An Outsider’s view of always present, now boiling, racism in Ireland
By David Langwallner
Hugo Hamilton wrote a book called ‘The Speckled People’ (2003) which to some extent mirrored my experience in growing up with a Germanic mother and a Gaeilgeoir Irish father who refused to allow him to speak English. “Speckled, ‘half and half…Irish on top and German below’”.
I was raised largely in Dublin, half Austrian. My school days in a minor school were blighted by Nazi remarks: “go back to Germany Hitler” in the school yard from kids who are now our envied establishment: police or civil servants, or indeed family or criminal lawyers. Austria, I knew, was the country of Mozart, Schubert, Haydn and Strauss, and Egon Schiele: they did not understand or care when they spied a vehicle for their bullying. They instinctively knew to search for something to which there could be no comeback, to something innate I could do nothing about.
It was a huge struggle to survive that and I did so through academic achievement which diminished the bullying somewhat. Like many who have been tormented I also developed the facility with the spoken word which has stood me in good stead. In fact I over-compensated, though I say so myself, with a certain loquaciousness in desperation to gain an acceptance never willingly forthcoming.
When I eventually went to Trinity College in Dublin there was an initial sense of release but there was always an element of bullying and my relationship with the Trinity Law Faculty then and now was terrible, particularly since the importation of academics from UCD. There are far too many little Irelanders in positions of institutional responsibility in Trinity and certain extremists of a fundamentalist nature. Insidious. For them I was neither fish nor fowl. Guinness with blackcurrant. Half-caste, speckled.
I remember in the Irish Observer Mace for Trinity an international debate competition I subsequently won I was undermined with a choice racist comment which drew great guffaws of laughter from the mobocracy of UCD’s premier debating society the L and H: Nein Danke, Herr Langwallner.
I have always considered UCD a breeding ground for corporate criminals and social glibness and the two go hand in glove.
Have you ever gone to the Gaeltacht or a session of traditional Irish music, a UCD-spawned non-entity senior counsel with a Gaelgeoir name asked me a few years ago? Well why should that matter? UCD’s law faculty spawned Sutherland, Cowen, McDowell, Paul Gallagher: all agents of the globalised neo-liberal establishment. But also a disproportionate number of jailbirds such as solicitor Thomas Byrne and ‘Cocaine Jim’ who robbed his own bank. At times the difference seems to me to be missable.
Having studied and worked in the UK and America I am now confirmedly multicultural and non-racist. In effect I am a mongrel, so my antennae are always raised about racist biases and evaluations. I think my worldview constitutes the acquisition of empathy through bitter personal experience.
I escaped Ireland’s adolescent universities and enjoyed a time in better colleges in the US and the UK. Harvard is a multi-cultural and mixed-race community and the LSE is immersed in heterogeneous London. They were models of cosmopolitan tolerance. I might add that interaction with the protestant Brahmin community in Harvard was also a slightly odd experience. I felt not unlike the way Woody Allen imagines himself turning into a caricature Jew at a protestant thanksgiving in Annie Hall. I suspect that is why I got on so well with the legendary Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Criminal Law at Harvard, like Allen a secular Jew, who has represented the likes of Assange, Tyson, OJ Simpson, and Epstein. Outsiders.
The recently departed Gunter Grass wrote many novels and was a vigorous political polemicist and a German national figure. He is most famous for his novel ‘The Tin Drum’(1959). Its premise is that Oscar, a severely mentally handicapped child or child adult, sees everything that is going on at the onset of fascism in Germany; and reacts by banging a tin drum.
It is the perspective of the outsider, the clown observant, the not-to-be-taken-seriously, the boy who cried wolf. The person suffering from a disability. He cannot be seen as a threat. Like a lot of autistic people and those suffering from Aspergers, of which I have had considerable professional experience, he is inclined to tell the truth or call it as he sees it. His mind is unfiltered by bourgeois hypocrisy. When the lunatics have taken over the asylum they designate the truth-teller as mad.
So yes, I have always been an outsider: precarious but at least equipped with an objectivity.
It was always going to be dangerous to return to Ireland thirty years ago and deploy a faux cosmopolitanism or vicarious celebrity that local parochialism and the parish pump of Ireland do not accept or endorse. And so, ill-equipped, I practised and lectured law in Ireland. I became dean of Griffith College’s law department and lectured for years in the King’s Inns. My role in establishing The Irish Innocence Project, which seeks to get innocent prisoners off death row, gradually led to moves against me and frankly attempted state murder. Some of the spectres of my minor school now in positions of institutional authority came back to haunt, for racism in fact is very much on the ascendant in Ireland. Certainly the more public you become. I should of course state that the level of racism I have encountered is not equivalent to that often suffered by people of colour.
More generally, a very recent EU Survey from its Fundamental Rights Agency confirmed that Ireland has a particular problem. In Ireland 17 per cent of immigrants said they had faced discrimination at work because of their background, whereas on average in the EU less than one in 10 had. 38 per cent said they had been harassed, though in the EU it was less than a quarter. In Ireland, 8 per cent had had suffered racist violence compared to 3 per cent in the EU.
In Ireland in 2020 we have websites set up to name and shame white women who are “breeding” with black people. Political fronts and web and twitter accounts dedicated to the ‘real Irish’ have proliferated. Historic rightists like Oliver Flanagan, William Binchy and Michael McDowell now seem quaint. A home-grown fascist right is no longer a joke.
This is despite the fact that grievances for racial minorities in Ireland are very real. Ireland is among three countries with the worst records in the EU of racism based on skin colour. Life Expectancy at birth for male Travellers is 15.1 years less than men in the general population. 16% of Africans living in Ireland are out of work, compared with 4% of people from western European countries.
The most institutionalised racism is our treatment of asylum-seekers: direct provision. This is an inhumane system that has spawned ugly incidents countrywide including the burning of proposed accommodation for asylum-seekers and a number of climbdowns about provision of housing in particular areas of rural Ireland – under pressure from mobilised far-right groups in places like Rooskey and Oughterard. About 8,700 people in Ireland await a decision on asylum claims and 7600 live in Direct Provision which was originally introduced as an interim system to provide accommodation to asylum seekers for six months while they awaited the results of their application process. Meanwhile in August 2020, according to the Irish Refugee Council, in conditions of pandemic: 42% of asylum-seekers in Direct Provision were sharing a room with non-family-members; 5% shared with as many as four people; and in one case, a resident said he was sharing a room with 11 others.
Let’s be fair, and accurate. Since the 2015 McMahon report six-month work permits have been allowed and the new government programme has agreed a number of short-term remedial measures including extra resources to help speed up the application process and reducing the time asylum seekers must be in the country to be eligible to work from nine months to six months. The government has transferred responsibility from the macho Department of Justice to the Department of Equality and Integration. It has committed to change the system to “a new international protection accommodation policy centred on a not for profit approach” by the end of its (uncertain) term of office. It’s not enough, it’s effectively untimetabled, it’s not clear if it envisages independent living, and it doesn’t undo a great moral and practical wrong.
I predict direct provision will be the object of Ireland’s next calamitous public inquiry.
The resurgence of racism in Ireland reflects international Trumpian trends, increasing poverty and inequality and the competition for low-paid work among those without a third-level qualification. Marxists see the root of much of this as economic. Lives matter if they are rich not if they are poor. The black community has been disproportionately affected by coronavirus in the UK and America chiming with the fact that they are disproportionately affected by poverty. Poverty kills.
Yet a counterfactual narrative is at play in White Ireland.
Dublin’s ascendant middle classes have always had an absurd sense of over entitlement, perhaps best represented by the Southside’s most famous cop-abusing racist.
Gemma O’ Doherty ran an unsuccessful Presidential campaign that manifested conspiracy theories but little sign of actual racism. However following her poor electoral performance she seems to have decided to learn lessons from Peter Casey, an Atlanta-Irish businessman who, though not elected, had got a substantial Presidential vote by running in effect a racist campaign. As he said himself: “Of course I’m a racist; I’m a very proud Irishman”. Proud to be a racist assuming he even knows what that means. such avowed sentiments would not have been tolerated a decade ago or at least would have been kept under the carpet. They are now dramatically public.
O’Doherty set up a panoply of oft-banned social-media outlets that consistently purveyed images of blacks and Muslims as dangerous or anti-social. Foreigners metaphorically raping fair vestal virgins. In May 2019 she tweeted without consent a snap of 32 school children in a Longford school – only a third of whom were white – claiming that “Irish people are becoming an ethnic minority”.
She marauded around the country live-streaming small-mindedness and fracture. She abused a serene Muslim shopkeeper on his premises in Longford: “Did you bring your family with you? Any Irish food here?” etc. When Lidl ran an ad with a mixed race couple it was met with hysterical abuse, led by O’Doherty. A modern-day witch-hunt.
The couple reportedly had to flee the country.
O’Doherty never refers favourably to Muslims or Africans, but often associates them on her platforms with extremism and violence.
It is nauseating but there was and is traction in it. Gemma O’Doherty and her Anti-Corruption Ireland ‘political party’ have clearly learnt lessons from their international racist counterparts. They are dangerously in the ascendant as the size of their gatherings grows in frustration at Covid-driven restrictions on freedom.
Ireland, unlike most other EU countries, has no dedicated hate crime legislation, save the very restricted Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. The 1989 Act, which has been “under review” since 2000. It deals narrowly with cases of hate speech which are deemed to incite hatred. Under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 it is an offence to distribute or broadcast material “likely to stir up hatred”. “Hatred” means: “Hatred against a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation”.
As of two years ago there had scandalously been only five convictions for hate crimes over 20 years. The culture is against it.
O’Doherty should be prosecuted for incitement to hatred on racial grounds. Indeed, a Dublin City Councillor lodged a complaint after O’Doherty suggested burning hajibs.
But of course the gardaí are replete with institutional racism and biases. So to name but one example they have uniquely banned Sikh reservists from wearing turbans. As recently as 2014 twice as many people reporting racism to An Garda Síochána said they received a negative response as a positive one.
In December the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination expressed its concern about the “increasing incidence of racist hate speech against Travellers, Roma, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants” and recommended the State develop a comprehensive regulatory framework to combat hate speech online, including measures to encourage reporting of racist hate crime.
It should be simple.
The UN charter of civil and political Rights, 1966 has long laid out that:
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”.
Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 1965 proposes that signatories criminalise:
“All dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another color or ethnic origin, and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities, including the financing thereof”.
There are perfectly good definitions of incitement to racial hatred.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), General Policy Recommendation No 15 on “hate speech” (from 2016) prohibits:
“The use of one or more particular forms of expression – namely, the advocacy, promotion or incitement of the denigration, hatred or vilification of a person or group of persons, as well any harassment, insult, negative stereotyping, stigmatisation or threat of such person or persons and any justification of all these forms of expression – that is based on a non-exhaustive list of personal characteristics or status that includes “race”, color, language, religion or belief, nationality or national or ethnic origin, as well as descent, age, disability, sex, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation”.
Even with improved protection, the main issue is the under-reporting of crimes associated with racism. The Immigrant Council of Ireland is frequently told by people they do not report racist crimes because they feel it won’t help. For a long time an Garda Síochána did not recognise racism as a form of discrimination on their recording system. This meant the State did not have any official record of the extent of racism in the country, and could not adequately respond to times when people were being targeted as a result of their background or perceived ethnicity. While this has since been introduced, it is not much used nor is support and redress provided for victims of racism when it happens.
In recent weeks a woman of Chinese ethnicity was racially abused in a Dublin suburb and when she pointed this out she was pushed into a canal by teenagers. The initial reaction of the Garda was reported to be that it would be impossible to identify the abuser. But this proved soon afterwards not to be the case. It will be interesting to see how the crime is prosecuted. At the end of August an overnight fire destroyed a house in Galway which had been recently purchased to accommodate a Traveller family.
From direct experience I can say that immigration and family cases in Dublin are often run and adjudicated upon by deeply toxic, often racist lawyers as an extension of a BUY IRISH campaign. In fact I have witnessed that very phrase being used in family law proceedings. Ungrounded sex claims against people of mixed race and foreigners are legitimised through our court processes, family and immigration processes and deeply structurally conservative and implicitly at times racist leadership, professions and role models. Let us be clear, official Ireland in the so called professions and state stasis is institutionally racist.
And omnipresent subliminal racism, nudges, nods and winks are impossible to police or evaluate. Prejudice by a thousand sighs, shrugs, and hearsay.
Thus the Israeli lineage of the banking whistleblower Jonathan Sugarman who has had his life destroyed by official Ireland was a pronounced factor in his demonisation; and indeed in the failure to investigate his devastating insights into the banking corruption that underpinned Ireland’s economic collapse. Elsewhere, whether you like him or not and I do not, Ireland’s best-known Jew, Alan Shatter, was hounded from office.
A human rights expert, Professor Caroline Fennell, has been appointed to lead a new independent anti-racism committee charged by government ministers with reviewing the current evidence on racial discrimination in Ireland and examining best international practice on steps that can be taken to combat racism.
Perhaps some good will come from it. I doubt it. The obvious danger is the perennial agency capture. Its membership is diverse and yet the establishment is all over it – with members from IBEC, ICTU and migrant groups. The traditional official Ireland cover-up which I and Sugarman declaim will paper over it.
In recent times I have reflected often on the film Cabaret based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood called “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939) A crucial scene in the film has Isherwood in the final economic collapse of the Weimar republic in a German beer cellar with a friend after having spent a considerable time enjoying the decadence of the Weimar Republic. The final straw igniting a desire to leave Berlin is when a group of young people in Nazi uniforms start singing “Tomorrow belongs to me” The Cabaret version of “The Horst Wessel song.”
The point is economic collapse internationally and historically, and now in Ireland, does not lead to a leftist populist revolution but to fascism and racism.
And who is banging the Tin Drum?
David Langwallner is a now-London-based barrister.