Creeping tolerance for racism in Irish politics must stop

Toxic commentary is dressed up as a reflection of concerns from the doorsteps

Brendan Howlin: His  speech at the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago warned against slippage in the fight against racism in Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images

Brendan Howlin: His speech at the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago warned against slippage in the fight against racism in Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images

 

I have to admit that in the past, though Jewish, I did not pay as much attention to anti-Semitism as I did to Islamophobia and other forms of racism. But the facts have caught up with me.

I am increasingly alarmed at how easily politicians, media commentators, and members of the public make clearly pejorative comments against minorities, from women looking like “letterboxes” (Boris Johnson) to accusing migrants from Africa of only wanting to “sponge off the system”.

The UK Labour Party’s ongoing travails with anti-Semitism – in the spotlight again this week with the intervention of the UK’s chief rabbi – figure into a much wider global normalisation of racist remarks, whether against Jews, Muslims or any ethnic or religious minority.

Certainly anxiety about rising demand for public services already under strain is a legitimate concern. However, blurring this concern with racist notions has become all too predictable.

The Irish Government can learn from efforts elsewhere to promote integration of migrants, especially those from non-English speaking non-European countries

The consequence is that politicians and other public figures, regardless of party affiliation, can refer insensitively to the holocaust, confound political opposition with the machinations of members of specific minority groups (Soros being the most well-known example), and name-drop Isis when referring to Muslim migrants and refugees and still believe they may not face any significant repercussion.

Brendan Howlin’s speech at the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago warned against slippage in the fight against racism in Ireland, pointing to the protests against direct provision centres, and Peter Casey’s unexpected success as indicators that the “toxic racism” in politics seen elsewhere can come here.

Racism will become an issue in Ireland like it is elsewhere if the same or similar conditions that have situated racism at the centre of political debate in other countries are here as well.

Legislative advances

If we look at other countries the politics of racism in part represents a response to legislative advances enforcing rights and transformation of local public space, which has become less homogenous.

Certain segments of the population have consequently embraced anti-political correctness, anti-feminism and anti-immigration policies.

Their attachment to opposing new policies and political culture has become, in a perverse way, a statement of what they believe, which is a return to “authenticity” and the notion of “homeland” before it became diluted by rights and multiculturalism.

The features of this “home” remain vague, except that it is proudly ethnocentric and probably fairly patriarchal.

We have yet to see how much the rise of the far right and the emboldening of authoritarian regimes will influence our capacity to face the critical challenges of our time

While Ireland seems to be moving in the opposite direction, rejecting a religiously conservative past for a progressive future, recent events and a report by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency on the relatively high level of racist incidents in Ireland against migrants because of their skin colour appear to suggest a troubling undercurrent.

In responding, the Irish Government can learn from efforts elsewhere to promote integration of migrants, especially those from non-English speaking non-European countries. In fact the Government has started to act. An anti-racism committee has been established, and the Government is implementing its 2017-2020 Migration Integration Strategy.

However, language requirements, employment quotas and other measures will not be sufficient to ensure social inclusion, which needs to be based on cultivating shared economic, social, and political values.

One mistake made in the UK was to assume the citizenship tests and grassroots interfaith initiatives would compensate for longer-term intervention in venues like schools and community development forums that can facilitate interaction and co-operation across diverse ethnic and religious populations.

Common interests

A potentially effective route for Ireland would mean ensuring hate-crime legislation is adequate, investing seriously in training on diversity and modes of bringing together people of different backgrounds, and, in turn, recognising the efforts of unions and other civil society actors to cultivate common interests and values amongst migrants and “native” citizens. In other words, much more than is happening now.

Politics in Ireland must focus on the structural causes of insecurity while understanding the anxiety about societal change. At the same time there has to be a code of honour – increasingly absent today in political debate – that negative references to race and religion are prohibited.

It’s no longer acceptable for mainstream politics to see creeping tolerance of racism in campaigning rhetoric as a coincidence. Instead it needs to be stronger to protect itself from the infiltration of toxic commentary dressed up as a reflection of concerns from the doorsteps.

We have yet to see how much the rise of the far right and the emboldening of authoritarian regimes will influence our capacity to face the critical challenges of our time – inequality and climate change. In Ireland the byelections on Friday should demonstrate with constructive rhetoric that the political class does not want to risk finding out.

Shana Cohen is director of TASC (Think Tank for Action on Social Change)

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