Irish politicians have spent the last few years telling anyone who cares to listen that ‘Ireland is not Greece,' but in some respects the country appears only too keen to imitate its fellow PIG. As soon as the news about 'Maria' made international headlines, concerned citizens were on the look-out for blonde-haired children living with Roma families; two children who matched the profile were taken into care by police in Dublin and Athlone before you could say ‘witch-hunt’.
When both children were returned to the people who were indeed their biological parents, the justice minister, Alan Shatter, insisted that the Gardaí had acted ‘in good faith’. In one case, the basis for their intervention seems to have been a tip-off from a TV3 reporter, Paul Connolly, which was itself based on a transparently racist Facebook message that spoke of ‘Romas robing [sic] them to get child benefit in Europe’ and offered no evidence of anything untoward other than physical appearance. (Connolly has form when it comes to the Irish Roma community: his 2011 documentary Ireland’s Bogus Beggars was described in the Irish Independent as ‘an embarrassing shambles, which shames TV3’.) Before the truth was revealed, TV3 ran a report boasting of its role in the affair, and referring to the child's parents as ‘the people I suppose she understood to be her family’.
Displaying remarkable grace and dignity under the circumstances, the people she understood to be her family brought cups of tea and slices of cake to the journalists camped outside their home in west Dublin, waiting for the results of a DNA test. Britain’s Daily Star carried the media frenzy to its logical conclusion by suggesting that the girl might, in fact, prove to be Madeleine McCann (having already floated the same theory about ‘Maria’ on the other side of the continent).
Disappointed to learn that neither child had been the victim of kidnapping, the ‘I’m not racist, but...’ fraternity changed tack: social media have been well-stocked over the last few days with people insisting that the Gardaí would have acted in exactly the same way if they had received a call about a white Irish family whose child did not have the same colour hair as her parents (Shatter set the tone for this line of argument by suggesting that the police were ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’).
The Gardaí and the Health Services Executive are now investigating their own behaviour; a more illuminating report may come from Emily Logan, the children’s ombudsman, who has promised not to ‘rubber-stamp’ the internal inquiries. Government ministers have solemnly urged everyone not to jump to conclusions.
There has been little evidence of soul-searching on the part of the media, and it surely won’t be long before another courageous truthteller sharpens his pen to inform us about neighbourhoods that are ‘plagued’ by ‘Roma gypsies’. Irish journalism has long been dependent on ‘political correctness gone mad’ clichés imported from across the water, and can hardly be expected to do without them in these times of fiscal retrenchment.