There was an increase in racial discrimination in Ireland in 1997, a year which also saw the first attempt in Ireland's history to create an anti-immigrant political party. However, the increase was to some degree counterbalanced by the Refugee Act* as well as other anti-racist initiatives. While asylum-seekers, non-Irish nationals and Travellers experienced racial harassment, there were no recorded incidents of antisemitic harassment. When antisemitism did surface in Ireland, it was usually expressed through verbal abuse.

Demographic data

General population: 3.5 million

Jewish population: 1,200-1,600

Other minority groups: of the 44,000 immigrants in Ireland, most come from the United Kingdom; others come from Asia (6,600), Germany (6,300), France (3,600) and the USA (5,600); there are 23,000 Irish Travellers (0.5 per cent of the total population); Protestants form the only significant religious minority (3 per cent), and there are 15,000 Muslims (0.3 per cent).

Political data

Constitutional status: democratic republic governed by a directly elected president (largely titular) and a two-chamber parliament (the Dáil and Seanad) under a constitution adopted in 1937

Head of state: President Mary McAleese (since November 1997)

Government: a coalition of Fianna Fáil (FF, Republican Party) and Progressive Democrats (PD) headed by Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Bertie Ahern (FF)

Other major political parties: Fine Gael (FG, United Ireland Party), Labour Party (LP), Democratic Left (DL), Green Alliance (GA), Sinn Féin

June 1997 general election: the FF-PD coalition ousted the coalition of FG, LP and DL; full results for the 166 seats in the lower house are as follows (1992 figures in parentheses):

FF: 77 (68)

FG: 54 (45)

LP: 17 (33)

PD: 4 (10)

DL: 4 (4)

GA: 2 (1)

Sinn Féin: 1 (0)

Others: 7 (5)

Economic data

GDP: US$71.2 billion

GDP per capita: US$19,670

GDP growth: 5.1 per cent

Inflation: 2 per cent

Unemployment: 10.3 per cent


The first mention of Jews living in Ireland occurs in the Annals of Innifallen of 1079. Although Jews were expelled from the island in 1290 by royal decree, some Jewish victims of the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions after 1492 were offered refuge there. Many also arrived in the 1880s, mainly from Lithuania. By the early twentieth century the Jewish community in Ireland numbered some 4,000 - in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Many subsequently emigrated to Britain, Israel and the USA.

In 1904, in Limerick, Father John Creagh, a priest of the Redemptorist order, incited the local population against 'blood-sucking' Jewish money-lenders and travelling pedlars. Creagh received his theological training in France in the era of the Dreyfus affair, no doubt returning to Ireland having absorbed the antisemitic culture prevalent in France at the turn of the century. His sermons brought about a two-year trade boycott of Jewish businesses which was accompanied by harassment and beatings (although there were no fatalities) and resulted in the almost total departure of the 150-strong Limerick Jewish community.

The issue of the Limerick 'pogrom' has resurfaced four times in the past thirty years, the latest being in October 1997 (see Publications and media). In 1965 there was correspondence following a television programme about it on Radio Telefis Éireann (RTE), the national broadcasting agency. In 1970 there was a further controversy when the then lord mayor of Limerick, Stephen Coughlan, declared his support for Father Creagh's 'defence of the impoverished Limerick population against the exploitative Jews'. The issue flared up again in 1984, when the Jews were defended mainly by left-wing politicians. Only in 1990 did Limerick seek to make amends to its Jews by restoring the city's Jewish cemetery. A book published in 1997,  Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland by Professor Dermot Keogh, shed new light on the shameful episode, as well as on the life of Jews in twentieth-century Ireland and their treatment during the Second World War.

In the Republican movement at the turn of the century, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, published antisemitic articles in the nationalist paper, the United Irishman. In 1943 Oliver J. Flanagan (FG), a Dáil (lower chamber) member, aroused little protest when he proposed to the house to 'rout the Jews out of this country'.

Attempts to settle Jewish refugees in neutral Ireland before, during and after the Second World War met with consistent government opposition. There is no evidence that Prime Minister Eamon de Valera uttered any condemnation of German atrocities. In 1939, in a recorded discussion with Eduard Hempel, the German minister to Eire, de Valera agreed that Nazi procedures against the Jews 'must primarily be explained by the behaviour of the Jews after the First World War'. Dermot Keogh has pointed out that the 'high number of visa refusals by the department of justice had tragic consequences. The Irish must live with that guilt.' Between 1933 and 1946 admission was secured for only 60 Jewish refugees. In 1991 a claim by writer and former Labour cabinet minister Conor Cruise O'Brien, that Ireland's 4,000 Jews would have been handed over to the Nazis had Germany won the war, was the subject of much controversy.

In December 1997 RTE1 aired the documentary No More Blooms: Ireland's Attitude to the Jewish Refugee Problem 1933-46, which examined the denial to Jewish refugees of access into Ireland before, during and after the Second World War. Based on archival material hitherto unavailable, the programme also focused on the Irish minister in Berlin, Charles Bewley, an admirer of Hitler, who justified denying visas because 'Jewish emigrants in the countries in which they were permitted to enter have created and are creating grave moral scandals and are a source of corruption of the population among which they dwell'.

In 1946 a London Jewish charity bought Clonyn Castle in County Meath to house 100 Jewish children from Poland. The scheme was not approved by Justice Minister Gerry Boland but de Valera, following the intervention of the former chief rabbi, Yaacov Herzog, pushed for permission to be granted. The justice department agreed to admit the children 'on the understanding that they would be removed to some other country as soon as arrangements could be made'.

