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Opinion

Migrants deserve an Irish welcome

Denying refugees the right to reunite with their families is cruel and wrong-headed. We need to start seeing them for the positive force they are.

The Irish claim everybody. We really do. Give us enough time and we’ll find a long-quietened link to somebody that makes them one of us. 

Biden, clearly, is one of us. Obviously, we’re dipping back a few generations. And his claims are founded more readily in him SAYING he’s Irish and quoting Seamus Heaney. He’s practically family. Oddly, the Scottish are less keen to claim Donald Trump, even though his links are generationally closer. Can’t think why.

Even so, the Irish identity, especially for those born in the north, is a curious, multi-tangled thing. As Kevin Rowland said in Knowledge of Beauty, my national pride is a personal pride. Rowland may be the Wolverhampton Wanderer, but he is one of ours too, really. 

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Last week I went to see Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s biographical film about growing up in the city. Some people have been sniffy about it claiming it lacks edge, historical accuracy and punch. Somebody told me there were complaints because though it is set in 1969 there isn’t enough smoking. Friends and relatives in Belfast are reluctant to go, not keen to be tied up in dewy-eyed nostalgia.

But they should go. It’s really, really good. There is more to it than bland nostalgia. It’s not a film about The Troubles, though the emergence of violence is the catalyst for much of the action. It’s a film about identity, about how the Irish see themselves and how they see others seeing themselves and judge others seeing them. It’s also about separation and departure, about the pressures and fears and economic privations that lead to one family, just one, making the painful decision to leave the place they hold dear to try and build something new. 

The extra wrinkle is, as one character claims, that the Irish are made for leaving. That certainly feels true. All families have some member who left, cousins in Philadelphia, an aunt in Wollongong, a link in Cape Town. And the departures keep on going. The thing with the departures is they are easier now. It’s easy to go back. Communication is instant and constant. 

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But it’s still hard. We’re very good at reminiscing, frequently singing. I suppose we know that if it came to it, if the worst were really to fall, a return is not out of the question.

The day after I saw Belfast I read findings by the Refugee Council that shone a light on a new cruelty. The Westminster government want to prevent refugee families being reunited in Britain. The need comes because frequently the male of a family has taken on a perilous journey into a new life, risking people trafficking and death. When they are settled, families are often brought too. Under the government’s New Plan for Immigration the intention is to restrict rights to do this for refugees who have travelled through a third country to reach the UK.

Unquestionably, some people will think this is a good idea, believing more people is a further drain on a resource-light nation. It’s the wrong way round. 

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First, we need to see the influx of migrants as a positive. Many of these people are highly skilled and can bring those skills to bear here. The fact that those waiting for asylum are not allowed to work, and can be kept in stasis for months, if not years, is so wrong-headed. Think of the benefit to all.

The other side is one of humanity. Leaving your home to strike out for a new life is never easy. If you’re doing that because your home has been obliterated, because there is war or natural disaster, and you don’t know what you are heading into, think how traumatic that will be.

If you don’t know about where you will end, if you fear for the safety of your family during the whole period, the thing is going to be immeasurably worse. We need to find a better way for those who need a better life. And who could enrich us all. They won’t NECESSARILY be Irish.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com

@PauldMcNamee

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