Thursday 27 October 2016

Reject racism in the proud name of the Irish Republic

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

'Alas, we cannot point a clean finger. Ireland’s record on racism, and refugees, is pretty poor.'
'Alas, we cannot point a clean finger. Ireland’s record on racism, and refugees, is pretty poor.'

Last week, dealing with the results of the British referendum, Micheal Martin made the most important speech of his political career.

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Before saying why, let me briefly revisit the mixed Irish reactions to Brexit.

Confucius said that there is something in our nature that is not displeased when we see a neighbour fall from a roof - an insight the Germans stole and called schadenfreude.

Likewise, there is something in the Irish political psyche that is not displeased when England makes a dog's dinner of a football game against Iceland.

Accordingly, we enjoyed the political melodrama of Bollixt. But we were also worried about the darker side.

Basically, Brexit was driven by bigotry about immigration, race, and, in the case of Muslims, religion.

Any doubt about the role played by racism in the result was dispelled by a rash of racist incidents.

These are not just statistics. White Britons spat, shouted at and physically attacked people who looked foreign to them.

Even educated English people felt Brexit entitled them to publicly proclaim racist prejudices.

Last week, I was struck by how many Irish people were shocked and saddened by these departures from English decency.

We sensed Boris Johnson had blithely opened a Pandora's Box, the mythological jar that held all the evils of the world.

He did so with a selfish narcissism that reminded me of Charles Haughey's reckless role in helping to arm the Provisional IRA.

And his use of the word "punchline" at his final press conference proved he saw the Brexit campaign as a kind of public school jape.

But it was a black joke that smacked more of the mindless malignancy of the Joker in Batman.

And there was nothing funny about the racism that reared its shameless head on the streets of Britain after the referendum.

Alas, we cannot point a clean finger. Ireland's record on racism, and refugees, is pretty poor.

Let me pause here to point out that I am no politically correct or bleeding-heart liberal.

The pious platitudes of President Higgins, highly praised by those who seldom encounter a black person or a Muslim, leave me cold.

That's because I favour the state-led integration of immigrants, not the PC policy of multiculturalism which merely promotes racial separation.

But recently, I have been revolted by how educated people, including journalists, feel entitled to express opinions for which the only accurate adjective is racist.

My revulsion really began three years ago when I had to travel regularly by train from Dublin to Waterford for post-op treatment.

Increasingly, I came to dread the degrading spectacle that greeted me at Plunkett Station - the sight of Irish men and women walking without shame past black taxi drivers who were first in the rank.

Local pride led me to expect better of Cork. But, as I found out last Christmas, the disease has also spread to Kent Station.

A well-dressed couple, ahead of Gwen and myself, walked past the first taxi, ignoring the black driver who stood by it.

Something in me snapped and I called after the couple. "Why did you walk past that taxi?"

The man, without meeting my eye, began to stow their luggage, a little shamefacedly, in a taxi with a white driver.

But the woman was clearly ready for such a challenge. She spun on her heel, marched up to me and let me have it loudly.

How dare I challenge her right to take any taxi she pleased, and so on and so forth, the full script.

Naturally, I responded hotly in kind, describing her views as a disgrace to the memory of Thomas Kent, shot in Easter 1916.

As the row raged, simple chivalry forced me to give up the front rank so that Gwen could get stuck in, too.

Finally, the woman walked away, with a righteous air, well pleased with her robust performance.

The black driver clapped his hands and shouted at the silent spectators. "I've been waiting for 10 years for some Irish person to speak up - that's all I wanted."

Later in the taxi, he told us things had got worse since radio jocks had begun ranting about refugees.

That is why I believe Micheal Martin's passionate speech last week was the biggest blow against bigotry struck by any Irish politician in my lifetime.

It was like Leo Amery's famous intervention on September 2, 1939, when Neville Chamberlain implied that even a Nazi invasion of Poland would not cause him to declare war on Germany.

When Arthur Greenwood stood up to say he was speaking for Labour, Amery called out to him across the floor, "Speak for England!".

Last week, Martin did not just speak for Ireland. He spoke for England, too, for what is best and decent in the English character.

Above all, he spoke for Europe, and about the spectre haunting Europe - the rise of racism against immigrants.

Martin began with a clarion call, to remind us that the EU is "a construction of a generation of patriots who fought for their countries - whether in the World War or to win independence".

Eschewing euphemisms, he said Brexit was "the result of a relentless campaign of attacks on Europe and the promotion of an anti-foreigner agenda".

All through his speech, Martin kept a steady focus on the corrosive central role of racism in the referendum.

"The sinister poster of hordes of Syrians waiting to invade Britain is a part of this result and you don't get to ignore it."

Unlike most British politicians, Martin refused to blur the basic bigotry behind the referendum campaign.

"The absolutely core argument used for Leave was that Europe and foreigners were to be blamed for all hardships."

And he went on to finger the part played by media moguls in giving educated elites social permission to express racist views.

In a clear reference to the Murdoch and Rothermere media groups, Martin denounced the "hysterical campaigning of many media owners".

He summoned the Republic to reject racism in the name of our proud past. "Ireland must take a different route. We do not have their nostalgia for empire or fear of outsiders."

Finally, firing his heavy artillery, Martin reminded the Dail that "the men and women of 1916 were modern and outward looking -defining nationalism in an open and inclusive way unlike so many elsewhere".

Here, Martin has found the key. Racism cannot be rolled back by PC sermons presenting tolerance as simply a limp form of liberal politeness.

Let us instead fire the imagination of our people by rejecting racism as an attack on the fundamental democratic principles of the Irish Republic.

Let us ensure that Plunkett and Kent stations, named after men who died fighting for freedom, be free of racist boycotting.

Let us implement an immigration policy that would justify the high hopes of James Connolly in 1897.

"The Republic I would wish our fellow-countrymen to set before them as their ideal should be of such a character that the mere mention of its name would at all times serve as a beacon light to the oppressed of every land."

Sunday Independent

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