Eamon Ryan is no racist.
Politicians from all sides, from Charlie Flanagan to Louise O’Reilly, have made that clear about the Green Party leader.
He is a decent, honourable politician who has been one of the foremost champions for social progress and inclusion over the past 20 years.
His decision to say the N-word in the Dáil on Thursday was certainly questionable, even in the context he used it in, but the reaction to it, particularly from his own members was astonishing. More than astonishing, in places it was downright nasty.
Ryan was making the case for inclusivity in his contribution and began by referencing the response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and sought to relate just how much of a scourge racism is in Ireland too.
“One in 10 of our children is from a non-Irish or new Irish background but only one in 20 of our teachers is. We know from our constituencies that, increasingly, there is segregation in our school system, whereby certain schools take all the pupils from the new communities while others pretty much take none.
"Therefore, if we are serious about this issue, should we not commit to ensuring our education system is fully integrated so there will be no segregation and separation as pupils start out in the school system? Is that not one thing we could commit to trying to do?” he said.
“In a newspaper today there was a story by a young Irishman, Sean Gallen, who gave his experience of being othered and, from the age of six, being given that name, ‘You n****r’. He explained how this completely undermines people. Friends and relations of colour in this country, Travellers and members of other minorities, speak of the same experience. It is real,” Ryan argued.
While in the Dáil chamber, there was no reaction to the use of the word. Ryan was not chastised or admonished — but on social media, the great online sewer, he was being slammed.
Under pressure, Ryan issued a swift apology for any offence caused.
Slammed by many of his own party members who felt any use of the word is not acceptable under any circumstances.
Others went much, much further.
The statement of Councillor Daniel Whooley from Ongar typified that anger. He described Ryan’s comments as “morally reprehensible”.
“No person should use such words of hate regardless of context, especially in Dáil Éireann. The language used is the most unparliamentary and beneath the Houses of the Oireachtas.
"I do not believe that any parliamentarian who invokes such words, be it by mistake or on purpose, should lead an Irish political party, the use of these words is disgusting.
"His comments today go against core principles of the Green Party. It does not matter if it was a mistake, what matters is that he used the words,” he said, bringing Ryan’s position of leader into question.
“I have seen his apologies, and I know he regrets what he has said, however, this is not good enough. I joined the Greens to stand up against racism and social injustice in society. I will continue to call out racism when I see it,” he concluded.
Other Green councillors — including Peter Kavanagh, Lorna Bogue, Una Power and Janet Horner — piled in and condemned the use of the word.
“I have the same privilege as Eamon, so I don’t want to take space from black voices or to speak on their behalf — but, this passively worded non-apology isn’t good enough in my opinion. It is not acceptable to use this language in any context, never mind in our national parliament,” said Bogue.
“It’s not good enough, in 2020, with the structural racism that shapes people’s lives here and all over the world, in the face of powerful black movements and activism, to say ‘we didn’t know’, to force people to explain to us over and over again why we shouldn’t say these words,” she added.
Is it coincidental that a number of the most aggrieved voices to emerge from within the Greens are known to be public supporters of Ryan’s leadership rival, Catherine Martin?
Where was her voice in all of this? In truth, the silence from Ryan’s TDs was deafening on Thursday.
Another theory postulated for the severity of the internal Green Party backlash was that many members are clearly fatigued with what they see as Ryan’s “thoughtlessness” referring to his “brain farts” on wolves or salad boxes.
But undoubtedly, there was a political dimension to Thursday. He is being challenged for his leadership and this was an easy stick for his internal opponents to beat him with.
And it featured in the talks too.
Senior negotiators from the other parties were in the room with Martin and when the news broke, they felt unsure as to whether to raise it or not.
“It was like last Saturday when we are in the room and confirmation of her decision to stand for the leadership emerged. We all looked at each other and questioned do we raise it or not. We decided not to unless Catherine did but it never arose. But it certainly was a distraction,” said one negotiator.
The reaction to Ryan’s comments also raised important questions around free speech and the role of political correctness.
Rewatching the debate, the main thrust of Ryan’s argument was spot on. Ireland has a racism problem. It also has a deep-rooted inclusivity problem.
This issue was highlighted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the same debate in the Dáil, in a week where he has himself spoken of the difficulties he faced as a mixed-raced young man in Ireland.
“We have a health service that is very diverse, although less so as one goes up towards the senior positions, not so much in the Garda, the Defence Forces, the education sector, as the deputy mentioned, and not at all in the civil service, which is very white, including the Department of Justice and Equality, for example. That needs to change,” he said.
So, the issue of contention is around the use of the word n*****r and the context therein.
Was Ryan wrong to use it as opposed to saying ‘the N-word’ or some other variation when making his point?
Or was he justified in saying it within the context of highlighting the abuse suffered by Gallen?
The rush to condemn did on one level smack of the disturbing pattern of the left to preach to everyone as to what speech is acceptable and which is not.
The moral high priests and priestesses who seem to go out their way to take offence do little to progress the cause of inclusivity or equality.
Another questionable decision this week was the one by UKTV to remove the classic ‘don’t mention the war’ episode of sitcom Fawlty Towers on the grounds it contains “racial slurs”.
UKTV, which is owned by the BBC, said it has temporarily made ‘The Germans’ unavailable while it carries out a review.
A UKTV spokesman said: “UKTV has temporarily removed an episode of Fawlty Towers’ ‘The Germans’ from Gold’s Box Set. The episode contains racial slurs so we are taking the episode down while we review it. We regularly review older content to ensure it meets audience expectations and are particularly aware of the impact of outdated language.”
As any watcher of that programme knows, it is a glorious parody of British society at the time and rather than removing it for fear of offending, like with Ryan’s case, respect the intelligence of grown-ups and their ability to view things in their proper context.
If they did, we’d all be better off.