It’s hard to hear members of Congress with Irish heritage support President Trump’s executive order on immigration smearing whole communities based on their religion or nationality. When Senator Pat Toomey and Representative Tim Murphy came out for the visa ban on Muslims they sounded like 1970s British government officials who demonized the Irish in Britain and justified the United Kingdom’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The blanket visa bans against Muslims from seven countries encourage similar animosity against entire communities.
I was an Irish teenager growing up in Britain in those days, and know what it feels like to be part of a suspect community. We were the targets of “random selection” at airports like Muslims are now. We knew there was a stigma to being Irish that was fueled by opportunistic politicians playing the security card exploiting people’s fears.
Toomey and Murphy should know better. They’ve both been given awards by Irish-American organizations for their work on Ireland. They should remember how the Irish community in Britain was scapegoated during the Northern Ireland Troubles, vilified in the press and generally viewed as guilty by association. They should have heard about the rushed British legislation that relied on blind panic to counter the bombings of English cities, and how many innocent people were scooped up and jailed because being Irish meant you were likely to be guilty of something, how we were represented in the U.K. media as a threat to security and to British values and society. We lived in fear of far-right groups enabled by the rhetoric of mainstream politicians.
President Trump’s visa bans target whole communities, not individuals who are suspected because the is credible evidence against them. Irish politicians are already speaking out against it.
Muslims in the United States today are being targeted in some of the same ways, also in the name of anti-terrorism. Back in the 1970s, a senior British security police official asked people to report having Irish neighbors so the police could “check them out.” Although British anti-terror laws were supposed to apply to everyone equally, they were really aimed at us. A 1996 study showed 97 percent of the 6,500 arrests under the PTA were Irish people. They could have been any of us, arrested for being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So when Pat Toomey said, “I support the administration’s decision to increase vetting and temporarily suspend the admission of certain individuals from states that sponsor or provide safe havens to terrorist,” or when Tim Murphy talks about improving “the screening process for those who wish to enter our country from dangerous places around the world,” it sounds ominously like the British dog whistling of a generation ago.
Vice President Mike Pence and White House Press Secretary and Communications Director Sean Spicer are both leading apologists of the ban, and both Irish American. Spicer’s great-grandfather came from Cork, Pence’s family from Sligo and Clare. His grandad came through Ellis Island from Ireland.
Thirty and forty years ago, Irish people in Britain were routinely shunned by neighbors and work colleagues, our Irish cultural centers attacked. Public suspicion of us, fueled by politicians, encouraged the police to wrongly assume we were guilty on some level—that we were withholding information, or approved of the IRA’s bombing pubs and shopping malls.
President Trump’s visa bans target whole communities, not individuals who are suspected because the is credible evidence against them. Irish politicians are already speaking out against it. On Monday Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny ordered a “complete review now of the [U.S. immigration] pre-clearance facilities here in Ireland.”
Murphy and Toomey should be speaking out against this executive order, not supporting it or offering tepid reservations. They should be urging their constituents and all Irish Americans not to fall for this simplistic, counterproductive solution that encourages Islamophobia. They should be leading America into a future where security policy is based on facts, not back to the ignorance of 1970s Britain.
Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First and author of Choosing the Green? Second Generation Irish and the Cause of Ireland @dooley_dooley