In a throwaway remark, aimed at Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins, Mr Lenihan interrupted a heated exchange on the sale of Aer Lingus telling Mr Higgins to “stick with the kebabs”.
The ill-conceived remark was immediately seized upon as an insult to Turkish people and a racist slur against Gama workers.
“The snide comment from behind the Taoiseach that I should stick with the kebabs ... ill-behoves the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs who has responsibility for overseas development,” said Mr Higgins who subsequently called on Mr Lenihan to resign if the term was meant as a racial slur.
Mr Lenihan quickly apologised to the Dáil saying he “sincerely regretted” the remarks and any offence caused. He also made a phone call to apologise to a representative of the Turkish Workers Action Group (TWAG) who prefers to be known only as Baki.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Baki said he was extremely upset at the use of the term, kebab, which in Turkey is sometimes used as a sexual slur.
“I am really upset. It’s not right the way he looks down on our honourable country. It’s a kind of throwing dirt. I told him I don’t let anybody call me kebab and it’s very racist. Instead of making these comments, I told him he should be supporting the workers.”
Although Mr Lenihan offered to apologise in person to a press conference of Gama workers, if necessary, Baki said he remained offended at the remark.
In addition to a constant flow of calls to radio stations from the public, anti-racism groups also called on Mr Lenihan to step down.
“Conor Lenihan should resign and if he doesn’t resign he should be sacked,” said Rosanna Flynn of Residents Against Racism.
However, Philip Watt of the Government racism watchdog, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, said it was “sufficient” that Mr Lenihan had apologised.
While the Turkish ambassador last night declined to comment, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs ruled out a resignation, saying an apology had been made.
SIPTU construction branch secretary Eric Fleming also joined opposition calls for Mr Lenihan to apologise further. “I think Conor Lenihan should immediately set about meeting the Gama workers and telling that to them face to face. If he doesn’t do that he should get out,” he said.
Fine Gael’s Fergus O’Dowd said the slur was “a deliberate nasty remark”, while Labour chief whip Emmet Stagg said the comment “would have been unworthy of any member of the House but it is particularly unacceptable from a member who has been appointed by the Taoiseach to have responsibility for overseas development aid.”