Gardai search the bags of Roma gypsies in Dublin earlier this year.

The clumsy handling of the cases involving the removal of two Roma children from their families in Ireland last week has brought an extraordinary level of criticism down on the heads of the Gardai (Irish police).  But the truth is that the Gardai were damned if they did, and could have been damned if they didn’t.

The cases of the two children taken from their Roma families followed the case in Greece where a blond, blue-eyed little girl, named Maria by the press, was removed by police from a Roma family living there.  That story, partly because of the still unsolved case in Portugal of missing Madeleine McCann, got massive coverage all over Europe, including Ireland.  People here and across Europe were wondering if the same kind of thing might have happened to Madeleine.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the two cases in Ireland emerged just a week after the Maria story broke in Greece.  The actions by the Gardai in the cases here were prompted by calls from the public.

In the case of the family in Tallaght, the big blue collar suburb on the west side of Dublin, a person contacted a TV station here (TV3) via Facebook to say there was a blond girl living with Roma parents in a house in the area.  The parents, like most Roma, are dark skinned with dark hair, as are the girl’s siblings.

The TV station then contacted the Gardai who went to investigate, were not completely happy with the answers they were given, and ended up taking the seven-year-old girl away from the family and placing her in care, pending DNA testing.

The second case, which was in the town of Athlone in the middle of Ireland, was similar. The Gardai were tipped off by a member of the public that a blond, blue-eyed child - this time a two year-old boy - was living with a Roma couple.

Again, after some investigation and questioning of the family, Gardai were not satisfied with the information they were given and they removed the child, pending DNA tests.

Both children were seized under the Child Care Act which allows Gardai to remove a child where there is an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of that child.

In Greece DNA testing subsequently showed that Maria was not the child of the Roma family she was living with, but she was the child of another Roma family living in severe poverty in Bulgaria who came forward after all the publicity.

The mother had been working as an olive picker in Greece when she either gave Maria away or sold her because she could not care for another baby and needed to get back to Bulgaria to look after her other children.

When the cameras descended last week on the hovel in the Roma camp outside the small town in Bulgaria where this woman and her nine other children live, they discovered something that made everyone here sit up and pay attention.  At least one other child in the family was blond.

Investigators said there was a blond or albino gene in the family bloodline and that the same thing, although not common, was also evident in other Roma families.
Sometimes the effect of the blond gene would skip a generation before becoming visible in a child in a family in which both parents and siblings had the typically dark Roma complexion and hair color.

In Ireland the DNA tests subsequently showed that the two children were the biological offspring of the respective parents.  The little boy had already been returned to the family on the advice of a social worker who knew them.

The little girl was returned to her family as soon as the test results were available.  The parents told reporters that there were other relatives who were also blond.

An outpouring of recrimination then started as immigrant and traveler support organizations here berated the Gardai and accused them of racial profiling.  This accusation was extended by other politically correct people into wider allegations about racism in Ireland and about how, as a society, we are far too quick to jump to conclusions about Roma people and our own travelers.

The spokespeople involved were full of outrage and self-righteousness.  Where was the evidence that there was “an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare” of the children which is what the law requires before the Gardai can take them away?

Both children appeared to be well cared for. But that was not the issue here.  The issue was the suspicion that the children did not belong to the parents.

And the problem for the Gardai was that many Roma families move around between various countries in Europe.  The Gardai could have done some questioning and taken swabs for DNA testing but not taken the children away.

But suppose they had done that and while they were waiting for the results one of the families had vanished”  And if the DNA then showed that the child they had was not theirs, what then?
We would then have had headlines about how the incompetent Irish police failed to rescue a stolen child when they had the chance.  As I said, for the Gardai it was a case of damned if you do and possibly damned if you don’t.

Was there racism or racial profiling involved?  We don’t know yet, although an investigation here by our ombudsman for children is underway, with powers to question all those involved, including the Gardai.

But the assertion now being made that the Gardai should have totally ignored the obvious difference in appearance of the two children from the other members of their families is another example of political correctness gone too far.  The rights of a child, particularly a child who is possibly at risk, must supersede everything else.

