Racism must never be accepted as a strategy to gain votes

Opinion: Allowing the politics of fear and resentment to blossom is dangerous

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the launch of the party’s election manifesto in 2011.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin at the launch of the party’s election manifesto in 2011. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Thu, Apr 11, 2013, 06:00

Democracy requires accountability and accountability is synonymous with integrity, transparency and honesty. The willingness of elected representatives to uphold these principles and values is in theory the cornerstone of a functioning democracy.

Transparency International amongst others have signalled a dramatic weakening of these principles in recent years, and readers will be only too well aware of the dire consequences arising from the lack of accountability in public life.

In the recent incident of a Limerick Fianna Fáil councillor declaring that there should be an “Irish first” policy to access social housing, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claimed that councillor Kevin Sheahan was “acting in a personal capacity”. Martin provided this view in a response to an email sent by many concerned people to him about Sheahan’s comments. Fianna Fáil has not made a public statement on the issue to date.

The use of the term “acting in a personal capacity” seems to have become a popular strategy in accountability avoidance tactics. A number of weeks ago Fianna Fáil also said that Donegal county councillor Seán McEniff was “acting in a personal capacity” when he demanded the segregation of Travellers and settled people. For the record neither McEniff nor Sheahan stated at the time they made these comments that they were “acting in a personal capacity”. Both made their comments in public settings in the course of carrying out their public office.

Racism, fascism and far-right movements are on the rise across Europe. Most people are appalled by the extremes of hatred targeted towards minority groups, including immigrants and Roma. The actions of groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece have been compared to pre-World War II conditions. It may seem a stretch of the imagination to make the connection between the rise of extreme right wing movements elsewhere in Europe and events involving local elected representatives in Ireland. However, if in this insidious manner racism goes unchecked, the conditions that lead to violent extremism can and do become a reality.

The comments of councillors Sheahan and McEniff have appeared on right wing and white supremacist websites and discussion boards as justification of the extreme views being promoted by these groups. There is also evidence on social media that some people willingly believe his false assertions even when the facts are presented to them. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has strongly rejected councillor Sheahan’s assertion that immigrants are getting preferential treatment in accessing social housing, and the statistics reinforce the facts.

The fact that there are local and European elections next year adds urgency to the need for decisive action to deal with those who use the lives of vulnerable minority groups to engage in dangerous and rogue electioneering. Allowing the politics of fear and resentment to blossom is dangerous. Political parties cannot turn a blind eye to their members using racism as a strategy to gain votes.

All the main political parties have endorsed the Anti-Racism Political Protocol first produced by the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Xenophobia and now co-ordinated by the Irish Network Against Racism. Candidates in signing the protocol agree to “guarantee that when engaging in ongoing debate in relation to groups which are the potential targets of racism, such as asylum seekers, refugees, migrant workers and Travellers, [their] contribution to such debate is conducted in a responsible way and with respect to the dignity and rights of minority ethnic groups”.

All political parties, not just Fianna Fáil, need to dust off their copy of the protocol and engage in an education process with their members, especially candidates running in next year’s elections.

Fianna Fáil now has a choice to make. Does it allow its councillors to wilfully deceive their constituents, and condone the blatant fuelling of racism by party representatives? Or will it uphold its proclaimed condemnation of racism by holding its representatives accountable through imposing sanctions? As Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Siobhán O’Donoghue is director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, which is a member of the Irish Network Against Racism. The network co-ordinates a national racism incident reporting and monitoring system

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