George Nkencho shooting should not be seen through the lens of race

My concern with the racialisation of this incident means we are letting ourselves off the hook

I don’t think it’s any surprise that the race of the individual in question is an issue, as there can almost be a dark euphoria around having our own ‘viral race incident’ involving police. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

I don’t think it’s any surprise that the race of the individual in question is an issue, as there can almost be a dark euphoria around having our own ‘viral race incident’ involving police. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

‘Why is he so white?” my father’s cousin Iyabo asked the first time she met me when I was a kid. My paternal grandfather travelled to Ireland from Nigeria in the 1950s to study law where he met my grandmother, meaning my father grew up in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s as a young mixed-race boy. I watched how he dealt with the issue of culture and race throughout my life and I learned from him that immutable traits like the colour of one’s skin was not the most important factor about him or any of the rest of us.

If I had to, I would describe my father as a typical Irishman who loved rugby, GAA and enjoyed hanging out with the lads drinking pints. Since his death in 2015, I have thought about many conversations that I would like to have had with him, most of all I would love to have heard his views on the current conversation around race.

My parents never married, and I grew up in a council house in Clondalkin with my mother and sister, but my father was always around and had a huge influence on my life. I joined the Defence Forces which allowed me to travel overseas on several occasions and to witness interethnic conflict and power struggles unabridged. My military career also required me to work closely with An Garda Síochána and to conduct operations on the island. When conducting those operations, you understand the legal requirement around firing your weapon at a person if they are deemed a threat.

This brings me to the unfortunate shooting of the late George Nkencho on December 30th last year. I’m not going to comment on the individual in question as I am not in possession of any more facts than the average citizen. What I do want to comment on is the injection of accusations of racism or indeed the subject of race into the conversation. Essentially, there are two unfortunate outcomes here; the first being the loss of life of a young man and the impact that will have on his family. The second being the impact on the individual garda who had to fire his weapon as he perceived there was a real threat to the public or to his colleagues. It is expected after such incidents for commentators or politicians to make knee-jerk comments without considering or caring to consider how quickly an individual garda must assess a threat and act accordingly.

I don’t think it’s any surprise that the race of the individual in question is an issue, as there can almost be a dark euphoria around having our own “viral race incident” involving police. At a basic level, it is an opportunity for people, or as reported in the Irish Times this week, the barrister representing the Nkencho family, to draw comparisons with other incidents, mainly in the United States, even though the current and historical contexts could not be more different.

Truly marginalised

In no way am I saying, but there is no racism in Ireland – of course there is, but we are also living in a bizarre time where white western people think that they have a monopoly on racism, which is almost supremacist in itself. I am particularly wary of the (usually white) humanities academics who shout “systemic racism” at the earliest opportunity; this can, and does, fuel an industry which is more about assuaging white guilt than about helping the truly marginalised. I would be as wary of the “white liberal” as Malcolm X was in this regard.

When we see people as equals, we assess their actions accordingly. I do not judge the interaction with the Garda and the young Irish man through a lens of race. I know from family and my previous career that we can all embody the same failings. This point was articulated best by the black civil rights campaigner and writer, James Baldwin, when he said of the black community: “We are also mercenaries, dictators and liars . . . we are human too!”

To claim that An Garda Síochána is a racist organisation and/or part of a racist state is technically possible but in the real world not probable. My concern with the racialisation of this incident means we are letting ourselves off the hook. I can empathise with the frustrations of young “new” Irish people of all backgrounds in that their families have been placed into some of the most disadvantaged areas around the country. We have some hard questions to ask ourselves: are we repeating the mistakes of our former colonial European cousins by ghettoising newcomers? Are we making the first-generation children of these new Irish feel detached from their new home while not being entirely connected to the home of their parents? Our inability or unwillingness to engage with these questions will be to the detriment of all of us.

Ghettoising new immigrants

We seem to have seminal cultural moments in Ireland, where we reflect on troubling issues from our past and frown with disgust as we should have known better. We know now that we are ghettoising new immigrants, we know now that the direct provision system is demoralising and would crush the soul of many an Irish person if they were thrown into that system today.

As a former army officer, I am a believer in the republican values of our forebears. Where the Proclamation says: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

As we come up to 100 years of independence, I believe that “Irishness” is as much an idea based on self-determination as it ever was about geographical origin. Let’s not be divided by our immutable traits, and if we need to improve ourselves and our Republic then let’s do it, together, regardless of colour or religion. We are all Irish now. Phillip Quinlan is a former army officer from the Irish Defence Forces who has deployed to Kosovo, Uganda and Western Sahara and has worked with the United Nations in Mogadishu, Somalia. He has a degree in sociology and economics and a master’s degree in nationalism and ethnic conflict from UCD.

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