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?