Irish Baha'is hold conference on inclusive society

August 24, 2015
A panel of speakers at the "The New Irish as 'Us' — Identity and Integration in Modern Ireland" conference held in Ireland on 3 August. From left to right: Karen McHugh, Donnah Vuma, Tom Reichental, Payam Akhavan, Sharon Murphy, Ann O'Sullivan.

KILKENNY, Ireland — One of the pressing questions in the Irish nation, as in many others across the world, is how to build a cohesive society where different groups can live together in harmony and integrate into the wider community.

This was the theme of a conference organized by the external affairs office of the Baha'i community of Ireland on 3 August, titled "The New Irish as 'Us' — Identity and Integration in Modern Ireland". 200 people attended the one-day event, where speakers included a list of prominent figures from Ireland and abroad.

Patricia Rainsford, Director of the external affairs office and one of the organizers of the event, reflected afterward about the purpose of the conference:

Although discrimination, alienation, and social exclusion have been present in Irish culture towards some of its own populations, explained Ms. Rainsford, "Ireland has only been dealing with relatively large numbers of people from diverse global backgrounds for around 10 years".

One of the ways the conference proposed to tackle this subject is to bring greater attention to the question of identity in Ireland.

Ann O'Sullivan, a journalist and psychotherapist, speaks about the impact of rejection and exclusion on individuals and society. Slideshow
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Ann O'Sullivan, a journalist and psychotherapist, speaks about the impact of rejection and exclusion on individuals and society.

A Canadian genocide expert who helped to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, Payam Akhavan, talked about the importance of recasting the Irish identity to reflect the growing consciousness of the oneness of humanity.

"For the first time in human history we cannot define ourselves through otherness, rather we have to define ourselves inclusively," said Professor Akhavan, who nevertheless acknowledged the difficulties of reframing our identity.

Professor Akhavan was joined by a number of speakers including Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental and singer-songwriter Sharon Murphy.

Mr. Reichental, who described his experience as a young boy in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, stated that "genocide doesn't begin in the gas chamber; it begins in the playground and the neighborhood".

"We must all work to combat racism and discrimination and when we see wrong-doing we must be careful not to become bystanders," he further said.

Sharon Murphy's impassioned presentation moved the audience to tears as she described her experiences growing up as a black child in the Ireland of the 1960s and 70s.

Other speakers at the Kilkenny event were Ann O'Sullivan, a journalist and psychotherapist, who explored the consequences of exclusion for both individuals and society.

Karen McHugh from Doras Luimni, a human rights NGO that supports migrants and asylum-seekers, presented an overview of asylum seeking and how it differs from other forms of migration.

Among the speakers was also an Irish resident from Zimbabwe, Donnah Vuma, who is currently seeking asylum for herself and her three children. In her presentation, she described asylum as "a second chance, a chance to be safe and not in constant fear for yourself and your children".

The event received press coverage in the Irish Times.