'The worst week of my life': the aftermath of a racist comment

 

DARREN SCULLY’S life fell apart this week. When we meet on Thursday night, he hasn’t been outside his Naas home in three days. Even behind his front door there is no respite. The constantly ringing phones jar the nerves. The e-mails and text messages flooding his inbox carry their own verbal grenades. The radio phone-ins run amok with the guaranteed firestorm of racial bait. The newspapers littering the kitchen table tell his story in headlines. “ ‘Racist’ Mayor,” reads one on a front page.

Scully shudders and says imploringly, “I am not that person . . . Please believe that. I am not a racist.” His problem is the words from his own mouth in not one but two radio interviews – on 4FM and KFM – within 10 hours of each other on Monday and Tuesday. He stated that he was no longer willing to take representations from “black Africans” living in his constituency because of his experiences of “bad manners”, “aggressive” behaviour and a willingness to “play the race card”.

Two days on, the 38-year-old quantity surveyor and Fine Gael town and county councillor has the appearance of a thoroughly chastened man. He has resigned as mayor of Naas, on the basis that, as first citizen, his position was “untenable”, although he is determined to remain on both councils.

“I’ve taken the decision that only those people who voted for me can decide whether I am worthy to serve as a councillor at the next election,” he says.

Meanwhile, his apologies, “total” and “unreserved”, are repeated unceasingly and his statements are “totally retracted”.

“I have made a huge mistake,” he says. “I want to apologise profusely and say it was wrong. I am a human being. Human beings sometimes do things and say things that are wrong, and I hope that all of the people who live in this country can look into their hearts and find it in them to forgive me and give me a second chance.”

He describes himself as “on the edge”, and there is no doubt that he is. Pausing for long moments, choking on words, eyes brimming, he says, “This, for me, has been the worst week of my life, the worst week of my family’s life. At stages I have been retching because . . . because I have put my family’s safety in jeopardy, I have put my career in jeopardy, I have put my livelihood in jeopardy. I have said things that have greatly offended people, which is something that I will never do again . . . because it is not me.”

He continues, haltingly, tears trickling down his face. “I have been accused of being a racist, a fascist and a Nazi – and I am none of those things. I am an honest, hardworking, decent man who has so much love to give to so many people, and it has been a desperate time for me personally . . . And it’s only the strength of my friends and my family that has kept me going, and messages from people all over the country who mightn’t share my views but who said that I have courage and that tomorrow could be a better day.”

A couple of messages, he says, have gone beyond verbal criticism. “They have said some very, very nasty things. One message said, ‘Watch yourself on the street.’ ”

He is under threat in other ways. His livelihood is on the line.

Formal complaints about his remarks have been made to the Garda, which is investigating “whether an offence” has taken place. His future in Fine Gael is up for discussion at the December 14th meeting of the party’s national executive. He accepts that this could mean expulsion. And while his family and friends remain loyal, they too are bewildered and asking hard questions.

While there might be a temptation to take comfort from the fact that about 80 per cent of more than 1,200 messages sent to him have been supportive, he resists it. The obviously sincere, wounded words of some of the critical messages have affected him. He quotes a long e-mail from an Irish emigrant, now resident in northern Europe and married to an African woman with a young family.

“He said that they had been seriously considering moving back to Ireland in 2012, but when they saw the media attention my comments had garnered in Europe, it had actually put his wife off, because she feels that my views represent what the people of Ireland feel, and she wouldn’t feel comfortable moving to Ireland now . . . I was so disappointed and ashamed when I read that. I never intended to do anything that would cause offence to people like that

. . . I really took that to heart and it really made me think very, very long and hard about what I had said.”

He reads out other critical messages. There is one from a woman who voted for him in the past, now asking him what message he thought he was sending to young black Africans “whose self-identity you have seriously tarnished with your comments . . . I no longer see you as fit to hold public office”.

Another, from a 26-year-old woman in Dublin 6, the child of a white Irish father and a black African mother, calls him “deceitful and dangerous . . . You have given all the racist people in this country a voice that makes them feel justified to carry on hating people from other ethnic minorities.”

Scully is in a lonely, frightening, confusing place. His dark night of the soul has arrived through the hammer blow of public censure. The confusion lies in the private encouragement of at least 1,000 people who went to the trouble of writing, and signing, long messages of support. They include an Irish airline pilot, a garda, several nurses, schoolteachers, frontline personnel in the social services, shop assistants, barmen and taxi drivers.

Scully says that, overwhelmingly, in their messages, people wanted to thank him for being vocal about his experiences and to share their own. He notes, however, that some of them undoubtedly have “serious issues” around racism. He now understands, however belatedly, “that you can’t just blurt out things, because other people might find what you’re saying to be offensive”.

Does this imply Ireland harbours a silent majority of racists? He baulks at this. “Some have issues, yes. But some, equally, are decent, law-abiding people who have taken the time to sit down and write an e-mail.”

What they are suggesting, he says, is that “free speech shouldn’t be condemned and battened down . . . What this week’s reaction showed is that there is an obvious desire among the people living in this country, no matter what background, to discuss this. I would hope that all of us can use this experience as an opportunity for open debate that would maybe build closer relationships and understanding . . . I think the cornerstone of democracy is free speech, and I think everybody should be allowed to voice their opinion and their view as long as they’re not turning people against another group or race.”

His dilemma, he says, is this: If say, 20 black people from the African continent have consulted him about social housing and all 20 have been aggressive, rude and/or played “the race card”, is he permitted as a matter of free speech to speak about it out loud, as his personal experience?

What he said on radio, he repeats, “was wrong, wrong, wrong . . . I see now that I was dismissing a whole race of people and that is unforgiveable . . . and yes, it was a racist comment”.

Scully has always sailed close to the wind. His suggestion – culled, he has said, from a young girl who said it to him – that some young Irish girls were deliberately getting pregnant to move up the housing list went national three years ago. A few years before that, his criticism of “monstrosities of gravestones” and alcoholic accoutrements belonging to Traveller families in Naas cemetery also lit a fuse.

“You can call me controversial, but is it controversy because I’m speaking my mind or because I’m saying something that might offend someone?” he asks. “The truth is that sometimes you have to say the blatantly obvious, speak it, and let people decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong.”

And yet if he had a time machine, he says, he would go back to Monday afternoon and not go near a radio station.