Opinion

What Monsters Inc can teach us about the Dublin riots – and why we should all be a bit more Sulley

Scare tactics have always been used to divide and make people fearful, but we have it in us to rise above them

Sulley in Monsters Inc leans over the bed of a child

We could all learn from Sulley's example. Image: Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s an interesting video doing the rounds online. It’s from a BBC Panorama show first broadcast in 1961. It is a look at the Irish migrant workers who travelled to England to labour on sites and help rebuild Britain as it struggled to find its postwar feet.

The question posed in the programme was whether the Irish immigrants should be freely admitted into Britain. There was no beating about the bush. It was asked why the Irish were needed and couldn’t the English do these jobs. The answer was the Irish will put in the shifts, and they move where the work is. They’re not taking work from British people. They’re plugging a gap that the locals won’t do.

It was a telling piece of social commentary. I’ve long been told that the motorways of England were built on an angry hangover, that thousands of men moved over in the ’50s as the Irish economy stagnated, that they lived in makeshift quarters sending what they could home, all to help England modernise.

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And here, on the BBC, without any need of a ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ sign, was evidence that, regardless of the necessity of the Irish labour force, there was antipathy because they were the outsider, the other, easily cliched as boorish, threatening, rough men who would drink and fight and upset the social order. And steal jobs from natural-born citizens. It doesn’t take a social science degree to see contemporary parallels and how they are manipulated for vested interests.

I’ve grown up with the idea of working away from home, or of having to move wholesale to try and find a better life. Like many of my friends, I have aunts and uncles on the east coast of America, in Australia and beyond. You can add any number of other nations. Due to study, work and now family I’ve lived much more of my life away from the island of my birth than on it. And though, like a good cliche, I’ll sing after a few drinks about how grand it is and there’s nobody like the Irish, I’m unlikely to go back.

All of this makes the right-wing riots in Dublin last week so ugly. A nation that has been built by sending its people around the globe and expressing a certain kind of welcome and identity was boiling up and angrily shrieking to close the door on those migrants who would come to seek a better life.

We’re clearly at a dangerous moment globally. The riots are not just about Dublin, but an evolving extreme nationalism. What happened there was discussed on his Twitter show by that extremist pin-up Tucker Carlson and sacked Trumpian Steve Bannon. They invoked the Great Replacement Theory conspiracy. And while it’s ludicrous, and you can see their game, if those with a loud voice repeat the lie often enough, more and more people will believe it.

It’s a standard play we’ve seen repeated – identify a common enemy, blame them for society’s ills, turn the masses against them, gain traction for your own agenda. It’s never easy to rise up against the shrill voices of the worst of people. Fear and anger is very potent. But we must resist. Because if it wasn’t people like us in the past they decided to work against, it will be in the future.

There’s a bit at the end of Monsters, Inc that remains as telling as any complex philosophical rendering (stay with me). The monsters realise that their power to scare, and so to thrive in their world, is diminishing. They keep trying more and more to find ways to frighten sleeping children. But, by a twist of fate and a broken door, they realise it is easier, and more beneficial, to create happiness and kids laughing. So they do.

Obviously, the world’s ills are not going to be righted by a beautiful and poignant cartoon about growing up and the end of innocence. But it would do no harm for us all to be a bit more Sulley. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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