Solicitor claims discrimination because she is ‘a woman and a black African’
ESRI has warned African nationals are ‘the most disadvantaged’ group in the Irish labour market
A solicitor has claimed she was subjected to discriminatory remarks because she is “a woman and a black African” when she sought to represent a client at a Mental Health Commission Tribunal.
The tribunal was considering the continued detention under the Mental Health Act of a woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, as an involuntary patient at a hospital.
Lawyers for the woman have claimed the woman and her family’s desire to be represented at the tribunal by a solicitor chosen by them was refused by the tribunal’s chairman.
Rather than have another lawyer represent her at the hearing, the woman and her family declined to participate and left the room.
The tribunal decided the woman, who wishes to return home to her family, should remain as an involuntary patient for a further six months.
Her lawyers claim the manner in which the tribunal handled the matter render the woman’s detention unlawful.
It is claimed remarks were made to her solicitor, Ashimedua Okonkwo, which the solicitor found disturbing and discriminatory.
The case came before the High Court yesterday when Ms Justice Caroline Costello directed an inquiry should be held under article 40 of the Constitution into the legality of the woman’s detention. The matter was adjourned to next week.
In a sworn statement, Ms Okonkwo, who is based in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, said she agreed to represent the woman in September.
The woman had previously had another solicitor assigned to represent her by the commission. Ms Okonkwo said she had made arrangements with the other solicitor and notified the commission.
Earlier this week, when she attended at a tribunal to review the woman’s case, Ms Okonkwo said the woman’s previous solicitor was also present. She said she told the chairman of the tribunal, Eamonn Walsh, she was representing the woman, who did not want to be represented by the previous solicitor.
She claims the chairman said the woman did not have the right to choose her own legal representative.
Ms Okonkwo said she was asked by Mr Walsh whether she was qualified to practise in Ireland, and whether she knew about the Mental Health Acts.
She said: “I found Mr Walsh’s remarks to be disturbing and I also say that I considered his remarks to be discriminatory given I am a woman and a black African.”
She wondered whether Mr Walsh “questioned all legal representatives appearing before a tribunal” as to their standing in this jurisdiction.
Ms Okonkwo said she was admitted to practise as a solicitor in Ireland in 2013, holds a master’s degree in law from TCD, and is about to receive a doctorate from the same university.
Malawian-born Joseph Nyirenda, now an Irish citizen living in Galway, has had three jobs since he first came to Ireland in 2003. The last one finished up in November 2017.
Since then, the father of three has sent out application letter after application letter in search of work. He has been called for a number of interviews. So far his search has been in vain.
Nyirenda feels discrimination in the wind: “If you look at the number of Africans graduating from Irish universities and compare it to the number of Africans employed in their area of expertise, it’s terrible.
“You see so many Africans with PhDs and master’s driving taxis. We are at risk of creating a very bitter community if we continue to leave people behind,” he says.
This week the Economic and Social Research Institute warned that African nationals are now “the most disadvantaged” group in the Irish labour market, with far higher joblessness than other immigrant groups.
Sixteen per cent of African nationals living in Ireland were unemployed last year, compared with 7 per cent of Irish and 4 per cent of western Europeans living in the State. Just 45 per cent of African-born nationals have a job.
Discrimination against black Africans has become embedded in Irish society “as a result of the portrayal of African people as poor and uneducated”, says Salome Mbugua, who leads the Migrant Women’s Network Akidwa.
Second-generation African immigrants born in Ireland experience discrimination, too, she says: “A child born here might sound very Irish but when it comes to appearing in person for an interview, they don’t get the jobs.”
The Government must make integration “part of its daily business” if Ireland wants to avoid a future of racially divided communities like in the United States, she adds.
Migrants must be brought into political debate to help inform policies, she says. “They bring a new angle. Integration is societal; it’s not just the Department of Justice and Foreign Affairs.”
Fruitless job hunt
Yetunde Awosanya set up a beauty salon during the three years she spent living in the State-supplied accommodation in Mosney, Co Meath. In time she wants to set up her own salon in the world outside.