Although Ireland has the lowest incidence of urban racist violence in Europe, during 1997 there was an increase in racially motivated incidents in the greater Dublin area. Those reported included verbal abuse (often of a sexual nature), physical violence, discriminatory door policies in pubs and clubs, intimidation in the local community, racist graffiti, the distribution of racist material and biased media reporting.

The Irish Travellers are an indigenous pre-Celtic nomadic people who suffer discrimination in social and economic spheres, and are targets of frequent racist verbal and physical abuse, including racist representation in the media. They remain the single most discriminated against ethnic group in Ireland. The infant and mortality rates of Travellers are twice those of the general population, a state of affairs which has been ascribed to their poor living conditions.

In recent times Ireland has developed from an out-migration country to an in-migration one. In 1997 some 3,000 asylum-seekers registered with the department of justice, bringing the total number of refugees seeking asylum in Ireland to approximately 4,500. Asylum-seekers without income are entitled to supplementary welfare, rental allowances and free medical services but are not permitted to work. Recognized refugees are entitled to work and to welfare allowances and education grants in the same way as Irish citizens. The government's Refugee Agency looks after 'programme refugees' from Vietnam and Bosnia. So far, some 600 Bosnian refugees, mostly Muslim, have arrived in Ireland. In the past three years 140 Vietnamese and 224 Bosnians were admitted on the basis of family reunification.

The Refugee Act* of June 1996, yet to be implemented due to an injunction (see Legal matters), extends the Geneva Convention definition of a refugee to include a person at risk of persecution by reason of gender, sexual orientation or membership of a trade union, and includes a more flexible approach to the understanding of 'family' for the purpose of family reunification. It also attempts to codify the procedures by which refugees can appeal to the government and apply for legal aid.

The Aliens Order, enacted on the last day of office of the outgoing government in June 1997, effectively gave immigration officers (untrained Gardai) the job of carrying out checks on people arriving at ports, airports, train stations and road entry points along the border with Northern Ireland. The order was made without consultation with the UN High Commission for Refugees or the Irish Refugee Council. The enactment of the order has resulted in immigrants being sent back to Britain without being allowed access to lawyers or interpreters, and has led to the targetting of Gypsies and people of colour, even if they are Irish or European citizens. In the first two months after the measure was introduced, 600 people were returned to their former countries.

Mainstream political life

1997 witnessed the first attempt - albeit unsuccessful - to create an Irish anti-immigrant political party. Teacher Aine Ni Chonaill, who stood for the seat of South-west Cork in the June general election, said that she wanted 'to stop foreigners buying Irish property and to end the "plague" of the English New Age Travellers living off Irish social security'. Ni Chonaill tried to launch her party at a public meeting in Ennis but was heckled from the floor to the extent that she was unable to proceed. Despite the failure of her party, she received 293 votes (out of 35,314) as an independent candidate.

Far-right parties

The National Socialist Irish Workers' Party (NSIWP*), not heard of since a series of attacks on a Jewish butcher's shop in Dublin in 1986, was the most recent neo-Nazi organization active in Ireland.

In 1997 racist and anti-refugee material was distributed in Dublin and the Gardai (Irish police) reported the existence of several small neo-fascist groupings. Most of these appear to be offshoots of larger groups in the United Kingdom.

During 1997 racist and anti-refugee sentiments were sometimes disseminated in the media, often in reports suggesting that refugees cost the Irish economy substantially more than any other group in welfare and housing.

In October 1997 the British independent television channel, Channel Four, aired the documentary A Great Hatred which investigated the Limerick 'pogrom' of 1904 (see Antisemitic legacy) and the alleged collaboration of the Irish Republican movement with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In the programme, the Irish writer, quoting from one of his books, said: 'The Jew is the worm that got into the rose and sickened it.' Stuart - a member of Aosdana, the Irish equivalent of an academy of arts, and the recipient of a Saoi (wise one) in 1996 (the highest honour the state can give an artist) - also said he did not regret any of his antisemitic radio broadcasts made during the Second World War. A number of letters were sent to the Irish Times demanding Stuart's removal from his position and, in November, the Irish-language poet Maire Mhac an tSaoi, herself a member of Aosdana, tabled a motion calling for Stuart's resignation and a condemnation of his sentiments as expressed in the programme. The motion was defeated by twenty-seven to one, causing Mhac an tSaoi to renounce her own membership.

No antisemitic incidents were recorded either by the Gardai (police) or the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland in 1997. Some random letters, mostly originating in the United Kingdom, were sent to a small number of individual members of the Jewish community.

The Refugee Act*, adopted in 1996 (see Racism and xenophobia), has not yet been implemented because of challenges from the former justice minister, Paddy Cooney, who took out an injunction against it. This has resulted in a substantial backlog in the processing of asylum-seekers.

The Equal Status Bill and the Employment Equality Bill, which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, race and ethnic origin, including membership of the Travelling community, were referred to the supreme court by the former president Mary Robinson in April 1997, and declared unconstitutional in May and June 1997 respectively. Portions of the two bills were combined to form a new Employment Equality Act which was introducted in November 1997 and signed into law in June 1998. This act is Ireland's first legal measure against racial discrimination.

During 1997 the Irish Refugee Council, the Cities Anti-Racism Project (CARP), the Anti-Racism Campaign and the Platform against Racism promoted awareness of ethnic minorities in the country. The year 1997 was also the European Year against Racism (EYAR) and many anti-racist activities were organized by Ireland's EYAR National Co-ordinating Committee.

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Institute for Jewish Policy Research and American Jewish Committee

© JPR 1998