Speaking up about racism


IT WOULD be all too easy perhaps to dismiss Imran Khan’s comments about racism in Ireland as hyperbole from the race relations industry. But complacent and wrong.

“I found it difficult to believe that a seemingly modern, reformed country such as Ireland was still apparently living in the Dark Ages when it comes to issues of race, the leading British human rights lawyer told a Dublin conference on institutional racism on Tuesday. Mr Khan came to prominence for his indefatigable work over many years representing the family of the murdered black youth Stephen Lawrence.

He deserves to be taken seriously. But, surely, tolerant Ireland, unlike some of our European partners, is a place without explicitly racist political parties? Where the language of public life eschews overt racism, and where politicians like Fine Gael’s Darren Scully are forced to pay a heavy price for breaking the implied consensus? Is discrimination really a problem?

The truth is that the daily experience of our immigrant and native ethnic-minority neighbours belies such comforting assumptions. A survey of TDs recently found that three in five encountered racism on the canvass in the general election last year. A third acknowledged that speaking up for immigrant rights would damage them electorally. A 2010 survey of teachers found half had reported a racist incident at school within the previous month.

Racism remains commonplace, in the workplace and community. It can range from overt discrimination to abuse, spitting, pushing and beating people up. Sometimes worse. Last week, a Dublin man was convicted for the brutal killing of Lukasz Rzeszutko, murdered casually as he walked to work. Officially recorded racist crime, though low, was up 28 per cent between 2000 and 2009.

Perceptions that migrants are unfairly benefiting from Irish jobs, entitlements and public services are all too prevalent. And such prejudices provide political cover for the maintenance of institutional practices by the State and its agents that we would not tolerate for most citizens. Direct provision demeans asylum seekers. Immigration procedures, as Sr Stanislaus Kennedy of the Immigrant Council of Ireland argues, remain chaotic, bureaucratic, cumbersome and lacking in transparency”. And unfair. Intrusive bureaucracy, in the welfare, immigration, justice, and education systems, constantly questions entitlements.

Mr Khan rightly also criticised the Government for refusing to grant ethnic minority status to the Traveller community. “No wonder, where the State does not accept that proposition, that this community is the target of widespread negative stereotyping and discrimination,” he said. And he attacked the State’s failure to require that racist motivation be considered an aggravating factor in criminal sentencing.

In his blunt criticism Mr Khan echoes the plaintive voices of many campaigning voices for reform and tolerance. Voices that deserve to be heard.