A rally held under the Waterford Against Racism banner, held in heavy rain at John Roberts Square on Wednesday, appealed for calm and reason in the wake of the Railway Square protest of October 25th.
With approximately 20 Gardaí present, along with a considerable national and local media presence, the assembled crowd, which appeared to number between 70 and 100, heard that the anti-racism group “doesn’t condone crime”.
Addressing the gathering, Seamus O’Brien stressed that Waterford Against Racism wishes to see an end to members of the Roma community begging on the city’s streets, but not at the behest of “a vigilante mob”.
“We want to see an end to the type of poverty which drives people in having to shake a cup to feed their children. And we think that it is absolutely scandalous, that in 2014, that members of any community, be it Roma, Irish or anyone else, have to go out and beg to feed their children, and to be chased out of your home in the middle of the night by a roving mob.”
Mr O’Brien added: “The Garda Chief Superintendent, last Monday night, said that the vast majority of crime in Waterford has nothing to do with the Roma community and I believe and we believe that criminality has nothing to do with ethnicity.”
Noting that “many of the Romany community receive no social protection”, Seamus O’Brien said that “their income was begging – what option would you resort to feed your family. You would steal; the Irish did it in the United States after the Famine”.
Stating that it was “nonsense that in this day and age (that) we had to make a stand against mob rule,” Mr O’Brien questioned why “we didn’t see protests outside the banks in great numbers” over the past six years.
“Yes, there’s crime in Waterford, yes there’s crime in the Roma community, yes there’s crime in your family, in my family, in every family, but we cannot allow ourselves to descend into mob rule and racist commentary on the social media to solve this.”
Church of Ireland Dean of Waterford Maria Jansson said the events of October 25th “did not represent Waterford”. Speaking to The Munster Express, Dean Jansson said “that most people in Waterford are reasonable…so maybe in a quiet way, this gentle group meeting here today is saying that most of don’t want this behaviour and in fact totally reject it…it’s very easy to whip up hatred, and it’s dangerous to scapegoat anyone”.
Joined by Methodist Reverend Sahr Yamabasu, a native of Sierra Leone who is based in Saint Patrick’s Church, both clerics said the presence of so many young people at the anti-racism rally was “a great sign of hope”.
Said Rev Yamabasu: “There are those young people who don’t want this (type of behaviour) going forward, they don’t want this type of society, they don’t want these sort of attacks so for me, despite what has happened, I can see hope emerging, and that, for me, is a positive.”
Dean Jansson, referencing the 42 different nationalities in ChristChurch Primary School alone, said that there had been “fantastic, almost unspoken of integration” through the education system.
She added: “What scares me is that reasonable people don’t tend to organise or speak out – they tend to hang back. And reasonable people, gentle folk, who would have been horrified by this, I would call on such people to speak out, and to do so persistently, quietly, gently, all the time; the reasonably silent among us will always be drowned out by the shouters. They must find their voice.”
Speaking on behalf of the Roma community, Stelian Ciuciu said that many Roma were left with little alternative to begging. “People are very, very scared,” he told reporters in John Roberts Square. “These are people who are not educated; they do not get social welfare, many of them. And this is what they know – people need to understand this.”
Mr Ciuciu added: “I know that Waterford is very, very friendly…I know begging and stealing is not good but many Roma need more understanding because they cannot work, do not have education, cannot get social help, and that is very, very bad. I would appeal to people in Waterford, who are very good people, to think about the Roma people and not to be (part of) racism or anti-Roma behaviour”.
Wexford-based People Before Profit Councillor Deirdre Wadding, whose father hails from Waterford, said she was “appalled” by the events of October 25th.
Cllr Wadding added: “Criminality must be dealt with and the fears of genuine people must be dealt with, they must be addressed and they must be addressed through proper channels, not through a blood-thirsty mob surrounding somebody’s family home shouting ‘Burn Them Out’. It is outrageous that such a thing should have happened…but I am confident that the good people of Waterford will come together and take a stand against this appalling, disgusting racist behaviour.”
On the local political front, City and County Councillor Eddie Mulligan appeared to be the only elected official who attended the event, while members of Sinn Féin, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Anti Austerity Alliance were also present.