Irish Times view on arson attack in Donegal: calling out racism

DCU research shows that online hate speech against groups such as asylum seekers and Travellers is widespread

Emily Logan, Irish Human Rights and Equality Commissioner, launching the Commission’s annual report . Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

An arson attack on a Donegal hotel that was due to receive 100 asylum seekers provided a stark reminder that, in spite of our harrowing history of mass emigration, outsiders are not always welcomed here. It is at such times that concerned citizens come into their own, like those from Moville, Ballaghadereen and other reception towns who publicly extended welcoming hands to dispossessed strangers.

Behaving as if incipient and overt racism is absent from society and may safely be ignored would be a serious mistake. Public opinion in other EU countries has become polarised over the treatment of immigrants; borders have been closed to asylum seekers and ultra-nationalist parties in Eastern Europe are on the rise. Closer to home, Brexit was heavily influenced by anti-immigrant sentiment. Leaflets were distributed in Ballaghadereen by racist-motivated activists from Dublin, last year, in an attempt to prevent the use of a hotel there as a refugee centre. They failed. But fear and local apprehension was stirred up.

A recent study by Dublin City University has shown that online hate speech, against groups such as asylum seekers and Travellers, is widespread in Ireland. But it is seldom called out online or reported to the authorities. Over a year, researchers identified 6,000 online messages containing "racially-loaded toxic speech". They also found a large number of examples involving "coded racism", where locals were presented as competing for services with foreign nationals.

These xenophobic and racist messages are not new. But their widespread dissemination through social media reflects an ability by their purveyors to utilise public platforms for the first time. Service providers should winnow this obnoxious material. And the Government must consider up-grading anti-racist legislation. Irish Human Rights and Equality Commissioner Emily Logan is concerned that the toleration of online hate speech could contribute to shaping both public and political debate. Those with power and influence, she said, should establish new norms for a changing society.