For now, though, she needs a job. She has been applying since March, with no success. So far, she says her experience is that employers choose Irish, Polish and Brazilian applicants over Africans.
“There’s definitely discrimination. If you’re in a room with four Africans and six Poles and Brazilians, they’ll leave us and take the others. I’m trying so hard. I don’t want to survive on what’s given to me by the Government.” Calling for a national conversation about racism in Ireland, Pippa Woolnough of the Immigrant Council of Ireland says unconscious bias shown by many employers must be tackled.
“Employment is how integration happens. It’s not only about living your life in dignity and contributing to the economy, but also about being on equal footing with those around you,” says Woolnough.
“If we are complacent and don’t look at the findings [of the ESRI report] we are at danger of running into segregation and division within our society.” Effective hate-crime legislation is needed, too, she says.
Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger represents Dublin West, which includes some of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country such as Blanchardstown and Ongar.
Coppinger says African-Irish are at higher risk of homelessness. Half of them live in private rented accommodation and are more likely to face the risk of eviction.
Racism exists, she says, especially regarding language and accents, and it would be naive to think otherwise. Asians who come here, for example, tend to have very good English and their potential for employment is much higher.
“That’s not to say Africans don’t speak good English but there can be issues with accents,” the Solidarity TD says.
In the 2016 census, 57,850 people living in Ireland identified as Black or Black Irish with African ethnicity. More than 13,000 people living in Ireland are Nigerian or Irish-Nigerian. Just a fraction of them are in direct provision.
Some 5,120 identify as South African or Irish-South African; 1,530 identify as Sudanese or Irish-Sudanese; and 1,489 identify as Congolese or Irish-Congolese. Nearly 4,000 come from other African countries.
More than 63 per cent of Congolese were out of work in 2016, the highest of any group. The unemployment rate among Nigerians was 43 per cent.
More than half of those living in direct provision are Africans. Of the 3,219 who do, more than 12 per cent are from Nigeria, 12 per cent from Zimbabwe, 6 per cent from South Africa and 4 per cent from Malawi.
A 2009 study by the ESRI revealed that candidates with Irish names were more than twice as likely to be invited for interviews than candidates with “identifiably non-Irish names” even when both submitted equivalent CVs.
Back then, the research did find “strong discrimination against minority candidates”, but it did not find significant differences in the discrimination faced by African, Asian or German applicants.
In his recently published paper Why Are So Few Africans at
Work in Ireland? Prof Philip O’Connell argues that Africans living in Ireland are a “relatively well-educated group”.
The exclusion then of asylum seekers from working – a law that has now been changed – may have partly explained why so many Africans were then unemployed.
African-born women matched their Irish-born counterparts in age, marital status, number of children and fluency in English, yet they were 3½ times more likely to face unemployment, says O’Connell.
Dublin Bus has one of the most diverse group of workers in the country, coming from 70 countries. In all 17 per cent are foreign-born. One-third of them are African.
The mix has grown “organically” over 20 years, says Vivienne Kavanagh, employee development and equality executive at Dublin Bus.
“We serve all parts of Dublin – all ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds – so it’s important that our employees represent that.”
Diversity is good for business, she says. People from ethnic minorities increasingly apply for jobs in Dublin Bus if they see someone with their skin colour, or their language, driving a bus.
Ethel Buckley, Siptu deputy general secretary, argues that employers must do more. Elsewhere, employers offer English-language lessons. “Not having English is the real barrier to integration,” she says.
Back in Galway, Joseph Nyirenda ’s hunt for a job continues: “I’ve been looking at everything from medical device companies to teaching because I’ve got teaching qualifications.”
He wants his children to know that even if they feel they look different, that they still have the same opportunities as their school friends. “I want them to know that if you put in the effort you can achieve what you want.”
‘‘ there’s definitely discrimination. If you’re in a room with four Africans and six poles and Brazilians, they’ll leave us and take the others
Ashimedua Okonkwo: said she was admitted to practise as a solicitor in Ireland in 2013, holds a master’s degree in law from TCD, and is about to receive a doctorate in law from the university.
Photograph: Andrew Downes