Ironies in Immigrant Ireland

On Tuesday, the BBC Asian Network's Sonia Deol conducted a remarkable interview with Leo Varadkar, an opposition member of the Irish parliament, on the recent decision by the Garda Síochána, the Irish national police, to ban a Sikh trainee from wearing his turban while on duty [audio available here until next week; fast forward approx 2 hrs for the interview]. Ireland, which for a long time had been a country of tremendous emigration, has experienced remarkable changes in its migration patterns in recent years, especially as economic growth has created a significant demand for migrant labor. In 1996, Ireland became a country of net immigration for the first time, the last European Union member state to do so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the road has not been without its bumps -- as in other countries, including the United States, increased immigration has led to both anxiety and confusion among some native-born Irish citizens over the pace and extent of change.

Nevertheless, faced with these dramatic demographic shifts and a perceived need to increase the size and diversity of the force, Irish police officials have moved proactively in recent years to broaden their recruitment efforts -- even to the point of amending the service's eligibility criteria to permit non-Irish citizens to join the force. In the context of these recruitment efforts, the turban ban seems somewhat surprising. Irish officials don't appear to make any operational claim that wearing turbans would hinder officers' ability to perform their duties. Rather, they have defended the decision by stating that the Garda Síochána "historically [has] been seen as providing an impartial police service, policing all sections of society equally," and that "accommodating variations to our standard uniform and dress, including those with religious symbolism, may well affect that traditional stance and give an image of an Garda Siochana which . . . the public would not want." [link] As Varadkar put it in his interview:

VARADKAR: [At] the foundation of the Irish police force, 80 years ago, when Ireland . . . was born out of a sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants, a decision was made at that time to require anyone who was going to be a police officer or a member of the army to leave their religion and political affiliations at home . . . .

Perhaps this isn't an entirely unreasonable starting point for a public conversation about the issue, assuming that the commitment to secularism is sincere and not selective. However, as Deol pointed out, there probably weren't more than a handful of Sikhs, at the very most, in Ireland at all 80 years ago, so it also seems perfectly reasonable to revisit the issue in light of the changing demographics that contemporary Irish society has encouraged. And of course, the impact of this rule on Sikhs is disproportionately severe. If Sikhs were prohibited from wearing turbans while on duty, it would not simply require them to "leave their religion at home," but rather would force many Sikhs in effect to abandon altogether a central tenet of their faith if they wished to serve in the police, a fact that Varadkar seemed unable to acknowledge openly and directly:

DEOL: How do you get Sikhs into the Irish police force if you're asking them to remove their turbans?

VARADKAR: The same way you get Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Muslims to do so, by asking them, when they go to work, to leave their religion at home. . . . There's space for your faith, in your private time, but when you're their to be a police officer, you're expected to wear a uniform and follow a set of rules . . . . This isn't an anti-Sikh thing, there's no ban on the turban as such, it's just that there's a uniform, and there's no reason to change it.

From there, Deol's interview with Varadkar only became more revealing. Varadakar proceeded to invoke the slippery slope:

VARADKAR: [I]f we were to let people wear turbans, would we then have to do the same thing with hajeebs or other religious clothing? We don't particularly want to go down that route.

DEOL: I think the word is "hijabs," but don't worry about it. . . .

And as it turns out, even multiculturalism "in the home" isn't completely safe on Varadkar's view of the world:

Leicestershire Police Recruitment BrochureDEOL: What difference would it make -- you have Sikh officers wearing turbans in England and Wales, and it doesn't affect how they do their job, so what is the logic in it in Ireland now, today? How would it affect a police officer doing his job, which has got to be important as well? . . . .

VARADKAR: . . . They may not be seen as . . . an ordinary agent of the state. . . . That would be a risk. But, you know, I think that in England, maybe you've got a different model, . . . very much a kind of multicultural model, where you have people, even second and third generation, who are still living in England as if they were living in the country their grandparents came from. In Ireland, we're going for a very different model of immigration and a very different model of society, where already 10 or 12 percent of our population are immigrants or come from immigrant backgrounds, similar to Britain, but . . . we've decided not to go down the British route.

DEOL: What do you mean by that?

VARADKAR: Well, for example, in Britain, it's not unusual for people who may be second or third generation immigrants and still at home speak the language of their grandparents, or to be schooled separately, or really not to be properly and fully integrated into British or English society. . . . We're doing something very different in Ireland. We're following what we call the Republican model, which perhaps is similar to the United States, where we have a "melting pot" really. So when immigrant communities come to Ireland we want them to mix in, and mix in fully -- and to adapt their cultural traditions to the native culture. . . .

Essentially what we've seen is [that] the model that has happened in Britain in particular [has been] an unsuccessful model of immigration, where people live in separate communities and separate spheres and have separate aspirations, and we don't want that. We want to have one nation, and we want to stay as one nation. . . . That doesn't mean that you have to convert religions by any means, but it does mean that where you have a secular police force, like we do, that you're prepared to accept that.

Maybe Varadkar is afraid that if the Irish allow second and third generation Sikhs to speak with their grandparents at home in Hindi or Punjabi, and then let them wear turbans on duty as police officers, it only will be a matter of time before some Irish police officer will approach him and shout, "Tumhe pulis ne charon taraf se gher liya hi, Varadkar! Ab tum apne aap ko pulis ke hawale kardo! Bhaag ne ki koshish mat karna!" Before leading a public prayer and a procession to the nearest gurdwara at taxpayer expense.

Varadkar's characterization of British multiculturalism seems a distortion; his understanding of the United States is certainly off the mark. Ireland is a latecomer to the debate over Sikhs wearing turbans in the police and military, which is hardly surprising since Sikhs still number less than 1,500 individuals in a total Irish population of approximately 4 million. But several countries in addition to India and Pakistan -- including the United States, Britain, Canada, Singapore, and Malaysia -- have already confronted the issue of accommodating Sikhs' turbans in their police uniforms and, in varying degrees, have permitted turbans to be worn on duty without any operational difficulties. For example, in Canada, the Mounties changed their rules to accommodate Sikhs in 1990. Here in New York, the NYPD changed its practices in 2004, following a lawsuit by a Sikh officer that garnered amicus support from then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

It seems ironic that resistance to making such modest accommodations for Sikhs' religious practices would be happening in Ireland, given the intense hostility and discrimination that large numbers of Irish migrants historically experienced in the United States and Britain. The 19th century American experience with nativism against Irish Catholics is well-known. (Notably, an important aspect of the integration process for 19th century Irish immigrants involved their employment in urban police forces.) And it was not anywhere near that long ago that signs could be found in British establishments reading "no dogs, no blacks, no Irish."

Oh, and did I neglect to mention this? Leo Varadkar -- whose political party appears to agree that the Garda Síochána "must reflect the diversity of modern Ireland" and recruit individuals from "communities that are currently poorly represented or lack visibility within the Gardaí," such as immigrants -- is of Indian descent on his father's side.