Sunday 11 December 2016

There's no reason to congratulate ourselves

Far from being tolerant, we are deeply prejudiced against "difference" and integration

Emer O'Kelly

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

BLACK AND WHITE ISSUE: Rock star Phil Lynott was once one of the very few mixed race people in Ireland
BLACK AND WHITE ISSUE: Rock star Phil Lynott was once one of the very few mixed race people in Ireland

So: are we a tolerant and inclusive society? A first glance at the Sunday Independent / Millward Brown poll results would suggest that we are, or at the very least that we are edging that way. We may even be within reach of becoming a republic, almost a century after we started talking about it.

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Look at the figures for how people see the imminent prospect of the introduction of same-sex marriage. In February, 62pc of people said they planned to vote 'Yes'; that's pretty well two-thirds of the population. And the figure has increased slightly: up to 66pc. But the figures for those who have decided to vote 'No' have also increased: from 16pc up to 21pc. The closer it comes, the more people quail at the prospect of equality and inclusiveness, it seems.

But those who retreat into what are termed "traditional values" do not admit prejudice. Their arguments sound sweetly reasonable. They "respect the rights of others", and wish the views of others to be integrated into society.

They're in favour of equal treatment for all; but not if it offends their own deeply held convictions which prove, they claim, that equality is not really equality, because it's actually bad for society. It's that word "but" again. Equal treatment; but not laws which permit others to have equal rights (same-sex marriage). They are the arguments, claiming to be based on reason, which appear daily in the letters of the newspapers.

And the legal issues with which we are currently faced, or which we may face in the future, offer significant insights into other aspects of how deep our republican feelings actually go.

We certainly don't herd black people into ghettos by force of law. We don't outlaw any specific religion, however bizarre its practices and beliefs may seem to those who belong to the mainstream faiths. But do we see people of a "different ethnicity" as desirable neighbours?

Do we secretly believe that black people, for instance, are absolutely wonderful and courageous in facing indigenous famine, provided they do it in their countries of birth? We'll send loads of money to assist the "black babies" in such cases.

But do we really like to see black babies in buggies on our own streets; or "worse still" cute little babies who look as though they may be "of mixed blood"?

In Britain in the 1950s, the Labour MP for Coventry Maurice Edelman, the son of immigrant parents, was also a well-known novelist. In one of his books The Prime Minister's Daughter a rising politician makes a speech in which he says (passionately) "I want the black man as my brother" and is then caught off-microphone adding out of the side of his mouth "But not as my brother-in-law".

It was a fictional situation, but caused a furore in literary circles, as did in a much wider context the late Enoch Powell's infamous "rivers of blood" speech around the same time, the phrase being his prediction of what would happen in Britain if immigration was not rigorously reduced. Edelman was trying to pillory prejudice, Powell inflame it. Both succeeded.

Nobody can get away with such blatant prejudice nowadays: we have laws against incitement. But laws don't change thinking: the poll results show that.

Some 68pc of those questioned had no reservations about the "integration" of people of different colour into Irish society. But 9pc (massive in the context) had a lot of reservations, while 15pc had "some". It adds up to almost a quarter of the population not being keen to accept "people of colour" into our society, whether as immigrants or Irish-born.

The same figure of almost a quarter of our citizens applies to reservations about accepting people of a different religion. Does that mean Catholics wanting to refuse citizenship to Protestants, and vice versa? Or is the exclusion aimed at Muslims and/or Jews? Either way, it shows an alarming level of prejudice.

And when it comes to integrating people of a different ethnic background the figures are even more disquieting: 27pc, or well over a quarter of us, don't want the purity of the Irish Celt polluted by mixing with people of a different ethnic background.

By "ethnic" do people think in terms of people of Arab extraction, for instance…or is it the travelling community, or the Roma community? It's a serious level of prejudice in any situation, and a bit rich in a society where our much-vaunted Celtic purity is actually an historically mongrel mix.

And a whopping 30pc (nearly a third of the population) have at least some reservations … 9pc have a lot… about inter-racial marriage, and it goes up to 31pc when "inter-faith" marriage is the question.

So all those positive percentages in the sixties, which we think combine to show us as a tolerant, inclusive society, sound very mean-minded indeed when we examine the level of dissent from what should be republican ideals.

And none of that even reflects the confusion which exists in the minds of those who consider themselves tolerant and charitably welcoming: the display of innate and often unconscious prejudice when faced with reality rather than hypothesis. Let me finish with a story, as they say.

My niece recently recalled to me an incident I had forgotten. Aged seven, she went into school, and proudly showed the teacher Phil Lynott's autograph. I'd taken her for a burger treat, and we'd run into Phil and the band, who I knew. The teacher, a nun, was full of zeal about collecting for Trocaire, which she called "the missions". My excited little niece told her how cool I was: Phil had given me a big kiss. "I hope she washed herself afterwards" was the nun's comment. My niece has never forgotten it. (She still, all these years later, treasures Philo's autograph.)

We have a shameful level of prejudice in our society. And that, translated, means that we are shamefully far from being a republic. Let's remember that when we prate about it.

Sunday Independent

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