‘We Irish should define our identity by values, we’ve had enough tribalism on our island’

‘We Irish should define our identity by values, we’ve had enough tribalism on our island’
L-R. Brothers Sallah, Loriss and Joseph Mohamad from Iraq, after surviving an early morning crossing from Turkey to Kos, with their parents and sister, at an outdoor centre in Kos Town run by several volunteer groups

Peter Sutherland on how we should respond to the biggest displacement of people since WWll

Migration is the morally, politically, and economically defining issue of the 21st century. How we respond to it reveals a great deal about the state of our society, the integrity of our communities, and the prospects for our collective future.

It is a challenge that will only grow in the coming decades. Today, there are more migrants than at any time in history— over one billion globally. This constitutes one-seventh of the world’s population, of whom about a quarter live outside their country of origin.

‘We Irish should define our identity by values, we’ve had enough tribalism on our island’ - Peter Sutherland
Peter Sutherland

And the pace of migration is increasing. People are on the move everywhere and in greater numbers than ever before. This is part of the process of globalisation, but it is also driven by other events as well, such as wars, catastrophes, and poverty. In addition, television and other visual media have shown those in developing countries how much better life is elsewhere. Naturally they want to share in this better life.

Migration is not, of course, a concern merely in Europe or North America. In fact the movement of people is greatest between developing countries, where just more than half of all migrants live. For example Ethiopia hosts 700,000 and Kenya 400,000.

Within much of Europe, the right of free movement of people has long been a sacrosanct principle. It was augmented in 1985 by the Schengen agreement, signed by five of the early members of the European Community. Schengen abolished border controls and the use of passports among them. Today, 22 of the 28 EU member states are part of the Schengen Zone, and they are joined by several non- EU countries.

Amongst the Member States of the European Union that stayed out were Great Britain and Ireland. Ireland did so only to maintain the current arrangement with its nearest neighbour that otherwise would have been lost. In the midst of the current refugee crisis in Europe, the Schengen zone is gravely at risk of collapse as a result of the reintroduction of temporary border controls in many countries.

This is indicative of a severe breakdown of trust amongst European States, which could endanger the Union itself and which must be reversed.


Crises in regard to large-scale movements of people, and particularly of refugees, are evident in many parts of the world and on every continent. Today, in fact, we are living the worst crisis of forced displacement since the Second World War. Almost 60 million people having been compelled to flee their homes due to conflict or other dangers.

The rising pace of this displacement is startling. Just four years ago, 10,000 people, on average, were forced from their homes every single day. In 2015, that number will exceed 40,000 people.

There is something dreadfully wrong with our world. A Union of more than 500 million citizens should never have felt so threatened by the arrival of a million or so desperate souls.

Several thousand people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, many Syrian refugees, spent in no-man's land last year when Macedonia declared a state of emergency and effectively sealed its southern frontier to migrants and refugees. Sasko Lazarov of RollingNews.ie and Photocall Ireland ‘We Irish should define our identity by values, we’ve had enough tribalism on our island’
Several thousand people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, many Syrian refugees, spent in no-man’s land last year when Macedonia declared a state of emergency and effectively sealed its southern frontier to migrants and refugees. Sasko Lazarov of RollingNews.ie and Photocall Ireland

Yet the impact of this crisis has come to threaten the process of European integration. And it is not just a matter of controlling the chaos at our borders, stemming the flows of refugees, or providing them the care that they desperately need— especially now, as the fierce Balkan winter bears down on them and the turbulent Aegean Sea claims dozens of victims every week.

The hardest one involves building successful, diverse communities that serve not only natives, but also the 35 million residents of the European Union who were not born here. We cannot afford to live alienated from each other.

In other words, the greatest challenge we face over the next generation is also our oldest one: How to live well together. In Ireland we should know plenty about this issue and how not to handle it. Today, over 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries. Most of these hosting countries are, not surprisingly, ones that are closest to those areas from which the refugees are fleeing. So the experience of Europe this year, while unusual here in the north, is unfortunately commonplace in the global south.

Poor countries like Pakistan, Lebanon, Uganda, and Ethiopia bear the brunt of the burden of providing protection to the world’s most desperate people. The Mediterranean Sea will be crossed by almost one million migrants this year.

Most are refugees escaping from Syria, Afghanistan, or Eritrea. Over 3,500 are known to have drowned in the attempt, many of them children. The majority of those successful landed in Greece—about 800,000—with Italy being the second largest initial country of destination. These often impoverished people generally have paid smugglers to transport them at an average cost of circa €2000-3000, even though very often the transportation has been on vessels that are grossly unsafe, most will spend hundreds or thousands more to reach Germany or Sweden.

It is a measure of the desperation of these unfortunate people that they are so prepared to risk their lives and treasure on such a journey by land or by sea. With a total population of 508 million, the European Union should have had absolutely no trouble at all in welcoming and hosting even a million refugees, had it wanted to do so and had the effort been properly organised.

