First casualty of economic trouble is human empathy

 

Warring factions often set their differences aside by spewing their wrath at any third party race they can scapegoat, writes David Adams 

FOR A while, the Belfast taxi ride was no different from hundreds of others I've taken in the past. Rather than travel in silence, the driver and I chatted about the weather, the state of the roads, and English football.

Each of us instinctively abided by Northern Ireland's unwritten rules of engagement for indigenous strangers thrown together: religion is avoided like the plague, and if local politics is mentioned at all, it is only to agree that our elected representatives are a sorry bunch.

It was just everyday autopilot chatter - until the economic downturn raised its head.

Then the driver became a little more animated, explaining how badly he and his colleagues are being squeezed: "We're being hit from all sides. Motor tax is up, insurance is up and the depot rent is up, but tourism is going to be down. And now we've rises in electric, gas and heating oil prices to contend with, too. You can be damn sure that local people won't be spending much of their money on taxis." I agreed that things aren't looking good.

He went on: "There's far too many drivers. The way things are going, there'll soon be more taxis than customers." There was a slight pause, while he gathered his thoughts, or, more likely, decided how best to introduce his main grievance.

He lowered his voice a little, as though sharing a secret: "Now I'm no racist, but . . ." He stopped talking to adjust the volume on the radio so we could listen to a news bulletin.

"Thank Christ for that," I thought, "saved by the bell." My relief was short-lived.

The lead story was the sentencing at Belfast Crown Court of three men for the abduction and repeated rape of a young woman.

For some reason, it was thought necessary to inform us that the perpetrators and victim were Lithuanian.

In the early days of The Troubles, media reports would mention the religious affiliation of murder victims, until it became clear that this was provoking retaliatory attacks.

Perhaps it's time to rethink policy again.

"You see what I mean, that could easily have been a local girl," said the driver, as though I could read his thoughts (which, by now, I could).

I ignored his inference that the offences would have been more serious if a "local" girl had been attacked. I simply pointed out that you can't judge an entire race of people by the actions of a tiny few, and, besides, there's hardly a day goes by without reports of some "local girl" having being seriously assaulted by "local men".

I was wasting my breath.

The rape story was of interest to him only insofar as it could be used to illustrate a broader point he was determined to make.

Having introduced to the conversation something he considers to be an exacerbating factor in the economic crisis as it affects himself and others, he wasn't about to let the moment pass.

"As I said, I'm no racist, but you can ask any of the drivers and they'll tell you the same thing: there's far too many foreigners on the books. And it's the same all over. It was okay when there was a bit of money about, but now there's not enough work even for our own people. I've nothing against foreigners, but it's time they thought about going back to their own countries." To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson: the driver was a stranger, but I'd heard his song before - far too often.

Even when there was "a bit of money about", I occasionally heard similar sentiments being expressed, almost always prefaced by the same self-delusory, "Now I'm no racist . . ."

Nowadays though, as the economic downturn begins to bite, the issue of "foreigners" is cropping up far more frequently in casual conversation.

Depressingly, as in the case of my travelling companion, there is a perceptible bitterness and an edge to some of the comments.

It is as though racist sentiment is solidifying, becoming personal rather than abstract: no longer loitering on the fringes of consciousness, but moving into the mainstream.

"We've done a brave bit of settling in other people's countries ourselves, over the years," I said.

"Nah, that was different," he replied.

"What do you mean? How was it different?" He looked at me, his half-raised eyebrow suggesting that I knew fine well what he meant.

"Davy, me and you are from different sides of the fence. Let's just say we wouldn't agree on whose fault it was that so many Irish people had to emigrate." It was pointless me trying to continue the discussion.

Rather than acknowledge what should bind us in solidarity with people forced to flee to distant shores to escape poverty or persecution at home, the driver had invoked the taboo of local history.

No sign even of a basic human empathy I could appeal to.

We stopped at traffic lights, and I noticed an Asian woman battling against the wind and rain, a toddler clinging to the side of the pram she was pushing.

"God help us," I thought, "have our warring tribes found a common enemy at last?"