This isn't the same as how they say 'cookie' and we say 'biscuit' or how they say 'tomayto' and we say 'tomahto.' The words we choose when we talk about immigration are politically loaded. They are tools used to influence people on the issue. In this case, the term we use is a type of white cultural exceptionalism that attempts to separate us from the people we should be allied with.
When Enda Kenny went to Washington this week, he made a strong case for the United States making paths to citizenship easier for the approximately 50,000 Irish people who live and work there illegally. His argument was compelling. He said that those people travelled to live out the American dream that has been promised for generations, that , like the Star Spangled Banner preaches, they are brave, but they want to be free. Making a direct appeal to Donald Trump's fragile ego, he told him that Irish immigrants wanted to make America great again.
But, don't forget that Kenny was asking for exceptions to the rules, not a change to the rules. Obviously, as Ireland's leader his priority is Irish people, but the context of those comments shows whose side he is really on. He made that appeal during a day spent handing over a bowl of shamrock to the President and a hurley and sliotar to the Vice President. He sat there smiling while the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, knocked back a poorly poured pint of Guinness, while everyone, himself included, wore the most garish green clothes they could get their hands on. He bowed down while a group of American politicians took a day to joke around about Irish stereotypes and pay tribute to the mythical Ireland of their grandparents that no longer exists. In his effort to raise immigration, Kenny chose the side of the powerful elite, hoping that they might throw Ireland, and only Ireland, a few crumbs off the table because they feel positive about us.
Although we might not like to admit it, Ireland is a small country that doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. We're a small island with 4.5 million people. There are about 50 cities worldwide that have bigger populations than our whole country. Outside of Europe and the Anglophone countries like Canada and Australia, most people wouldn't even know where we are on a map. We do punch above our weight on plenty of things and we have plenty to proud of, but we are not exceptional, even though we're sometimes treated as such.
When it comes down to it, Ireland's real allies on immigration are in Mexico, in Cuba, in the Dominican Republic, in the Middle East. They are the people who face the same legal problems as the Irish, who genuinely want to live and work and thrive the United States. But they don't get the same welcome. They don't get a yearly parade. They have no one like John F Kennedy that they can point to as a hero of their diaspora. The Irish are only exceptional because we are treated as such. It's a lot easier to assimilate into a country and garner sympathy, illegal or not when your skin is the same colour and plenty of Americans already share your last name.
Kenny gave into that. He sided with the oppressors, not the oppressed. He made no mention of Trump's race and religion based travel ban. He made no mention of the wall that would block off Mexico. When asking for the Irish to be accepted, he didn't ask that the 'bad hombres' might get a look in too. His approach was selfish and cowardly, trying to take advantage of the good will to the Irish while leaving the rest of the world behind. But it's not just Kenny. He represents Ireland, and we can be just as selfish too.
That's why we say 'undocumented' instead of 'illegal'. We use it define a difference between us and the Mexicans or the Indians that want to live in America too. We apply that same exceptionalism at home too. Ireland is a country that has relied on emigration for generations. Ireland has always struggled to provide for all its people, and that's why we travel all over the world looking for work in places like the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and, of course, the US. One of the reasons we're so accepted in America is because of the coffin ships that brought over countless numbers of our ancestors there while America was still only getting on its feet. The Irish filled a gap that those countries needed, building skyscrapers or laying railroads when they didn't have enough of a workforce to do it themselves. It's a positive relationship that has existed for centuries.
But we treat inward immigration differently. Ireland has no right to talk about any other country's role in the refugee crisis while still we maintain our cruel and shameful direct provision system. Even though we didn't have enough workers to keep up with demand during the boom years, we still saw the Polish and Lithuanians who came to fill that gap, just as we did over the years in London, Sydney, and Boston, as a different people who were coming here to 'steal' jobs. The institutionalised Catholicism that still persists makes it difficult for anyone of a different religion to really assimilate.
But, when we go abroad, we expect to get the Ceád Mhile Fáilte that we boast about, and, as Enda Kenny showed on Thursday, we're willing to align ourselves with anyone that is willing to help us, even if that means laughing and joking with a man who was visibly upset on the day after a court held up his latest attempt to ban immigrants based on their race and religion. If previous trips to Washington are anything to go by, nothing will come of Kenny's call for Irish exceptionalism.
Instead, he missed an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the other people that are going to suffer under the Trump regime.