Monday 16 September 2019

If it looks like racism, and it sounds like racism...

Higgins coasted to an easy victory - but in the process, one desperate candidate played the hate card, writes Gene Kerrigan

Tom Halliday's cartoon
Tom Halliday's cartoon
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The "conversation" has begun. The "conversation" about Travellers and others who are routinely slandered in some of Ireland's most chic neighbourhoods, and elsewhere.

Today, we don't say, "My agenda demands..."

We say, "I just think we should have that conversation".

The "conversation" is invariably about some group causing a "problem" to us "reasonable people".

Well, before the conversation goes any further, perhaps we should put it in perspective, to see where exactly we're heading.

Today, you don't mess with Jews. You can get away with using the "dog-whistle" tactic on any other racial or social group, but mess with Jews and they immediately fight back hard.

And there are reasons for this.

Within living memory, there was a sustained, state-sponsored effort to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe. And it didn't begin in some small, backward state barely in touch with civilisation. It began in a Germany renowned for its sophisticated music, literature and philosophy.

It didn't begin with gas chambers. It began with a conversation about the Jewish "problem". When you see a class of people as a problem, you begin to seek a solution to them.

And when word of the savagery spread, other states weren't in a hurry to stand by the Jews. In Ireland, we refused to accept refugees fleeing extermination.

One result of the Holocaust is that today Jewish organisations instantly and vigorously challenge anti-Semitic bigotry wherever it appears.

This can lead to unfair accusations of anti-Semitism against justified criticism of the Israeli state.

The distinction isn't always obvious to a people who found out the hard way that you dare not allow a conversation to begin about "the Jews" being a problem for the "reasonable people". Historically, once that conversation was allowed to begin it invariably ended in pogroms, forced exile and slaughter.

Touchy? Yes, and sometimes over-touchy, but there is a history to negotiate.

The slogan "no free speech for fascists" is a troubling one for those of us who place a high value on freedom of speech. It's inadequate shorthand for, "We oppose the holding of any conversation in which minorities - whether Jews, black people, working class people, immigrants, gays, Travellers or anyone else - are deemed a problem to be solved by 'reasonable people'".

Because, historically, we know such conversations end in pogroms, forced exile and slaughter.

And in the course of his campaign for the presidency, Peter Casey began that conversation.

Ah, now, you're not comparing Peter Casey to the Nazis?

No, I'm not.

And, you're not denying there's a Traveller problem, are you?

Yes, I am.

Peter Casey is not a Nazi.

Peter Casey has been described as "Ireland's Donald Trump". But, Peter Casey isn't Donald Trump, he's arguably not smart enough. Peter Casey has for several years wanted to have a voice in national politics. He's failed, because his voice is weak, wobbly and cliched. And mostly because he was offering a product we already have too much of.

Here's what Peter Casey says: He speaks for "middle Ireland", for the "people who get up early in the morning", for the people "who pay for everything".

You will, of course, recognise not just the voice of Peter Casey but the voice of Leo Varadkar.

Insofar as he's capable of articulating a political position, Casey is a bog-standard free market type, a class ably represented by FF and FG.

He's rich, with ambition, so he can campaign. But he has the charisma of a string vest and he makes dense statements.

And, bereft of anything to say, he steals his best lines from Leo Varadkar.

You would expect such a creature to hover around 1pc or 2pc in the polls, and that's what Casey did. Until he decided to latch on to the great unspoken target of Irish racism - Travellers.

And that was enough to instantly get him up to 20pc.

And, instantly, the bigots and the confused and the resentful hailed the man who said openly what they think.

At any time, this is dangerous. Right now, in countries around the globe and across Europe, the far right is enjoying a resurgence. The clicking of heels, the shouts for "solutions", are real. Last week, we joined this "conversation", too.

Mind you, so unsubtle is Casey that he felt squeamish about being labelled racist, and he began trying to whine his way out of it. Now he says he's a capitalist socialist, or a socialist capitalist. Casey is all flibbertigibbet.

We've had a decade of austerity, immediately after the squandering of tens of billions of our money on failed bankers and developers. Some skipped merrily from huge debt to discharged bankrupt and went back into business. Others were condemned to cramped lives.

There is resentment, created by a smug elite who made sure their privileges survived the economic collapse they created.

Austerity trashed all of us. Travellers had cuts in state spending of over 80pc.

Is there a Traveller problem?

No. The Travellers are not a problem - the poverty, isolation and intolerance within which they live is the problem.

The 50 years of politicians taking the easiest route is the problem.

Two cultures inhabit the same space. Settled people and Travellers. They inevitably rub up against one another, sometimes unfairly.

The problem is not the nature of one side or the other. No one wants people living beside them in a messy, noisy, dangerous condition. No one wants to live that way, either.

Both sides have decent people trying to negotiate. Both sides have unreasonable people.

If there's a fight between the cultures, we're going to win - we, the settled people. We have the numbers. We have the force of the state. We have the cowardice of the political parties.

We can win, but we'll destroy ourselves, because we'll exploit the worst kinds of hatred.

On the Traveller side, there's nothing even close to the wells of hatred from which Peter Casey sucked his support during the election.

The evidence is overwhelming. Let me offer one instance. Three years ago, when 10 Travellers died in the Carrickmines fire, on social media one decent person said, "God bless them. So sad". There were 375 "likes". But 236 haters rejected the sentiment.

When one person prayed that "none of the fatalities are children", this was "liked" by 415, but rejected by 259 haters. This, as the bodies of children still lay in the smouldering ruins.

This deep unreasoning hatred has no equivalent among Travellers.

And Casey's desperate grab for attention was the rallying cry those haters seek.

Many of those who welcomed Casey's racism were precisely those who whine about the "no Irish here" racism of the past. I'll bet that many who voted for him chose not to notice he was also attacking pensioners, the disabled, those who've lost their jobs, the sick and anyone else getting social welfare payments.

They didn't notice or didn't care - because he was legitimising their resentments, endorsing their hatred.

"Political correctness" is the rejection of hatred. It's the rejection of language that's racist and hurtful, language that encourages hate-ridden "solutions".

And, in denouncing "political correctness", Casey and his followers embrace a filthy language that traditionally includes sneers at "Irish scum".

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss