By Andy Pollak
FIRST SESSION, 25 FEBRUARY – INTRODUCTION AND PUBLIC SPEAKING
The first session of the 2017 Sanctuary in Politics course (organised by City of Sanctuary Dublin) opened at 10 am on Saturday 25 February in the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College Dublin, which would be our home for the six weeks of the course. There were 32 refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants inscribed on the course from the following countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, India, the Philippines, China, Somalia, Nigeria, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Mexico, Turkey, Romania and Poland. In Ireland they came not only from the Dublin area, but also from the refugee resettlement programme in Portlaoise and Direct Provision centres in Mosney, Co Meath and Newbridge, Co Kildare.
Over 55 people had applied for the course following circulation of a flier which promised training in public speaking and presentation skills, and in how to access the Irish media; information about how the political system works in Ireland; opportunities to meet politicians and local political representatives; learning about lobbying and campaigning; and the chance to make new friends from all over the world. It was free of charge to all participants.
After refreshments and ‘ice breaker’ exercises by Tiffy Allen, coordinator of Places of Sanctuary Ireland (the City of Sanctuary all-island ‘umbrella’ body), the opening session on speaking in public was led by Doireann Ní Bhriain, the prominent former RTE broadcaster and producer. She started with five minutes of physical ‘warm up’ exercises, and this would become the pattern for beginning the rest of the sessions (the later ‘warm ups’ were led by CoS Dublin volunteer Clodagh O’Reilly-Boyles). Doireann gave advice on clear communication, especially for those for whom English is not a first language. She also talked about the difficulties people might face in understanding the peculiarities of how the Irish use the English language. Some of those taking part then gave short oral presentations about their hopes for their futures in Ireland.
A Politics in Sanctuary What’s App group was also formed at the end of this session, which was used frequently and productively by participants, ‘companions’ (see below) and organisers for the duration of the course.
SECOND SESSION, 4 MARCH – THE IRISH PRESS AND MEDIA
The second session was an introduction to the Irish press and media, led by City of Sanctuary Dublin chair, Andy Pollak (a retired Irish Times and BBC journalist) and his daughter Sorcha Pollak, a current Irish Times news reporter with a particular interest in migration. They covered topics such as: how to contact and inform reporters; how to understand the needs of editors and news editors; how to interest journalists in your story; how to deliver a clear, strong message; how to make your message ‘newsworthy’; how to understand a newspaper or broadcaster’s rhythms and moods; how to write a press release and how to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
Sorcha showed examples of her weekly ‘New to the Parish’ column in the Irish Times, in which she interviews a range of people from overseas who have come to live and work in Ireland. City of Sanctuary Dublin secretary Tian Yu Lloyd then spoke briefly about how to access local newspapers and freesheets.
At this session the participants were joined by 14 ‘companions’ whose job would be to befriend and assist them for the rest of the course. Most of these were local Dublin people, although they also included Polish, Slovak, American and Indian people living in Dublin. They came from a range of Dublin institutions, including Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University (Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary) and Dublin Unitarian Church (Ireland’s first Church of Sanctuary). Details of course assignments (which could be a video, a poster, an essay, a letter to a politician or a press release) were discussed (deadline for return of assignments, 25 March).
THIRD SESSION, 11 MARCH – CONTEMPORARY IRISH POLITICS
The third session was an introduction to the Irish political and electoral system and to Irish political parties and their ideologies and policies. The first half of the session was led by Joe O’Brien, Integration Outreach Officer with the Immigrant Council of Ireland. Joe talked about the importance of voting (pointing out that all immigrants, including asylum-seekers, have a vote in local elections at least); voting rights in Ireland for all categories of residents; the role of local authorities and local councillors (with examples of non-Irish councillors – amazingly, there are only two in the whole country); the constituencies and structures of the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas (Dail and Seanad); how general elections work, and some key political leaders. He then modelled a simple exercise to show how the Irish Proportional Representation-Single Transferable Vote electoral system works and listed some key websites to help people with voter registration and finding out details about political representatives (www.checktheregister.ie and www.whoismytd.com).
Joe was followed by Deaglán de Breadún, formerly political reporter and Northern editor with the Irish Times, and author of books on the Northern Ireland peace process and Sinn Fein. Deaglán spoke about how Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom; the conflict in Northern Ireland; the ideologies of the major Irish parties: Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and Labour; the position of the various parties on refugees, asylum seekers and migrants; why there is no far-right, anti-immigration party in Ireland, and how the current minority government works.
