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

The Irish Times - - Home News - AODHAN O FAOLAIN

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.

Cen­sus num­bers

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

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