But instead, ruinously selfish behaviour by some Member States has brought the EU to its knees. There are several honourable exceptions to such behaviour, most notably by Chancellor Merkel and the German people. They have been extraordinarily generous, not only in welcoming with such compassion a million refugees this year, but also in standing up for the very foundational principles of the European Union. While others proclaimed against Muslim refugees, or otherwise shirked their responsibilities, Chancellor Merkel stood firm in defence of a Europe that does not discriminate, a Europe that recognises its responsibilities as part of the international system, and a Europe that knows the future belongs to those who best manage diversity.


Yet, despite her heroic efforts, there remains little sign of convergence among Europe’s key leaders and institutions. While praised for her humanitarianism Chancellor Merkel is seen by most of her counterparts as having made a grave error that exposed Europe to an immeasurable burden. (Whereas, in my view she clearly is a heroine).

Merkel is seen by many as having made a grave error, exposing Europe to a huge burden. She is, in fact, a heroine.

The European Commission, its credibility often unfairly seriously damaged, is at odds with some Member States and even European Council President Donald Tusk, who has taken a hard line on refugees. The President of the Commission Jean Claude Juncker deserves praise. And now it’s January, the EU will be led by the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders is setting a virulent anti-migrant tone.

One consequence of paralysis at the European level is the rise and rise of parties that are not merely anti-immigrant but often xenophobic and racist in many Member States. Poland in October elected a hard right party to lead it; elections in France earlier this month saw the far-right National Front initially being successful though this was thankfully reserved on the 13th December.

Irish naval vessel the LE SAMUEL BECKETT on a search and rescue operation last November off the Libyan coast during which it rescued 111 people (107 males and 4 females) frma sinking dinghy. Pic: Rollingnews.ie/Irish Department of Defence
Irish naval vessel the LE SAMUEL BECKETT on a search and rescue operation last November off the Libyan coast during which it rescued 111 people (107 males and 4 females) frma sinking dinghy. Pic: Rollingnews.ie/Irish Department of Defence

But even some of the traditionally most liberal States are electing, or are currently poised to elect, politicians who stand at the extreme right of the political spectrum. The rise of anti-immigrant parties in Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands has been particularly remarkable and to many deeply disturbing. Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are now major political figures. All these parties are stimulating anti-immigrant feeling, appealing to the worst instincts of voters and subverting the very principles on which the European Union was founded.

Fences or controlled borders are rapidly being put in place in the Balkans and elsewhere. Public opinion more generally is increasingly apprehensive about the numbers of migrants and refugees coming to Europe. (After Paris 70% of the Dutch favoured border closure). This negative public opinion about refugees is also inflamed by apprehension, often stirred up by histrionic and distorted media accounts, about the number of refugees and immigrants—even while the numbers broadcast are often exaggerated.

In fact, in most countries in Europe, citizens believe that there are a great many more foreigners in their countries than there actually are. In the US, the public estimates 42 per cent of the population is composed of immigrants, in fact it is 13 per cent; the numbers in the UK are not too different.

In 1956, after their failed revolution, some 200,000 Hungarian refugees were given protection within a short time throughout Europe and in countries around the world. Yet now, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is the most intransigent and vociferous opponent of refugees in the EU. Hungary hosts just 7 refugees for every 1000 Hungarians; little Lebanon by contrast hosts 232 refugees for every 1000 Lebanese – and it does with a great deal more generosity than does Hungary.

Tension between Member States is inevitably going to grow because of the great differences among them in their attitudes towards refugees. It is hardly surprising that Germans, who will take about a million refugees this year, and who have promised to take 500,000 annually for the next few years, should be outraged by, for example, the United Kingdom’s paltry offer of 20,000 places over five years – and this by a country that has only resettled 252 Syrian refugees since the conflict began.


Relations between the large Muslim population already resident in Europe and the native populations are also coming under stress; this can have implications for societal division of a serious kind. Samuel Huntington published his famous book, The Clash of Civilisations, in 1997.

His apocalyptic vision was of a clash between Western society and the Muslim world. As we have seen, part of that Muslim world is not merely in Europe but is now European. Many see the rise of ISIS, with its barbarism and proposed Caliphate, as the evidence that Huntington was right – that coexistence will lead to division and was going on independently.

Three Irish naval vessels in the Mediterranean as part of Operation Pontus, including the LE SAMUEL BECKETT pictured last November, saved 8,631 lives and recovered 39 bodies of men, women and children. Some 900,000 people crossed the sea to enter Europe during 2015. Irish Department of Defence
Three Irish naval vessels in the Mediterranean as part of Operation Pontus, including the LE SAMUEL BECKETT pictured last November, saved 8,631 lives and recovered 39 bodies of men, women and children. Some 900,000 people crossed the sea to enter Europe during 2015. Irish Department of Defence

This type of thinking sees retiring behind borders of one kind or another as the answer. We must surely not—through the way migration is debated domestically, or in our response to the cry for help from refugees internationally— reject coexistence and multiculturalism.