The participants then divided into groups, with Joe, Deaglán and CoS Dublin core group members, to discuss Irish politics in more detail.
FOURTH SESSION, 25 MARCH – POLITICIANS ROUND TABLE
The fourth session centred on a politicians’ round table. Present were Kathleen Fahy (Fine Gael Dublin regional organiser), Senator Catherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail), Sean Crowe (Sinn Fein TD for Dublin South West), Brian McDonagh (Labour councillor, Fingal County Council) and Sarah Jane Hennelly (vice-chair, Social Democrats). Bríd Smith of People Before Profit sent her apologies. The chair was businessman and journalist Fintan Drury.
Each politician briefly outlined their parties’ position on key issues, including refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. All of them expressed opposition to Direct Provision. There were lively interchanges between the participants and the politicians – notably on the issue of Direct Provision. The politicians promised to facilitate a meeting in Leinster House, the Irish parliament’s building, between the Sanctuary in Politics group and a wider range of politicians at which the group would present a manifesto they were preparing on refugee and migrant issues. Kathleen Fahy said she would endeavour also to arrange a meeting with the Minister of State in charge of migration, David Stanton.
Assignments were handed in by all participants after this session. They were reviewed by members of the City of Sanctuary Dublin core group and all agreed that the standard was much higher than last year. They ranged from a moving story of violence and flight by an African asylum seeker; a poster and slide show on racism; an article entitled ‘Direct Provision: Accommodation Centre or Graveyard?’; a poster on the problems faced by an eastern European athlete and asylum seeker competing internationally for his Irish club; and photos of a debate on the International Protection Act in Leinster House.
At a short afternoon session, volunteer Niall Sargent, a journalist, showed participants how to take photos on their mobile phones that would be suitable for publication in the press.
FIFTH SESSION, 1 APRIL – POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CAMPAIGNING
The fifth and final session was on political and social campaigning in Ireland, and how refugees, asylum seekers and migants might make their voices heard through such campaigns. The main speaker was Noel Whelan, lawyer, newspaper columnist and one of the key figures behind the hugely successful Marriage Equality campaign in 2015, the world’s first referendum to put marriage between same sex partners into a country’s constitution.
Noel spoke of the importance of three things: clarity of message, chronology (working back from a successful outcome and outlining the steps needed to reach that outcome) and capacity (mobilising the necessary resources). He spoke of the need to focus a successful campaign beyond the two ‘comfort zones’ of family and friends and people one mixed with on a regular basis towards the ‘others’ who might feel uncomfortable with and unnerved by your message. He emphasised the importance of personal testimonies by high profile and well-respected people in society (both national and local), such as former President Mary McAleese.
This presentation was followed by talks from two campaigners who have focussed more on refugee and migrant issues: Rares-Mihai Nicula, Social Inclusion Coordinator with the New Communities Partnership and Pippa Woolnough, Communications and Advocacy Manager with the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
At lunchtime on this final day course completion certificates were presented by the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Rebecca Moynihan, to all participants. Councillor Moynihan spoke about the need for Dublin to give a warm welcome to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to the city, both because they were often fleeing terrible situations of war, persecution and poverty, and because of the new energies and skills they brought to the city.
A delicious buffet lunch was served by Clodagh O’Reilly-Boyles and volunteers from the Irish School of Ecumenics and City of Sanctuary Dublin. The early afternoon was spent discussing the the Sanctuary in Politics course manifesto which participants will present at the Oireachtas in May. The course finished at 3.30 pm
Participants were enthusiastic in their written evaluations of the course. Among the comments were: “this course opened my eyes and ears”; “everything went smoothly and we all looked forward to these Saturdays”; “if we work together like this we will achieve more things”; “we got to know the wonderful people in City of Sanctuary who put smiles on our faces”; “I gained more confidence to voice my thoughts” and “I will be able to talk to the media now.” On the negative side, some participants found some of the speakers difficult to understand.
Particular thanks for the success of this course are due to the Irish School of Ecumenics at TCD for their hosting and provision of meals and refreshments, and in particular Professor Gillian Wylie, Clodagh O’Reilly-Boyles and Allison Harmon. Also the following volunteers from City of Sanctuary Dublin: Tian Yu Lloyd, Francis McEvoy, Almut Schlepper, Corona Joyce, Nadette Foley, Niall Sargent, Lassane Ouedraogo, Veronica Crosbie, Brian and Tiffy Allen, and Andy Pollak.