A number of violent incidents in the past few years have culminated in the Justice Minister’s appeal to Ireland to be tolerant, writes Neil Michael
ON Wednesday, Justice and Equality Minister, Charlie Flanagan, demanded that Irish people “speak up” against racism.
He urged the silent majority to be silent no more, because the far right is looking for opportunities to incite fear and hatred.
“I am appealing directly to all our people to speak up to show support for asylum seekers and refugees and for the local communities that are being asked to welcome them,” said Mr Flanagan.
He was speaking in the context of recent controversies over accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers, and against the growth of far-right extremism.
This backdrop also includes a number of elected representatives who have become embroiled in scandals over racist remarks they have made in the past.
Indeed, one of the most unedifying moments of the two forthcoming Dublin region by-election campaigns has been listening to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attack one candidate, while supporting another — his own — over racist remarks both made.
Varadkar this week hit out at Fianna Fáil Dublin-Fingal candidate Lorraine Clifford-Lee for “misogynistic” and “racist” social media posts that date back to 2011.
However, he defended his party colleague and Dublin Mid-West candidate Emer Higgins for telling constituents how “delighted” she was to announce that a Traveller accommodation scheme had been blocked in 2014.
What worries anti-racism campaigners, however, is how language and behaviour that is either racist or has racist undertones has entered the lexicon of mainstream political dialogue.
Noel Grealish’s comments two months ago, while attending a public meeting to discuss plans to open asylum seeker accommodation in Oughterard — saying “people that are coming over here from Africa to ... sponge off the system here in Ireland” — brought those concerns to the fore.
The Independent Galway TD followed that remark up with claims in the Dáil that €3.54bn in remittances has been sent from Ireland to Nigeria in the last eight years. That caused further uproar.
And although he cited the World Bank as his source, it later emerged that, six weeks previously, he had been given CSO data showing that the total amount was nearer €136m, one twenty-fifth of what he had claimed.
If you believe Mr Grealish, each of the country’s 13,079 Irish-Nigerians or Nigerians are sending nearly €34,000 back to Nigeria every year, or three-quarters of the average Irish wage.
But if you believe the CSO, the figure being sent home per head is more likely to be around €1,300 each year, or roughly €110 a month.
There are those who believe Mr Grealish is simply addressing the concerns — albeit misplaced — of some of his constituents.
Many of them might not be aware — and the Independent TD might not be best-placed to tell them — that EU research shows that Africans living here send back the smallest amount of remittances compared to Africans living in other EU states.
And, as to migrants being scroungers, his constituents might also not be aware that 2016 CSO figures showed that just under 70% of foreign nationals in Ireland were employed, compared with 57% of Irish people.
Campaigners believe the veil has finally slipped on Irish racism, and comments by Mr Grealish, as well as historic tweets by Ms Clifford-Lee (whose apology was accepted by Pavee Point yesterday as “sincere and heartfelt”), don’t help advance the cause of integration.
Joe Loughnane, who chairs the Galway Anti Racism Network, is one of them.
Galway-born to an Irish father and a Pakistani mother, he has seen a dramatic rise in racism, both toward himself and towards those he supports.
“The veil has slipped and it is the far-right that is stoking it up,” Mr Loughnane said last night.
“The amount of racist abuse and language is now astounding, and it has definitely risen over the past 12 months.
“Minister Flannagan’s call for people to speak up may be the first call of its kind by a minister, but racism is not a new phenomenon in this country.
“The Travellers have had to endure it for decades.
“The difference now is that it has spilled out against newer ethnic communities and into the wider community.
“You have two groups: You have the far-right and you have the established politicians.
“The language some of them have been using is just unacceptable, but by some of their actions and public statements, they are, in effect, normalising racist behaviour.
“And the far-right has become more emboldened, so much so that I think we have reached a point of no return in this country.
“There is now a staggering disconnect among ordinary people who are vocalising their hatred of minorities and foreigners.
Mr Loughnane said racism came more out into the open when Peter Casey stood in last year’s Presidential election.
“The fact that somebody hardly anybody had heard of could get more than 300,000 votes speaks volumes,” he said.
Mr Casey made headlines when he said Travellers should not be recognised as an ethnic minority and that they were “basically people camping in someone else’s land”.
He also said: “They are not paying their fair share of taxes in society.”
The comments, made at a time when Mr Casey had less than 2% of the vote, boosted his support in the campaign and he ended up in second place, with just over 342,000 votes, or 23%.
But while incidents of racist abuse are said to have increased in the past year, it is not new to Ireland.
RTÉ addressed the issue in an episode of TV Gaga in January 1986 and the perception was that racial abuse was limited to name-calling.
The programme was billed as a “look at prejudice based on colour and the day-to-day reality of being black in Ireland”.
It was filmed in light of reports of an organisation in Dublin “printing and distributing material of an explicitly racist nature”.
At the time, RTÉ said the programme “puts the focus on racism in Ireland’” adding: “A lack of any race relations regulations allows this to happen without any respite.”
The programme featured Andy Ozurmba from Nigeria and Des Lewis from London, who talked about the variety of attitudes they encountered while living in Ireland.
Des concluded that because there were few black people in Dublin, “this tends to lead to ignorance”.
Meanwhile, Andy provided examples of openly racist verbal attacks he encountered around Dublin.
