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Beware of simplistic appeals to ‘common sense’ on issue of immigration

Time was in the US when ‘common sense’ informed the notion that the Irish were violent, drunken apes responsible for driving down wages and taking all the jobs

Even his sourest critics would have found little to quibble about in the thrust of the Taoiseach Simon Harris’s speech at the National Famine Commemoration in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford on Sunday.

The scripted part contained moving descriptions of suffering, death and forced emigration alongside great deeds of compassion. Unscripted remarks addressed our modern grappling with the number of immigrants. The problem arose when he descended to the dubious term “common sense” to explain an urgent shift in Government thinking.

Before we go there, it’s worth remembering that Longford lost 60 per cent of its population to famine and emigration between 1841 and 1901. A few kilometres away in Longford town, an emigration memorial next to the site of the old Cunard Shipping line ticket office on Dublin Street features life-size male and female figures with passage tickets and suitcases. One is looking east, the other west, symbolising a global scattering of migrants desperate for hope. “Some leave by choice, some by necessity. All are missed. Always welcome home,” reads the inscription on the plinth by Ardagh writer, Catherine Lynch, her words nod to the present day — where now much of the movement is inward.

This depicted an ape-like man swaying drunkenly on a barrel of gunpowder, waving a bottle in one hand and a detonator in the other and behind him a list of those ‘Irish ways’

It was not the Taoiseach’s job in a short speech to evoke the fierce hostility endured by emigrant Irish from Americans driven by cultural and religious suspicion. Maybe it should have been since it feels like a very modern tale. The fear that the foreigners, the other, were out to take over, undermine the social order and destroy American values and institutions was manifested in a political cartoon of the time titled “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things”. This depicted an ape-like man swaying drunkenly on a barrel of gunpowder, waving a bottle in one hand and a detonator in the other and behind him a list of those “Irish ways” — among them, “Everything obnoxious to us, shall be abolished”, “Down with the base hireling police”, “WE MUST RULE”.


Forced to take low-paid jobs in construction and domestic service, the Irish were accused of driving down wages and taking all the jobs, while in that odd disconnect that permeates many narratives around immigrants, were simultaneously perceived as drunken, violent criminals and a menace to their adopted country, resulting in anti-Irish riots, intimidation and discrimination. Out of that hate-filled, nativist movement slithered the Know-Nothing Party, advocating for strict immigration controls while targeting Irish Catholics, and its candidates rode the wave to elected office. No doubt the Know-Nothings’ views were seen as the height of “common sense” by many letter-writers of the era.

When Harris used the term in Longford, he was teasing out ways of dealing with the need for a “rules-based approach” in the migration system because the situation “is understandable but not sustainable … We can’t constantly have this emergency response”. Ireland will remain compassionate and never lose sight of basic humanity, while also injecting “a degree of common sense” when it comes to the number of asylum seekers arriving here, he said.

The trouble with ‘common sense’ is that it means whatever you want it to mean, usually something blindingly self-evident to you if not to others

But where does “common sense” enter into that? “Taking our legal obligations extremely seriously”, “honouring human rights”, living up to the “innate decency” of the Irish while also applying the rules together simply add up to the legal and moral framework within which we are bound to act. The rest is tweaking.

The trouble with “common sense” is that it means whatever you want it to mean, usually something blindingly self-evident to you if not to others. Researchers note how populist far-right parties in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and United States have explicitly depicted certain ideas as common sense.

Italian philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci perceived its reactionary, incoherent, and contradictory nature in his term senso comune. Academics George Newth and Alessio Scopelliti call it a form of “calculated ambivalence” where “common sense” becomes a euphemism which serves to “extend the limits of what kind of political rhetoric is acceptable …”

Trump’s “Build a wall” campaign translated into pledges for “common sense border control” and “common sense law enforcement”. Last week he told a rally that “all across America, millions of people in so-called blue states are joining our movement based on love, intelligence and a thing called common sense”. Italy’s Matteo Salvini claimed his naval blockade to be a “common sense” response to immigration. Pre-Brexit, the British far-right promised “common sense Australian style border rules”.

In recent weeks, British minister Esther McVey, commonly referred to as the minister for common sense, devoted her first “common sense” speech to describing how the government is delivering its “common sense fightback” in Rishi Sunak’s “common sense revolution”. She used the term 19 times in her speech, according to a Financial Times count, applying them to everything from a crackdown on benefits to the Rwanda Bill.

My ‘common sense’ may not be your ‘common sense’, no matter how seductively simple and sensible ‘common sense’ may sound

The vast majority of Irish users of the term would be rightly affronted to be accused of such chicanery. Many would argue that it’s an appropriate response to the over-reach of some on the left of the barely there, Irish mini-culture war. And yet, the sudden explosion of usage is remarkable.

Long before Harris’s “common sense” dive, the term was scattered throughout statements by Independent Ireland, Peadar Tóibín of Aontú — who recently called for an “Irish Sea border in terms of people” — Carol Nolan, David Cullinane and Mary Lou McDonald and others. The flurry of appeals to common sense in the Dáil began last December — before that, it did not seem to feature in debates about immigration.

The lesson for all of them is that my “common sense” may not be your “common sense”, no matter how seductively simple and sensible “common sense” may sound. In short, just saying something doesn’t make it so.