Another flawed argument being put forward here is that since the Gardai only took away the two blond children and not their brothers and sisters, they could not claim that there was “an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare” of the children.  If that had been the case, if the Gardai had decided there was a danger of physical or sexual abuse, all the children would have been removed, the argument goes.

But that also misses the point.  The danger to the “welfare” of the two blond children arose from the possibility that they had been taken from their natural parents somewhere else.
It also arose from the fact -- and it is a fact no matter what the politically correct say — that some Roma families in Europe have been involved in child trafficking, and that some Roma families force children to work as street beggars in the way that used to be common among Irish travelers.

To ignore that reality would be a mistake. It is the context in which the Gardai had to make a decision on whether to act.

Being aware of the wider context is not racist. Making assumptions in individual cases on that basis alone would be racist, and we do not know yet if that is what the Gardai did.

That said, the Gardai did not handle this matter well.  They could have talked gently to the families about wanting to reassure everyone, they could have taken swabs for DNA and they could have left the children in their homes with a police presence outside to ensure nobody vanished before the tests were complete.

In retrospect, that would have been a more sensible and humane approach.  But the national orgy of guilt and self-recrimination that is now underway in Ireland, led by the politically correct, is ridiculous.

The Gardai act to protect children, not to harm them.  We all need to calm down a bit and get real about this.

In that context, the comments last week by Michael Moran, the assistant director of Interpol’s Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation section in Europe, who is based in France and happens to be an Irishman, are instructive.

He said that the “migration habits” of many Roma people, and the involvement of some of those who move between Romania and Bulgaria and other European countries in theft and begging gangs, make them susceptible to human trafficking for exploitation purposes.  He referred to “the problem of organized street gangs, child street gangs, theft gangs, organized begging, forced marriages, child marriages within their (the Roma) community.”

Moran also warned against applying this to all Roma people in a racist manner and said that the Roma community themselves were working to stop this kind of activity.  It is important that assumptions are not made about all Roma simply because they are Roma.

There are now estimated to be over 5,000 Roma living in Ireland, most of whom have arrived since 2007 when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU.  Many of them are now settled permanently in housing here, with children in school.

But there is still a problem with some Roma here who are involved in begging, shoplifting, theft and other activities.

You may remember the notorious case four years ago of the Rostas clan of up to 100 people who were discovered living in squalor in the middle of a big roundabout on the M50 motorway that encircles Dublin. The conditions for the women and children in this camp, which was invisible in the middle of the overgrown trees and bushes on the roundabout, were appalling.  They were being brought into the city every day in vans by their men to beg.

They were all eventually deported, and cleaning up after them was a major operation.  But many of them subsequently came back and their leader, Barron Rostas, rented a house in the inner city to house them, from where the street begging operation continued.

Gardai estimated the operation was making several thousand euro a week, and they began an investigation when it was discovered at one point that Rostas had wired €40,000 ($54,000) back to Romania.

That begging operation is still going on, and the current estimate is that there are at least 60 Roma from this clan and other families begging on the streets of Dublin every day -- women and children, because the men do not “work.”

The lifestyle of some extended Roma families or clans -- as with some Irish traveler families — is difficult for settled society to accept and live with.   In France, they have deported thousands of Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria in recent years due to the problems they were creating.

In some German cities a lot of the prostitution is carried on by Roma women from Bulgaria.  In other European countries, particularly in tourist areas, Roma clans have proved a problem due to aggressive begging which often culminates in bag snatching or other forms of theft.

Life can be very cheap when people live in the abject poverty we saw when the cameras visited the Roma camp in Bulgaria where Maria’s real family lives.

Embarrassed by the conditions seen by TV viewers around the world, the Bulgarian authorities have now taken two of the nine children in the family into care, and it seems very unlikely that Maria will be returned to them.

Here in Ireland, the Gardai need to be very careful never to act on the basis of racial profiling.  But particularly in cases where children are involved, never investigating is never going to be an option.