|A group of participants at the Nigerian Irish Expo in 2009 in Dublin|
Probably the most talked about story here over the past week has been the allegedly racist comments made by a local politician called Darren Scully, the mayor of Naas, a large commuter town about 20 miles from Dublin in Co. Kildare.
Scully said in an interview last week on a local radio station that he had a problem with black African immigrants who are now living in the Naas area and who were coming to see him about issues like housing and welfare benefits.
There is nothing unusual in people going to see local politicians to get their help in accessing council housing or welfare benefits. But Scully said in an interview on local radio last week that he would no longer represent black Africans in his area because of their attitude.
"I have been met with aggressiveness and bad manners," he said.
The story received blanket coverage not least because Scully is a Fine Gael councilor, and there was an immediate focus on how embarrassing his remarks were for the government.
The media here, all singing from the same hymn sheet, condemned him and demanded action from the powers that be. In these politically correct times, an incident like this provokes a furious reaction, and it did not take long for party headquarters to lean on him.
Within a day, Scully had acknowledged his error, publicly and abjectly apologized and handed back his mayor's chain of office.
But it did not end there. Scully works as a structural engineer for a small private company (he is a part-time politician), and he now says he has been suspended and could lose his job.
He says the reaction to his remarks has been so intense that he has been close to a breakdown. He says he has been subjected to a torrent of abuse, and that the experience has almost destroyed him.
Media commentators are still calling for his head. A Labor politician has reported his remarks to the Gardai (police) for a possible criminal prosecution. Various organizations demanded that he be excluded from politics altogether.
A support group for African immigrants held a press conference which criticized him and also pointed to the killing of an African taxi driver in Dublin recently as evidence of how serious racism here has become (although it is not yet clear whether this was primarily a racist attack).
By the time you read this Fine Gael may have thrown Scully out of the party altogether, although he remains a councilor until the next election, unless he resigns his seat.
This whole controversy is interesting for a number of reasons. For a start, although official Ireland and the media turned on Scully as though he was Hitler reborn, what he actually said was relatively moderate.
He said the Africans who had come to see him had been aggressive and bad mannered. He did not say that all Africans had behaved towards him in this way. He did not say that he never had to put up with aggressiveness and bad manners from other immigrant groups or from Irish people who came to see him.
But he did say that he would no longer represent black Africans because of the general attitude he had experienced. Even if not all of them had been aggressive or rude to him, he clearly felt enough of them had behaved in this way so that he was justified in excluding them as a group from his political services.
And that is racist. It is taking a decision for an entire group based on skin color/ethnic origin rather than on an assessment of people as individuals.
Racism is something that cannot be tolerated, either in Ireland or anywhere else. But even with that as a guiding principle, there should be room for discussion here about what former Mayor Scully was expressing.
In these politically correct times in Ireland, however, no such discussion is possible. Anyone who attempts to start such a discussion is immediately called a racist and is vilified and ostracized, as Scully has been.
He was both stupid and naive if he thought he could make comments like he did without provoking a backlash of political correctness from official Ireland.
But one of the interesting things about the controversy was the wide difference of opinion between official Ireland and the majority of anonymous people who went on-line or rang up radio stations about the issue over the past week. It looked to me like 70 or 80 percent of people supported Scully, to some degree at least.
The reaction varied from a few outright racists to many more people with moderate views who are deeply concerned about the ongoing effect of the immigration that took place here during the Celtic Tiger decade.
The reaction in general was an illustration not only of how sensitive the immigration issue is here, but how that sensitivity is increasing as the pressure of cutbacks and unemployment intensifies. With huge cuts in state spending on the way over the next few years, this is likely to get worse.
The way to deal with the pent-up concern or anger here on the issue is not by smothering it under a wall of political correctness. That increases the frustration of the people who do not agree that sharing scarce resources in a multi-cultural Ireland is a wonderful, life-enhancing development.
Rather than propaganda, what is needed is honest, open and realistic discussion.
The scale of immigration that took place here in the last decade and a half was higher per capita than in any other country in the western world. Was that necessarily a good thing, given the pressure that schools, hospitals and our welfare system are now under? Or was it another mistake that we made during the Celtic Tiger years?
Even though we are continually told that multi-culturalism is good for us, have Irish people the right to say that, actually, they preferred the way things used to be? And if they do, does that make them racist?
Let's take one example. The relentless propaganda about the benefits of multi-culturalism makes little impression on many parents in areas here where there is a high concentration of immigrants.
In commuter towns and suburbs around Dublin and other cities, there is particular pressure on schools which have a high number of immigrant children who do not have English as a first language or who have no English at all.
In some classes in primary schools, more than half the children may have little or no English, which means the teacher takes much longer to get through lessons. This means that the progress of the Irish kids is much slower that it used to be.
Of course there were promises of extra language support teachers for these schools, but the resources available are a fraction of what would be needed to deal with the situation.
How would you, as the parent of an Irish child, feel if you were confronted with this problem, especially if you realize that that it could mean that your child will still be behind when he or she leaves school and tries to get a college place or a job?
That's what multi-culturalism means in practice in some areas here. No one denies that being able to get a flavor of other cultures is interesting. But the happy clappy propaganda that insists multi-culturalism is creating a far better new Ireland does not convince many people who deal with it on the ground on a daily basis.
Schools are just one area where this pressure is visible. There is intense competition for the few jobs that become available, with downward pressure on wages.
The lines outside welfare payment offices get longer. The overcrowding in hospitals gets worse.
Rightly or wrongly, our high level of immigration is now perceived by many of the people who have expressed support for former Mayor Scully as part of the problem, especially since the economy has tanked and state spending on all kinds of services is shrinking fast.
The increased competition for increasingly scarce resources is producing tension, both among and between immigrants and locals. It is against that background that the Scully controversy must be seen. On a general level, there are cultural differences between the Irish and some immigrants, and between different groups of immigrants, which can mean they do not easily co-exist in every situation.
There is no value judgment between cultures involved in this observation. It's not racist, merely a statement of fact. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
This question of cultural difference may possibly be a factor in Scully's difficulty with his black African constituents. Most of the Africans here are from Nigeria, and as a group they tend to be louder and more assertive than most Irish people. Not all of them, but many of them.
This is not something negative and it is certainly understandable. To make yourself heard and to survive in a teeming city like Lagos (or many other cities in Africa) you have to be loud and assertive.
Given the competition and the corruption, you may even have to be aggressive in some situations. The etiquette of queuing is different, as is putting your case to officials.
In Ireland, the tendency is to line up in a subdued, orderly manner and to put your case or make your request quietly, almost apologetically. It's just the way we are. We don't like to make a fuss. We never complain in restaurants because we don't want to cause any embarrassment.
The Nigerians, by and large, are not hampered by such reticence and demand their rights in an assertive manner. As I said, it's a cultural difference.
These differences do not make either us or them bad people. It does not mean that an immigrant is of less value as a human being than an Irish person. We are all equal.
But there are differences. And these differences can cause problems, as Scully has found out to his cost.
This is a situation that will need careful management in the immediate future as the pressures increase. The various quangos set up by official Ireland which deal with immigration issues seem incapable of more than wishful thinking about the benefits of multi-culturalism.
Everything will be all right, they keep saying. Official Ireland wants to be like a Coca-Cola commercial teaching Ireland to sing in perfect harmony.
But real life is more complicated than that. Just ask former Mayor Scully.