How can we, for example, reject Muslim refugees fleeing ISIS and leave them to die on beaches, in camps or in frozen rivers in the Balkans? It is worth recalling that ISIS considers refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq as the worst kinds of traitors to their cause of building a modern- day Caliphate.

We must now demonstrate not merely our humanity but our belief in the equality and dignity of Man and seek in our own society to integrate with the strangers in our midst. Our societies, as Pope Francis underscored recently, “revolve not around the economy but around the sacredness of the human person.”

Speaking of migrants specifically, he added: “There needs to be a united response to the question of migration. We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery.

The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance.” But these refugees, too, must be required to play their part in accepting our values. We Irish have a particularly strong sense of being distinctive and homogenous. George Orwell once defined nationalism in terms of the sense that one is better than others. If the truth is admitted, most of us think that we are lucky to be Irish.

Perhaps everyone else more or less feels the same way about their own nationality. We may say that our identity is formed by history and religious conflict, but this often is simplistic because the history of our families or religious affiliations are anything but homogenous. We have had enough of our own tribalism on the island of Ireland, dividing peoples who have lived in the same place for hundreds of years, without allowing it to develop afresh. And indeed we are not doing so as far as I can see (unlike many others in Europe). Racism is not evident here in regard to migration.

Perhaps it is the often punishing experience of the Irish as emigrants over hundreds of years that has allowed us to maintain so far this relatively benign and welcoming condition.

The nativist movement of the 19th century in the United States expressed the political position of seeking to preserve “’their country”‘ against immigrants. The adage. “’no Irish need apply”’, was an expression then common in the United States that has become embedded in our folk memory.


Maybe that is helping us now to avoid similar excesses; but we must continue to do so and indeed we must increase our commitment to taking refugees. Republicanism has at least in theory long proclaimed in Ireland its commitment to diversity.

It did so through the theory of representation of Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenters. As we know, this concept of a shared sovereignty in our country was often honoured more in the breach than in its observance, but at least it was there as an expression of an inclusive society.

At the heart of our response to the influx of refugees, both in Ireland and across Europe, must be the idea of reinventing the “we” in our societies, of building inclusive communities. We need to commit to a future that recognizes our permanent diversity. And we need to see this as a positive evolution, not as a threat.


Open, liberal, progressive, democratic societies—let me be clear— are not the norm in most of the world. They are what has distinguished Europe for the past sixty plus years. Building these societies took a herculean effort—to create a sense of unity and common purpose bound by a set of common ideals.

Refugees Welcome. Hundreds of Irish people turned out last September to tell the Irish Government that refugees welcome. They gathered at the Spire in O’Connell Street before marching towards the Central Bank in Dublin. ‘We Irish should define our identity by values, we’ve had enough tribalism on our island’
Refugees Welcome. Hundreds of Irish people turned out last September to tell the Irish Government that refugees welcome. They gathered at the Spire in O’Connell Street before marching towards the Central Bank in Dublin.

Let’s not sacrifice them on a pyre fuelled by fear and neglect. It is an idea that frightens many, but it should not. The alternative—the failure of diversity—is the real threat, since it will spawn divided communities, alienation, insecurity.

Irish Instead, we must see the strength and opportunity in diversity. It offers us the chance to reimagine and rebuild our communities.

Investments in the integration of immigrants, especially at a time when national tills are lean, might not be popular.

But they are more essential than ever. We have had a breakdown in the institutions that once brought citizens in the West together—church attendance has plummeted, labour union rolls have dwindled, military conscription is no longer the norm in countries where it existed previously. Our media, meanwhile, have fragmented to the point where we inhabit our own individual media worlds—symbolized by the sight of people walking down streets imprisoned in their iPhones.

One neighbour watches al-Jazeera, the other the BBC or RTE—and they develop two very different, often duelling, views of the world. New technologies might unite people globally, but they risk dividing us locally. Europe has schools in which minorities make up the majority of students— in parts of Berlin, minority representation exceeds 80 per cent.

In all of Germany, meanwhile, one fourth of all children and adolescents under 18 are born into families of immigrant origin; individuals of immigrant origin will make up more than one-fourth of Germany’s population by 2050. Immigration can be a disruptive force. It accentuates winners and losers.

It generates unease over the unequal distribution of resources and places strains on communities, especially those with little experience in integrating newcomers. Worst of all, immigration is a political orphan— it has almost no champions among the political classes, whose members see it only as a losing issue. And so what we often get is a dialogue of the deaf between populists and migrant rights advocates. The moderate centre is silent.

For far too long, we have looked at migration with too much demagoguery and too little nuance. In this year of shocking suffering in Europe, with the far right on the rise, this is more evident—and more dangerous— than at any point since World War II. Rather than be accomplices to failure, we must strive to be partners in success.

Former Irish Attorney General and European Commissioner Peter Sutherland SC is the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN for Migration.

In the course of a varied career he also ran BP and Goldman Sachs’ international arm.

This article is based on the RTE Littleton Memorial Lecture he gave last month broadcast on RTE Radio 1


Sign in or create your account to join the discussion

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways