Never has silence been so fitting as the one in the Dáil on Wednesday.
Three days ago, TDs in the chamber held a minute’s silence “for those impacted by racism internationally”, after the brutal murder of George Floyd, the black man who died after a white policeman held his knee on his windpipe for more than eight minutes as his colleagues watched on.
In the days since, protest and uprising has erupted in all 50 American states, and cities around the world, to state clearly that Mr Floyd’s life, and the thousands of others murdered by state oppression, mattered.
Our TDs offered their own tribute of quiet contemplation.
Silence, however, is only helpful if you’re listening.
In the days since, Ireland has been forced to look at its own record on how it treats minorities or those we perceive to be different, and what has emerged is stark.
The fundamental flaw is that many Irish people believe that racism is a slur, a phrase or a fundamental dislike for those of a different race, while ignoring the structures that continue to “other” those who are different.
From a constitutional perspective alone, Ireland has managed something that American racists could only dream of, after a referendum stripped the children of immigrants of their citizenship, left them in limbo, and open to deportation to countries they’ve only heard of.
It has been noted by many opposition politicians that another referendum would not be necessary to right this wrong, and yet, the Oireachtas has been silent on the issue for years.
We decry the treatment of black men and women in America by state structures designated to protect them, while we stand over the direct provision system.
Among those fleeing trauma and seeking asylum, children as young as nine are showing signs of depression and suicidal ideation. A multi-billion-euro industry of housing some of the most vulnerable people on earth in “substandard” (as the Taoiseach labelled some of it) accommodation, in some instances depriving them of food and basic hygiene, stood over by the Irish Government.
On Thursday, Leo Varadkar defended the system which “involves people being provided with free accommodation, food, heat, lighting, healthcare, education, and some spending money”. So, many would argue, does prison.
The Irish Refugee Council said the system was in effect “State-sanctioned poverty” with children forced to share confined spaces with adults and sometimes witness violent and sexual behaviour. Every few months the media will report another horrific instance, there will be much hand-wringing, and the issue fades once more.
We can’t say we didn’t know, because they told us, and we are mostly silent.
Every time a new centre is planned or is discussed in a small rural town, usually already decimated by austerity, struggling with its own lack of resources, outcry begins. In recent times, this division is co-ordinated by outside actors who do not reside there, stoking hatred and playing on prejudices that already exist.
The people sent to live there are segregated from the citizen population, often isolated and unable to work.
Mr Varadkar said: “We need to understand the difference between direct provision and a man who was killed by the police by having somebody step on his neck,” wilfully ignoring the parallels with the same structures of separating those who are “different”, keeping racist policemen in jobs despite numerous complaints, and keeping asylum seekers down, out, and othered, while begging for our help.
Many Irish people happily claim they are not racist — they have friends, family, and co-workers of different races, but one acceptable form of racism permeates Irish society so deeply, our TDs don’t even face real sanction for it.
Wednesday’s minute’s silence was suggested by Culture Minister Josepha Madigan.
The same Josepha Madigan who once labelled Traveller accommodation in her constituency a waste of valuable resources, then stood over the comments a year later, a newspaper report at the time describing her stance as “steely and unrepentant”. She said her only issue was an economic one, the price of land being just too high there for a halting site, “ridiculous from a financial perspective”.
This type of issue is not limited to one TD, and not limited to one party, and is reflective of Irish society as a whole.
We know that there is a mental health pandemic in the Traveller community. There were at least 30 deaths by suicide in the first eight months of 2019, and female deaths have included children as young as 14. The suicide rate in the Traveller community is around six times higher than in the general population and seven times higher among young Traveller men.
Lack of support, discrimination, and racism are reasons given for the alarmingly high rate. We know because they’re telling us, in the media, and in the Oireachtas and through representatives, and the response has largely been silence. The Traveller accommodation underspend by local authorities for 2019 is at 33%.
Outside of the racial segregation that exists in Ireland, we can cast our minds back to another oppression by a lethal force that bore down on a civilian population, not far from home at all.
In the North, British Army soldiers opened fire on protesters, shot children wearing their uniforms, women in their front gardens, and held their knee on the necks of civilians across Northern Ireland for decades. There was much contemplative silence in Dáil Éireann then too, much hand-wringing and strong words, but little action beyond the silence when people were asking for help.
In the past week, there have been many claims that Ireland has no issue with racism, ignoring the fact that a mixed-race family moved back to England after the horrific abuse they received for the crime of appearing in a Lidl advertisement on TV, or that the during the last general election, it emerged some candidates had used anti-Traveller slurs. The presidential election centred around whether you would live next to a Traveller family.
The list goes on. There is a certain irony here, as a white writer, chastising racist systems in Ireland. I have this role, like the vast majority of Irish media, because of privilege.
At school, I argued with teachers almost daily, with an attitude problem that had I lived in a halting site, I’m sure I would have not been allowed back.
When I did as little work as possible to pass, I was pushed to reach my potential. Had my skin been darker, it’s more likely I would have been left to my own devices. This is the reality for hundreds of minority children across Ireland, and as the Taoiseach said, it’s not the name-calling that perpetuates the racism. “It is perpetuated by prejudice, sustained by systems often unrecognised by those whom it infects.”
Those who are infected by racism in Ireland have been telling us for years that they need help, that they are hurting and suffering, and left in limbo.
A minute’s silence means nothing if no one is listening in the quiet.