Address by Minister Of State to the ASTI Conference on Education (Part 2)
Political leadership must be confident and surefooted in creating a climate of acceptance. There is a particular onus on Government to lead and champion the development of an inclusive society. In this context, it was entirely appropriate that the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform launched the Anti-racism Awareness Programme on 24 October last
The social partners too are very important. Racism in the workplace can have corrosive social and economic effects. The Week Against Racism in the Workplace initiated by ICTU, IBEC, CIF and the Equality Authority and adopted by the national anti-racism programme as a cornerstone of their first year's activities is a recognition of this.
Civil society, religious and artistic organisations should be encouraged to develop opportunities for different groups in local communities to learn about others and to interact with them; and many groups are doing so.
The media have a huge role - and responsibility - in socio-cultural integration through the positive dissemination of information and avoidance of negative stereotyping. Lazy journalism, unsourced stories and sensationalist headlines can defame a whole nation. We Irish know from our own experience how hurtful the stereotype can be, how damaging to the individual and to the psyche of a nation. It would be to fly in the face of our own history of poverty, underdevelopment, colonisation and mass emigration for Ireland not to be surefooted in rejecting racism.
To return to your own area of concern - education. What all this requires of you as educators to accomplish is an effective change in the cultural ethos of schools. The Education Act of 1998, the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act legislatively secure the rights of minorities in the State. However, it is clear that to really protect the rights of such groups, changes in attitude, are needed. To effect change and vindicate the rights of all, structures and adequate resources have to be put in place for language training, availability of specialist teachers and the professional development of teachers.
This ought not be presented as a chore. Remember intercultural education is an education and enlightenment for both the minority and the majority community. For the majority, it is a matter of learning to cherish, respect and accommodate diversities. This goes much further than mere tolerance.
Schools where the positive worth of each individual as a human being is already valued and recognised are far more likely to achieve the type of ethos necessary to tackle racism or sectarianism. The creation of such an environment must be a priority for our schools and, of course, consultation will be crucial to achieving this. Staff, parents and students have to be involved. The development of linkages outside the school with statutory agencies such as the health boards and the Gardaí and also community sector groups is highly desirable. These linkages could be a valuable resource both in course provision and in terms of referral of students or parents in response to particular individual personal needs.
The syllabus for Social, Personal and Health Education for the Primary School Curriculum and for the Junior Cycle Curriculum at post-primary level developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment provides a foundation on which much can be built. According to this syllabus, the principles of fair play, respect and reward for effort must permeate the whole school climate. Ths "whole school" approach is directly pertinent in meeting the needs of minority ethnic groups. For example, subject areas such as Civic, Social and Political Education, history or geography can contribute to an environment where difference is respected in the context of studying human rights or by exploring cultural differences. Wearing my overseas development hat, I recently launched a teaching resource on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and Human Rights and Interdependence for use in CSPE classes. I would encourage teachers to access the many materials funded by my Department through NCDE.
Also the Department of Education and Science "Guidelines on Countering Bullying Behaviour in Schools" require each school to develop a policy to address bullying in the school. Important in supporting minority ethnic groups will be identification of racism among the forms of unacceptable behaviour in Irish schools. Whenever there is a minority, there is a danger of the majority tribe or group of marginalising, intimidating the smaller group. It is a phenomenon as old as human history and just think of the terrible outcomes - genocide, the holocaust, the Balkans, Rwanda, Northern Ireland to name but a few.
As I said, education has been progressively taking the lead in the transition of our society from mono-culturalism to interculturalism. The Reception and Integration Agency has been identified as the body responsible for the implementation of an integration policy for non nationals. To discharge its mandate effectively, the Board of this body must be put on a statutory basis as soon as possible. The commitment, expertise and experience are present in abundance among the membership of the interim board as currently constituted and in the staff of the merged Refugee Agency. But it must be given the status necessary to recommend and see through the cross sectoral measures needed for integration of refugees and other non nationals into our society.
The current global and domestic economic slowdown must not be used as an excuse for inaction, or worse, for a change of direction in promoting respect for difference. On the contrary, in a economic climate where resentment of refugees and non nationals might flourish, it is vital to prevent any such development. The media need to avoid pandering to scare-mongering at this time. I hope the innate decency of Irish people will not countenance the diminishing of rights of non nationals just because economic growth is not as strong as it was before. That would in any event be unlawful under our Equality Legislation. Non national workers lawfully here have full rights.
It is of course open for the Government in the future to adjust work permits procedures and policy to adapt to changed labour force conditions, for example, a rise in domestic unemployment.
In the case of the granting of working visas and permits, the Tánaiste is monitoring the situation closely. A comprehensive modern and responsible labour force immigration policy needs to be developed to sustain our economy and provide essential services to our community which in many sectors cannot be filled by Irish or EU workers. This year I note that there is no slowdown in the numbers of work permits to allow non EU nationals to fill jobs in our economy (over 30,000 so far this year).
In current circumstances, only a very limited number of asylum-seekers are entitled to work as a result of a Government decision in July 1999. I remain of the view that asylum-seekers whose status has still to be determined after six months or more in the system should be allowed the dignity of work. The reception regime in place for asylum-seekers is, on the whole, humane and meets their basic needs. However, I worry that where asylum seekers are in the system for extended periods of time that the system of "direct provision" may be held to constitute unacceptable discriminatory treatment and I have asked that this be looked at.
The whole rights' landscape on the island of Ireland has changed dramatically. We now have a Human Rights Commission (North and South), Equality Institutions as well as the Irish Constitution which vindicate the human rights of individuals. Now that we are in a period when, hopefully, the operation of the terms of the Belfast Agreement can deliver a level of protection to the people of this island second to none, we should be certain that there are not groups among us who are being denied that same protection - by virtue of their race.
You, as teachers, are at a critical front line in defending the individual human rights of refugee children and their families. Irish children, like all children have a natural sense of justice which needs to be affirmed and directed. Context is vital. Refugees do not fall from the sky or just materialise on the steps of the Department of Justice. They arrive here in all their diversity from places of poverty, conflict and oppression. Our children need to learn this context and need to become human rights defenders in their own communities and in their homes, where sadly, they will hear racism articulated.
As I said, I am confident that we as a people, of native and foreign origin alike, can embrace these modern challenges. My confidence is based, in large part, on the knowledge that we have an education system which has the potential to train all who benefit from it to take advantage of the opportunities that the new Ireland holds. You, the teachers, are the guardians of that system. I want to express my own and the Government's appreciation for the excellent moral leadership which teachers have shown on this new social challenge. As our Taoiseach said at the launch of the National Anti-Racism Awareness Programme
"Racism is wrong. Discrimination is wrong, just as sectarian violence is wrong. They have no place in a Republic which is founded on the ideal of equality and dignity of every member of the human family"
You as citizens will be aware that racism is alive and well in Ireland. In fact it predates the arrival of the first refugee. It must be countered actively to prevent it becoming politically acceptable. By addressing interculturalism today you are giving a good example.
Thank you Top