Opinion

Monday 17 June 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'People like to pretend racism doesn't exist here but we can no longer turn a blind eye'

Footage: Dublin taxi driver Samuel Johnson, who was born in Nigeria, suffered assault and racial abuse by a drunk male passenger. Photo: Frank McGrath
Footage: Dublin taxi driver Samuel Johnson, who was born in Nigeria, suffered assault and racial abuse by a drunk male passenger. Photo: Frank McGrath
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

The cab driver had had enough. It was a rainy, wintry day in Dublin and he'd been waiting far too long to pick up a fare and now that he had one - sadly, me - he was damn well going to make the most of it.

"They should take the cars off them," he fumed, waving his arm vaguely at some of the other taxi drivers we were slowly starting to pull away from on the rank on O'Connell Street. I made a non-committal noise, hoping he would just drive and have done with it. The car was old and dirty and smelled of stale smoke. I wanted to spend as little time in it as possible.

"It's those immigrant fellas," he told me. "They don't even follow the rules. Some of them aren't legal. They pick up when they're not even in line and they haven't a clue where they're taking you, you know. They barely know the streets."

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I looked back and noted three black drivers in the taxi queue. They were all sitting in their cabs, minding their own business.

'Do you mean those guys?' I asked, and yes, of course it was them he meant. On he ranted, oblivious to the fact that I didn't want to hear this. It was a long trip.

It was probably lucky for both of us that there was no dashcam about. There is no evidence, other than this account, of his shameful racism, or of my own shameful failure to do anything to stop him.

I should have at least stepped out of his horrible car and sent him to the back of the rank again. He deserved that. But it was a cold day and I wanted to get home. And yes, I realise this is no excuse.

Dublin taxi driver Samuel Johnson, who was born in Nigeria but lives here with his family, did have a dashcam last weekend when he took on a drunk male passenger and attempted to get him home, only to suffer assault and racial abuse.

The resulting footage - and it's a topic for another day to note we must hope that the presence of the camera was well-flagged - has been shared online. It is grim, but worth enduring if you can bear it and it's understood a suspect has handed himself in to police.

"I was really in shock as this has never happened to me before," Mr Johnson told the Irish Independent, as he said he wanted "justice". "I still feel the pain that something like that can happen."

The reality is that something like this does happen, very probably more often than any of us would like to admit. We don't know how often, because we have laws against assault, of course, but no laws against hate crime. Thus we have no clear data on the extent of hate crime in Ireland. We have only anecdotes that would make you wince.

A recent schools GAA game in Dingle is alleged to have had racist chanting by some supporters. An Irish-born lawyer was jailed last month for shouting racist abuse at airline staff on a flight from Mumbai to London. A recent study of Central Statistics Office data found that black non-Irish people are five times less likely to have a job compared with white Irish people. Black non-Irish people are also over two and a half times more likely to experience discrimination when in employment.

And just last November, an EU report ranked Ireland the second worst among European countries where black people have experienced "racist violence". Only Finland did worse.

Based on interviews carried out in 2015 and 2016 with more than 5,800 people in 12 EU countries, including France, Germany and the UK, it found that black people in the EU continue to face "widespread and entrenched prejudice" in many areas of life, as well as racist harassment and attacks.

In Ireland, 51pc of people of African descent said they had experienced hate-motivated harassment, compared with 21pc in the UK.

Perhaps even more shocking, 13pc of respondents said they had experienced racist violence in Ireland. This put us sharing joint second place with Austria, where the radical right-wing Freedom Party is currently sharing power.

And in all cases of violent attacks, more than 60pc said they had not reported the incident to officials, with many saying they felt reporting would not change anything or that they did not trust the police.

I can feel your discomfort at these statistics. They mess with our world view. Irish people like to think of ourselves as too cuddly, too harmless for racism. Too jolly, too much fun, too easy-going to let the harsh language of hate stain our conversation. So we deny racism even when articulating it. How many conversations have you participated in, or overheard, over the years that started with the words "I'm not racist, but…"?

The thing is, the dashcam footage doesn't lie. What's more, as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties declared last year after two years of research into incidences of hate crime here, there is a policy vacuum when it comes to crime fuelled by racism, which means crimes of this kind simply don't end up being represented as such in the courts. This is why we don't really know their true extent.

Irish courts do not have to take a bias motivation into account when considering sentence in a criminal case - a bias motive being the definition of a hate crime. All we have in this area is the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. This doesn't just limit the options for legal recourse for non-white, non-Irish people: it affects gay people, transgender people, Travellers, the disabled and many more.

It's not hard to guess why we haven't done anything about this. Essentially, we are doing what I did in that dirty cab last year: turning a collective blind eye to hate in the interests of our own comfort.

And so Mr Johnson will be out again in his cab, carrying with him his new-found fear of being confronted by someone else. For him and all the other Mr Johnsons, we should do better. We probably can't eradicate racism. But we can admit the extent of the hate we harbour, and make our laws fit for purpose.

Irish Independent

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