More is said of a society, as Michel Foucault suggests, not by knowing who it includes, but by knowing who it excludes. Ireland has a long history of exclusion. Since the birth of the state the principle export of the nation has been human beings, driven from these shores by poverty and indifference in search of a better life abroad. Ireland’s dark past of incarcerating the mentally and morally sick haunts this country even still. This is a nation that has defined itself, consciously and unconsciously, by exclusion, and this habit is far from being overcome. In our search for a place in the neoliberal sun we have consigned even infants in the arms of their mothers to the miserable and dehumanising existence of a life on the streets. This is how Ireland treats its own, and if this is how Ireland cares for its citizens, we can begin to appreciate the cruel logic of how it is presently treating others.

During the height of Ireland’s ill-fated and largely fraudulent economic boom – the ‘Celtic Tiger’ – I worked for a while in a bank in south County Dublin. Banks are interesting establishments. In a society where wealth has become a virtue, and where money has undergone an apotheosis, the financial institution takes on the mantle of the cathedral, and the high street bank becomes the new parish church. Gone are the philosophically educated clergy, replaced by clerks versed in the wizardry of mortgage and investment advice. It was in this environment that ‘asylum seekers’ were first introduced to me. Not, might I add, the people themselves, but the caricature of the asylum seeker as mediated through the opinion of the banking establishment.

“Never tell a soul if you win the lottery,” so the analogy ran, “for the moment you do you’ll have distant relatives crawling out of the woodwork, cap in hand, with every sob story under the sun.” It was all about the money. The plight of families fleeing rape, torture, and murder was reduced to a tale of an avaricious, married-in, uncle with a sob story. Ireland, once an enclave of medieval backwardness and poverty, had with its newfound wealth been overrun by a plague of penny pinching bureaucrats intent on defining their New Ireland with exclusion. Once again this social expulsion would target the weakest and most vulnerable.

Introduced as an emergency measure in 1999 (perhaps an ‘emergency’ of the state’s rather than the asylum seekers’ interests), Direct Provision was introduced, and it continues to this day. This is nothing more than a modern revision of the concentration camp designed to rob men, women, and children of everything that makes a person a human being; community, society, economy, hygiene, privacy, and even the right to prepare food. Right now there are some 4,500 asylum seekers living in 35 Direct Provision centres across Ireland. They have no rights to work and integrate, they are isolated from the people of the country in which they have sought refuge, and they are refused even the freedom to buy and prepare their own food. It’s chicken nuggets and chips for years. This is the scandal that defines the new and newly bankrupted Ireland.

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