DEALING WITH DISCRIMINATION

 

Fianna Fail has chosen the easy option in deciding not to take action over the remarks attributed to one of its local councillors in Waterford on the grounds that although the statement is "totally at odds" with the party's policy, the councillor "is entitled to voice his private opinion". If Mr Paddy Kenneally, speaking as a Fianna Fail elected representative at a meeting of the county council, had called for a return to bombing and murder by the IRA in the North, would the party react in a similarly supine manner?

In fact, if he has been accurately reported, he, came perilously close to a statement of this kind, telling the council that the time had come to have shotguns "at the ready" to run travellers out of the county, adding, "they are not our people, they are not natives". Remarks like this ape the language regularly used by Orangemen and bog unionists in the old days, and occasionally still. A travellers' group, Pavee Point, responded with measured dignity by describing, Mr Kenneally's words as sad and pathetic, but Fianna Fail evades the serious questions of racism and provocation by dismissing a re mark made to a public body as merely an expression of private opinion.

One only has to examine the explanation made by Mr Kenneally in reply to a question by this newspaper to see how his opinion might be interpreted locally. If people in Dungarvan don't want to have to go through another summer like, last year with the robbing - what practical alternative is offered? The worst possible way is that people should take the law into their own hands.

From the reactions of other local representatives in Waterford to Mr Kenneally's remarks, his anger at the behaviour of some travellers at halting sites is widely shared. Unlike him, however, they reject the use of provocative language or the blanket condemnation of an entire community for the activities of a minority. That is undoubtedly the right approach: the example of the North is only one of many that show where hatred, if allowed to fester and become institutionalised, can lead. The efforts made in Waterford to establish liaison procedures between the travelling and settled communities, with the participation of the Garda, the local authority and others, may be undramatic and slow to effect change, but they are part of any long term solution.

In any conflict of rights, there is a danger of creating injustice, which is why conciliation must take priority over sanctions. Serious problems are likely to arise in applying the equal status legislation which is being prepared by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, particularly if it is to be reinforced by an over heavy apparatus of guilt finding and compensation. The publicans see themselves, probably rightly, as heading into a no win situation of vulnerability. If a publican cannot manage his house in a decent and, responsible way, he runs the risk of losing his license. On the other hand, if he orders someone out for unruly behaviour, will he always be sure of avoiding a challenge on the grounds of discrimination?

There is no easy answer, except that over time discriminatory practices, as opposed to the odd unintentional error, should be possible to establish in individual cases. If legislation to eliminate racism is not carefully framed, there is a risk that it will have an effect opposite to that intended. What is needed, as well, is a strong and unambiguous stand by political leaders and other opinion formers, which is why Fianna Fail's reaction on this occasion is clearly inadequate.