He said many of these attacks occurred in pubs or where there had been drinking involved.
And, RTÉ said that, “apart from being called names, he says he hasn’t really had a hard time”.
Fast forward more than 20 years and reports had started to emerge of a far more violent manifestation of Irish racism.
In April 2010, for example, teenager Toyosi Shittabey was stabbed to death in Tyrrelstown, west Dublin, by an attacker who was heard shouting racial abuse at him.
Three years later, blogger Úna-Minh Kavanagh was assaulted and spat on by a group of youths, who shouted racial abuse at her. One of the Irish-Vietnamese woman’s assailants was aged just 14.
Also in 2013, arsonists set fire to a house that had been assigned to a Traveller family in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.
The attack, which destroyed the house, occured after Bundoran Fianna Fáil councillor Sean McEniff objected to the house being built.
Although Mr McEniff later condemned the arson attack, he had been quoted on local radio as saying Travellers “should live in isolation”.
The following year, on St Patrick’s Day, Chechnyan teenager Adam Labazanov was kidnapped in Tallaght and stabbed 57 times after his three drunken attackers discovered he was Muslim.
Although he survived, he was stripped naked and buried alive.
In the following month, naturalised Irish citizen Osamah Zaidi suffered a broken elbow when three men beat him up in the driveway of his home, also in Tallaght. Although he had moved to Ireland, from Pakistan, in 2006, and had lived in Lucan without any incident, he had started to endure racial abuse within just days of moving to the Jobstown council house.
The abuse culminated in the savage beating he received in early April.
In 2015, the Immigrant Council of Ireland recorded 54 incidents of racial abuse against non-Irish taxi drivers between January 2013 and November 2015.
In 2017, an episode of Trauma, on RTÉ2, featured a savage attack against Czech national Milan Hosek.
The 31-year-old had part of his ear bitten off during one of a number of racist attacks he and his wife Joanna had to endure.
Based in Ireland since 2003, he described the racial abuse they had received, including the savage attack against them both in 2017.
During it, they were both labelled “fucking foreigners in our country” by their Irish attackers.
Also interviewed for the programme, Joanna said of her experience of living in Dublin, that “it always has been racist”.
However, over the past year, there has been a steady increase in race-related incidents.
Early last month, a mixed-race Co Meath couple who appeared in a TV ad, were forced to leave Ireland after they received racist abuse online and a death threat.
Fiona Ryan, 33, and her Brazilian-born fiancee, Jonathan Mathis, 32, had both appeared in a TV advert for supermarket giant Lidl.
Shortly after it aired at the start of September, former journalist Gemma O’Doherty tweeted the advert, with the comment:
The tweet led to a variety of derogatory comments, including one that claimed the Lidl advert was promoting “race/ancestor betrayal”.
‘The Great Replacement’ is a conspiracy theory with its roots in Nazi-era anti- semitism.
A preliminary file on the matter has been sent to the DPP, with detectives believed to be looking for guidance on what offences they can charge people with over the abuse the couple received.
Gardaí are also busy dealing with another high-profile incident, believed to be race-related — a string of text messages sent to a number of TDs recently over their support for asylum seeker accommodation.
This paper has learned that threatening text messages of a similar nature to those sent to Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny, over his support for asylum seeker accommodation in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, have been sent to other TDs.
A man has been arrested, and released, in connection with those texts.
However, detectives are still trying to find out who set Mr Kenny’s car on fire outside his home while he and his family slept inside.
The burning is believed to be linked to Mr Kenny’s support for asylum seeker accommodation.
It has since emerged, that a week before the arson attack on the deputy’s car, an individual was seen splashing petrol on a door into the planned Ballinamore accommodation and setting it on fire.
Despite the arson attack, Mr Kenny is reluctant to label everything that is going on as direct racism.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it racism,” he said. “I would call it fear of change and fear of strangers.
“It has always been there and there are those that take that fear and fertilise it with stories about migrants putting pressure on services, by talking up stuff about crime and communities not being able to cope.
“They pick on highly charged cases to fertilise the passions of people who would not be considered to have racist views and who then start using racist language without realising it.
“Sadly, it is becoming more acceptable for people to talk in racist terms than it would have been in the past.
As far his own actions following the arson attack, he remains as emboldened as ever.
“You don’t give in to bullies,” said Mr Kenny.
“What has happened is that it has made me realise there are some very crazy and angry people out there. But I would not be for backing away from the bullies. We have to believe in reason, at the end of the day. And what we need now, more than ever before, is a new age of enlightenment.”
Joe Loughnane, however, fears for the future.
And after nearly three years working with the Galway Anti-Racism Network, he is considering just giving up and walking away from campaigning on the issue.
“I have had so many threats now that I expect to be physically attacked at any time,” he said. “I walk around with this fear every day.
“The potential for the rise of the far-right has always been there, but the issue around direct provision has just acted as a catalyst.
“People like me are now just constant targets, not just because I am mixed-race, but also because I am taking a stand against racism.
“It’s all very well for the Minister of Justice to call for people to speak up, but I have never felt there has been very much help or support from government for the work we do.
One incident has brought him to this point: Being sent a photograph of his parents’ house in Galway.
“The message that came with the photo was that the sender wanted me to know that they knew where my parents live,” he said.