlements and then one discovers that there is something about one's taxation that one did not know, so that one has to go somewhere else. This is a question of general concern, and not just to immigrants coming into the country.

Finally, during the discussion on the mandatory matters I was reflecting, particularly as regards an EU resident or citizen, about a wonderful case that could end up in the Supreme Court where somebody from Estonia or Poland might have had to go through a mandatory course whereas an Irish person would not. Under the EU, the Estonian or Polish person, in effect, is a citizen of Ireland. However, a great deal needs to be done. I am very heartened and I thank members of the committee for their interest today.

I thank Ms Hederman O'Brien and her colleagues for the very interesting presentation. Members of the committee are all very familiar with the subject matter. We should all adopt a mission statement to the effect that the way we treat our fellow human beings, regardless of where they come from, should be the manner in which we ourselves would like to be treated. I have said this many times in the past and it is something that might be useful for our European colleagues to reflect on.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.45 p.m. and adjourned at 4.05 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 January 2011.