Protests against the members of the Roma community in the southern Irish city of Waterford cut to the heart of a debate about community relations in the new, modern Ireland. But they also say much about a metropolitan elite who seem to have lost contact with ordinary people facing new levels of anti-social behavior and criminal activity. Such a ‘disconnection’ will not be news to peoples in other places, such as the US.
The Waterford protests involved a few hundred local people standing outside the houses of Roma gypsies whom they perceived to be involved in recent criminal activity. ‘Roma out,’ they shouted. It was not pretty, and it was rightly criticized, especially the obvious intimidation and the kicking of house doors. Three Roma families were evacuated by the Gardai (Irish police force) for their safety. The actions of the crowd were condemned by civil liberties groups and politicians, especially the new Minister of State for Equality and New Communities, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who has been particularly vocal of late on the rights of the Roma gypsies and on the State’s treatment of asylum seekers.
O’Riordain, from the Labour party, described the actions of the Waterford crowd as “a lynch mob,” although nobody was hurt and there was not even physical contact between the crowd and the Roma families targeted. Liberal commentators have described the protests as ‘xenophobic’ and ‘racist.’
However, there has been little focus among such commentators about the issue that drove the protests, which is the serious escalation of crime in the Waterford city area. There have been robberies near cash dispensers, muggings in the port city’s lanes. The Gardai (police) have carried out raids on Roma houses to recover stolen property and are now pressing charges against nine men. Not all of the violence can be attributed to members of Roma community, of course, but in the public mind this community is disproportionately involved in crime. Public begging is itself illegal, but the law is rarely enforced. More seriously, there is the claim of an attempted ‘grooming’ of a 12 year old local girl by a Roma man, which in the current climate, is especially alarming.
This allegation, and the general escalation of crime in the area, has been described as ‘extremely worrying’ by local Sinn Fein councilor, John Hearne, who interestingly appears to have taken a stronger line on the apparent criminality than David Cullinane, the Sinn Fein Senator, also from Waterford, who has been on the national airwaves condemning the actions of the mob.
Cullinane has quite rightly urged people to bring their concerns to the Gardai, but the reality is that this is not working and the public perceive that the offenders are only met with an often weak and indulgent legal system, as well as a palpable Political Correctness about the activities of marginalized communities. This perception of indulgence by the criminal system, with its free legal aid and generous bail laws, also extends to Irish offenders as well. Much of the public thus feel utterly frustrated about the system and then resort to public protests, like the ones in Waterford, however ugly they may be.
The politicians are right to condemn any intimidation, racism and threats of violence wherever they may occur, but what is extraordinary and depressing is that there is so little inquiry into why the protests took place. This lack of inquiry or frank discussion about the causes of unrest is typical of a disconnection in Ireland (as it is elsewhere) between the authorities and the ordinary people who feel unable to make their concerns about crime or anti-social behavior heard.
It is a situation I am very familiar with from my own area in Philbsboro, in north Dublin. In 2011, I wrote two articles about the way this once-proud Dublin area had become run down and prone to, drug use, alcoholism, and homelessness, as well as the activities of Roma gypsies living in the area. The second article focused in particular on the Roma. This was not to pick on them, but just to focus on how one group could become dominant on the streets of a small area and contribute to such atmosphere. Americans may not be so familiar with Roma gypsies, but they live throughout Western Europe, where they often incur unfortunate resentment because of a perceived association with begging and petty crime.
And this was what was happening in Phibsboro, and in Waterford. Unlike Irish panhandlers, the Roma women worked in teams and often begged aggressively, targeting old people in particular and frequently pick pocketing them; all of this I actually witnessed and didn’t just hear about. One tactic was to watch the pensioners coming out of the post office after they had collected their pensions and following them. Other criminal activities surged, such as housebreakings, the stripping of metal from old buildings and even casual prostitution. Eventually, with intense police activity, the situation improved. But the phenomenon seems to have moved on somewhere else.
This is not about ethnicity – Irish society provides plenty of native locally-born criminals who should be similarly tackled. In fact, Phibsboro, and the wider Dublin Central area, is one of the most multi-cultural constituencies in the country, a colorful and industrious blend of people from all parts of the world. This has to do with behavior, and the activities of members of an admittedly marginalized (or self-marginalized) group. Once again, the larger community feels confused and powerless.
If Australia and the US, can hand-pick their (legal) immigrants, then why has a small country like Ireland ended up with so many people involved in public begging and other anti-social activities? In the UK such a feeling has resulted in the phenomenal growth of the UK Independence Party. In Ireland, it has resulted in unfortunate displays such as the chanting of a night time crowd in Waterford.
Rather than just condemn such behavior, we should also seek to understand what brings such frustration about, and how it can be addressed.
What should happen is a dialogue with the local community, the protesters, and the Roma community. But there is absolutely no sign of this happening, or being proposed, which is extraordinary. In Northern Ireland, such a step would immediately be attempted as a first phase in conflict resolution. Instead, yesterday, the only Irish Government Minister to comment on the protests was once again Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and once again he had harsh and angry words for the Waterford demonstrators whose protests he said were ‘cheap and cowardly’. He called for stricter legislation on hate crimes, as he has before.
“If I was a member of the Roma community and lived in Waterford’ said Minister Ó Ríordáin in a revealing comment ‘or if I was member of the Roma community and I lived in Ireland I would be pretty terrified at the moment, not just because of that incident but because of previous incidents that have happened in terms of the State’s interaction with the Roma community.”
There is nothing here about how the Minister might feel if he was a Waterford local who felt threatened by crime. There is no attempt to bridge differences or create dialogue. Also, by linking the protests in Waterford with the State’s recent wrongful removal of two children from Roma families on the grounds of suspected abduction, it suggests that the Minister has a wider grievance in mind and that his approach to the disturbances in Waterford is more about ideology and politics and less about practicality and problem solving.
Meanwhile, the angry people in Waterford continue to feel demonized and powerless, and nothing is resolved.