Loose talk, black day for Enda

 

Enda Kenny's apology for using the word 'nigger' has shown him that politicians should not see journalists as friends, writes Mark Brennock, Political Correspondent

In the basement bar of Buswell's Hotel last Wednesday evening Enda Kenny was feeling both relaxed and emotional.

He was relaxed because he was surrounded by party deputies, senators, other colleagues and journalists at a farewell drinks party for press director Mr Niall O Muilleoir. He was emotional because that day an old friend and colleague, former Tipperary deputy Mr David Molony, had died suddenly and prematurely.

In a speech Mr Kenny spoke about his late friend, and told what he presumably thought was a funny anecdote.

However, the anecdote contained the word "nigger", and various groups who were told about it criticised Mr Kenny in yesterday's newspapers.

The story was as follows: Mr Kenny, Mr Molony and long-time Senator Maurice Manning were in a bar in Portugal when they noticed a cocktail on the menu called a Lumumba.

The three thought this could be named after Patrice Lumumba, the African nationalist leader who was the Congo's first democratically elected leader but was subsequently assassinated in 1961.

According to Mr Kenny, Mr Manning asked the Moroccan barman about this, to be told that the drink was named after "some nigger who died dans la guerre [IN THE WAR)]". Mr Kenny also mentioned that the Moroccan barman had "shiny teeth". He mentioned several times in Buswells that he did not want to see the story in the newspapers, but it was recounted in several Sunday newspapers. They sought reaction to Mr Kenny's remarks from the Labour Party, the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and other groups, who all went on record to condemn the use of the word "nigger".

Mr Kenny has since apologized unreservedly and has insisted it was not intended as a racist remark. A number of those who were present accept that Mr Kenny was not setting out to be racist. "The laugh wasn't supposed to be provoked by the word 'nigger'," says one Fine Gael figure. "The laugh was supposed to come from the picture of these three white guys in a bar in Portugal laughing at a Moroccan guy who dismissed a famous African leader as a 'nigger', an epithet none of the white guys would dream of using."

This is very likely to be true, but perhaps too subtle as a political justification for Mr Kenny's use of the word. No party source contacted yesterday would defend Mr Kenny's action. All said that a man putting himself forward as the next Taoiseach should not tell "non-politically correct" stories, particularly in front of reporters.

"You can tell risqué jokes that might be racist or sexist or homophobic to your friends who know you are not racist or sexist or homophobic," according to one Fine Gael source. "But you really shouldn't risk doing it in front of journalists.

"It is a lesson for Enda," said another experienced figure yesterday. "He cannot put journalists in a compromised position by telling them stories like that and asking them to keep quiet. They are not his friends. They have a job to do and so has he."

Mr Kenny himself recognised this in his apology. He said in a statement: "Some of the people in whose company I used this have gone to great lengths to explain the word was used in recounting a true incident in the past.

"However, the fact is that I used the word, and no context excuses it. I failed to exemplify my own standards and the standards of a party absolutely committed to diversity. I am sorry."

Labour's Mr Tommy Broughan best summed the political attitude to the incident in a comment to yesterday's Sunday Independent: "Enda Kenny is a storyteller but on this occasion he got it wrong and that is disappointing."