Wednesday 11 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'In one way, Noel Grealish has done us all a favour'

There was a time when we were all what you'd now call racist. But we have evolved. Name-calling those who haven't won't do much good, says Brendan O'Connor

CONTROVERSY: Grealish believes that he is speaking for a silent minority
CONTROVERSY: Grealish believes that he is speaking for a silent minority
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, I think we were all what I suppose you'd called racists. To an extent anyway. We weren't out beating up black people or anything. Indeed, for most of us, there were no black people, in real life, in Ireland back then. Just like there were no gay people, or disabled people.

There were black people on television, and on the Trocaire Lenten fast boxes. We know they were poor in Africa, that there were children there with bellies swollen from no food. We saw them with flies on their faces. And there were black sports people, and entertainers. And they were in the films, some of the films anyway. But really, our education in terms of black people was a mish mash of cultural stereotypes. And we didn't know any better. We were ignorant.

We watched Disney films that had what we - and Disney - now know are unacceptable cultural stereotypes. Indeed, Disney has effectively cancelled some of its historic output and has also added disclaimers and warnings to some films on its new streaming service. Even the cartoons we watched, like Tom and Jerry, subsequently had warnings added about racist stereotypes. Some of the stereotypes we had were what we might have thought were neutral, or even positive ones back then - that black people were "exotic", "cool", authentic or better dancers, musicians and sports people. We now know that these are not helpful tropes to assign to a group of people. Indeed, we now know that it is wrong to take one's experience or opinion of one person and assign it to a whole group.

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We know all this now because we have evolved. We have evolved in our thinking. We've become more educated in these matters. We know more people of different races; indeed some of these people may have gently explained to us that some of our opinions might have been formed in a less enlightened time.

Everybody evolves in their opinions. Our Taoiseach used to be pretty much against gay marriage. He also once suggested that we should pay immigrants to go back to where they came from. Even two weeks ago, some people questioned the wisdom of him singling out particular nationalities when discussing illegal immigration, at a time when there was a certain ugliness in the air. But no one could have faulted Leo Varadkar's firm slapping down of Noel Grealish last week, when the Taoiseach talked about his own relations sending remittances home from America, and about Dublin hospital staff of various nationalities sending money home, perhaps to the people who paid for their education. Varadkar has realised there is something ugly attempting to stir in this country and he knows that we must give it no quarter.

We tend to think we are different in Ireland. One of the things we hold to firmly is that the kind of populism and extremism that has taken hold in some other countries could never happen here. But Varadkar, and all responsible politicians here, realise that extremism is always possible, and it always starts small. And we must not be complacent. We must call out ugliness when we see it, and we must stamp out any attempts to introduce it as a valid political creed here.

Equally, simply calling everyone who says anything ignorant or ill-considered a racist is probably not the answer. Rather than name-calling, Varadkar used gentle reasoning to counter Grealish, and he used relatable examples, of his own relatives in America, his own grandmother, hospital staff. All the time gently reminding us, without preaching or talking down to anyone, that there is no 'them', that we Irish have been 'them' and still are in other circumstances, and that "this is how the world works". It was tonally perfect and full of common sense.

One would almost be reluctant to give Noel Grealish's comments last week any oxygen. But on the other hand, we need to be vigilant. Clearly Grealish, who has recent form in this area, having called African immigrants spongers at a meeting in September, believes there is something to be gained for him in this. Clearly Grealish believes that he is speaking for some kind of silent minority out there. Clearly Grealish believes that the metropolitan Dublin elite is out of touch with many people in rural Ireland on this one.

Clearly Noel Grealish feels that there is a schism here between what David Goodhart calls "Anywheres", the liberal so-called cognitive elite, who are comfortable about immigration and globalisation, and then the "Somewheres", who prefer tradition to change and who feel left out and left behind by globalisation and migration. And he could be right.

The kind of people who call for a national conversation around immigrants in Ireland can often be people who are against migration and who are trying to propagate ugliness. But it would be a mistake to let this turn us against having a conversation. This process of evolution continues all the time. And it happens through conversation. And that conversation doesn't need to involve the liberal Anywheres talking down to the worried Somewheres. It doesn't need to involve simple name-calling and dismissal of people's views. If we stop communicating around things, or if we start demonising people for their fears, that is where ugliness will take hold. And there are plenty of people just looking for those dark corners, for those people who feel suppressed or humiliated. Ugly people are out there on the internet, and also, clearly, in real life, just looking for any foothold they can get for their ugliness.

Openness is the antidote to closed minds. And that should extend to openness about the siting of direct provision centres. The secretive nature of that process has, even the Government now realises, led to a vacuum into which all kinds of nasty lies and opinions can seep.

Noel Grealish, without meaning to, did us all a favour last week by exposing his fake-news dog whistling in plain sight. It allowed others to step in and address his ignorance in a calm, rational and common-sense manner. And Leo Varadkar, who is, whether he likes it or not, loaded with symbolism when he speaks on these matters, did us a favour too, by setting a tone to this conversation that we need to keep having, without further alienating "Somewheres" and driving them into the open arms of ugly extremists.

This was helped by the fact that the Taoiseach is someone who is clearly evolving in his views all the time also. And I'll tell you a secret. Even those of us in the metropolitan elite are still having to evolve and having to continually question and challenge ourselves on these matters. Ireland has changed a lot in the recent years, and Irish attitudes have had to change too. And it continues to be a work in progress that we all need to help each other along with. But the most important thing to remember in the months ahead, as ugliness keeps bubbling up here and there, is that we are better than that. We are better than that.

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