Taking an Irish Stand against ‘racist’ Donald Trump
Senator Aodhán O'Riordáin on his New York St Patrick’s Day event for Irish-Americans
As we look to our east, we see the United Kingdom reneging on its obligations to postwar Europe and post-conflict Ireland and leaving the European Union on the back of a campaign characterised by xenophobia and lies. As we look west, we see the greatest power on earth immerse itself in the normalisation of racist, misogynist and hate-filled rhetoric facilitated by the highest office in the land.
As we look further east, we see France, where the Front National is now a mainstream political voice and where Marine Le Pen is buoyant. In the Netherlands, the far-right Geert Wilders is riding high ahead of a general election. And then there is Germany. And Austria. Far-right nationalists are now more confident than ever, and they are taking their lead from the tolerance of intolerance in the Brexit and Trump campaigns.
As Irish women and men, do we observe passively as these great historic international powers collapse inwards on themselves? Do we decide that we have no power? That we are insignificant? That our own domestic economic concerns override other misgivings? Or do we use whatever platform we have to recall our own struggles, our own conflicts, our own bloodletting, our own refuge-seeking, and take a stand?
Last November, two days after the US election, I rose to my feet in the Seanad to speak in the Order of Business debate. It’s a ritual every morning where Senators outline issues that they want discussed.
Six speakers into the debate, and no one had mentioned Donald Trump’s election. In fact, the contributor immediately before me outlined his disgust at the state of a leak in the main street of Trim, Co Meath. I could feel the fury beginning to well up beneath my skin as I waited my turn to speak. And then I let rip.
Sitting down after my rant, I felt I had made a mess of it. Too angry and incoherent, I thought, as my hand, clutching my hastily scribbled notes, was still quivering. Three months later, the speech has more than 45 million views worldwide.
The Seanad is an often derided institution. At the time of the referendum on Seanad abolition, I was happy for it to be closed down. It was only as a minister of state, when interacting with senators over issues of equality and social justice, that I changed my position, and it was a debate on the direct provision system in November 2014 that moved me to state my altered view. It was partly due to the campaigning zeal of senators from all parties in the last Oireachtas that the McMahon report on direct provision got commissioned, which led directly to more than 2,000 long-stay residents getting their papers and moving on with their lives.
Regardless of the platform you stand on, and mine was the Seanad, we all have a voice. Our office was inundated with emotional messages from all over the US and around the world, agreeing with the sentiments in the speech and asking if more could be done by politicians overseas to highlight the hateful rhetoric of the new US leader.
When Trump’s administration began to take shape, it was clear that a lot of his most senior advisers and spokespeople – including Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Paul Ryan and John Kelly – were Irish-Americans. His most vocal supporters from the outrageously biased Fox News network are Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Irish names. Irish-Americans. Ready to celebrate their heritage on St Patrick’s Day.
What President Trump has done is to unleash the most blatant xenophobic policies to back up the racist rhetoric of his campaign. In his speech to the joint session of the US Congress, he announced the establishment of Voice (Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement), an agency to crack down on immigrant crime. Regardless of the fact that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit offences, and undocumented immigrants are very careful not to interact with the forces of law and order in any way, Trump needs a scapegoat.
His travel ban is patently racist. Since 1968, about 1.5 million Americans have died as a result of firearm-related violence. In the same period, about five have been killed by refugees. If President Trump was serious about keeping Americans safe, he would go to battle with the National Rifle Association, which vigorously resists tougher gun-control legislation. Instead, he has instituted a travel ban against citizens from six identified counties, on the basis of their religious and ethnic make-up. He will take no refugees from Syria. He will continue with his mantra from his inauguration speech: America First.
Suspicion and stereotyping
We Irish should recognise this sentiment, because we were once on the receiving end of this kind of hateful suspicion and stereotyping. We are an immigrant nation. We have known the horror of fleeing our homeland in “coffin ships”, just as Syrians do today. We fled hunger and conflict in this land as others do today. We were called terrorists when Irish-made bombs murdered men, women and children in British cities, just as others are called terrorists today. And Irish Catholics suffered suspicion and prejudice in the UK and US in the early part of the last century, just as Muslims suffer today.
Any Irish-American who doesn’t understand this misunderstands their own history and our collective story. As Daniel O’Connell once said of the Irish slave owners of the 1800s: “How can the generous, the charitable, the humane and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct within you?”
Any Irish-American who uses St Patrick’s Day to promote the narrow-minded ideal of a successful white Christian people is betraying history and, more importantly, their fellow man. As Irish-Americans crowd around our Taoiseach in the White House on the day the travel ban comes into effect, they will do a grave injustice to the journey of our proud nation.
The majority of Irish people would greatly respect Enda Kenny if he was to find within himself the moral courage to speak truth to power in a moment reminiscent of Hugh Grant’s character in Love Actually. But unfortunately we can’t take that chance. We have found another platform to take a stand.
So, on St Patrick’s Day in New York City this year, a unique event will take place at the iconic Riverside Church, called “Irish Stand”. In the very church where Martin Luther King made his famous speech condemning the war in Vietnam, artists and activists will take to the stage to denounce another great wrong.
We’ll be joined by those who have campaigned for Waking the Feminists, I Am a Muslim Too, Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Speakers familiar to Irish ears, such as Colum McCann, Gabriel Byrne and Maeve Higgins, will join with American and international performers and campaigners as we stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who feels fearful at this great time of uncertainty.
Let’s remind ourselves of what is best in who we are: “Ní neart go cur le chéile.” We are a decent people. Our voice can and must be heard. Our story must be told. History demands it, on St Patrick’s Day.
For more details, visit irishstand.org
Aodháin Ó Riordáin is a Labour Party Senator