The unravelling of Irish exceptionalism: It’s time Ireland finally owns up to its racism

When I finished writing this piece last year, I thought it was finished. It sat in a folder with other unpublished articles I had written, a digital purgatory until I finally got round to paying my WordPress subscription. In its original version this essay was (and still is) intended as a commentary on the ways Irish people minimize the so-called ‘casual’ racism that happens in our country by using the brutality witnessed against black people in the U.S. as a benchmark. A distinction was between the violence associated with police in the U.S. and the harmless, almost docile reputation of Gardai.

Since then, a young black Irish man George Nkencho was tragically killed by the Irish Gardai.

I sincerely wish I were reworking this essay to say I had been proven wrong, that George Nkencho’s death served as a wake-up call for Irish people to the racism that plays out on their doorstep. Unfortunately, I will instead write about the staggering absence of understanding and empathy shown by vocal sections of Irish society, and their dogged unwillingness to acknowledge that racism may have played a role in the actions of the Gardai that day.

George Nkencho, who died aged 27 on 30th December 2020

The perception of racism in Ireland

I’ve heard the phrase ‘Ireland is not a racist country’ bandied about quite a bit. It is not altogether clear how bad things need to get for us to earn that title or indeed who decides when that threshold has been met, but it is widely accepted that the first step in fixing a problem is to name it.

Ireland is a racist country. Let us start there.I cannot speak to the experiences of those who have suffered racism in Ireland. I do, however, have some authority on white people and how we talk about race.

I’ve been wondering a lot about this knee-jerk reaction to excuse Ireland from a racist label. After much thought, I realise it has a lot to do with the story we tell about ourselves as a society. This goes further than just how we see ourselves; it is a way of remembering our collective history and gives shape to our present and future.

The storyline we’ve settled on has all the plot devices of an epic: a heroine oppressed at the hands of her enemy overcomes centuries of hardship and submission to emerge emancipated from the wreckage, and blossom into a modern nation of peace, prosperity, and progressive values.

Our cabinets heave with accolades to support this branding as a liberal, Western nation on an inexorable march forward towards self-actualisation – first nation to vote in favour of gay marriage by popular demand, the decriminalisation of abortion two years later, and a gay Taoiseach whose father came to Ireland as an immigrant – changes which, as little as thirty years ago, would have been unimaginable. As character development goes, it’s the stuff of Hollywood movies.

Our new-fangled, outward-looking Wokedom beginning in the 1990s was rewarded with the favour of rich, multinational tech corporations, allowing us to consign to the scrapyard of history our reputation as a quaint, farming nation piggybacking on Europe’s success.

In light of these achievements there has been much self-congratulating and back-patting by successive governments, and indeed by Irish people themselves. We bask in the warm glow of fresh, radical transformation, invigorated by change and its many possibilities.

Meanwhile, as Ireland finally finds itself on the right side of history (and the ‘left’ side of politics), we observe with smugness as the rest of the world slips into a state of regression. We tut tut at the alt-right movement sweeping the rest of Europe and set ourselves apart from the shambolic political leadership of our UK and the U.S. neighbours.  

A key component of this tall tale of exceptionalism is our underdog status. As well as being an island geographically isolated from continental Europe and the U.S., we often felt culturally, politically, and economically ostracised by both international strongholds. In spite recent success on the world stage relative to our small size, we have never shed this outsider mentality, which has transmuted into fierce pride now that we reached the status of a wealthy, respected nation.

This rags-to-riches narrative is central to Irish national identity. Even a millennial like myself with a privileged upbringing and no living memory of Ireland as a poor country cannot help but partake in the ‘started from the bottom now we here’ mentality.

For a long time, I bought into the idea that Ireland’s nominal role in Europe’s imperialist history gave us a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. We didn’t cause or partake in either of the world wars, we were victim to, rather than perpetrators of colonisation, and we’ve never invaded another nation (apart from, apparently, that time we invaded Canada).

There is something distinctly Catholic in the way Irish people remember our collective historical trauma, which suggests the sufferer is redeemed of all sins through having borne oppression. I took comfort in knowing Ireland did not have a disturbing history of atrocities committed against another people. It made my perception of my country’s wealth, my privilege as a white Westerner, and my position as an Irish citizen vis-a-vis the rest of the world feel less complicated. My forefathers did not fill our nation’s coffers with the spoils of pillaging and pilfering another land. On the contrary my predecessors had done more than their share of suffering. From famines, abject poverty, to being stripped of our native tongue, the Irish were well versed in the art of misery and repression.

While on a walking tour of Brussels a few years ago, our hitherto jovial guide darkened the mood by concluding his tour under the statue of King Leopold II. Having impressed us with the capital’s many prestigious political institutions and the grandeur of Place Royale, he was careful to address the infamous King’s abominable legacy in the D.R. Congo, whose people and natural resources he squeezed dry to bankroll an era of Dutch prosperity. I was viscerally repulsed by the descriptions of barbarity and found it difficult to comprehend that such needless violence could be committed by one human against another.

Yet beneath my disgust, I experienced a perverse sense relief. ‘Thank god we weren’t as bad as them’, I found myself thinking. Although a lapsed Catholic, I still carried with me the Church’s obsession with suffering as a form of redemption. I believed Ireland’s legacy of suffering absolved me from being party to the shame etched across the face of my Belgian tour guide and spared me from asking difficult questions such as where my country’s wealth originated, and whether it should be given back.

As I recall this memory, I am visited by the shame I was spared all those years ago. I see my position for it for what it was: inaccurate, self-indulgent, and ignorant to the point of causing harm.

Averting our gaze

A Guardian article by Gary Younge went a long way in putting words to my feelings of unease about my own problematic beliefs. In the article ‘What Black America Means to Europe’ Younge describes how many Europeans are more knowledgeable about racism in the U.S. than the experience of black communities in their own country. “Well into my 30s, I was far more knowledgeable about the literature and history of black America than I was about that of black Britain, where I was born and raised, or indeed of the Caribbean, where my parents are from.” In Younge’s opinion, Europe’s affiliation with the civil rights movement and BLM has a dark side: “But this tradition of political identification with black America also leaves significant space for the European continent’s inferiority complex, as it seeks to shroud its relative military and economic weakness in comparison to America with a moral confidence that conveniently ignores both its colonial past and its own racist present.”

Ireland, with our own special blend inferiority complex, is uniquely positioned to diminish our domestic racism through favourable comparison with both Europe and the United States. We frequently correlate our servitude and the prejudice we suffered under British rule and in the U.S. with the discrimination of black communities, meanwhile failing to notice its correlation with the treatment of asylum seekers trapped within our direct provision system.

The widely circulated ‘Irish slave’ meme

One of the most egregious examples of this is the ‘Irish slave’ myth, a confabulation which became popularized through a viral meme claiming that the first slaves brought to the U.S. were white and Irish. Besides erring in historical fact by conflating indentured servitude with chattel slavery, the true insidiousness of this myth is its revival by alt-right white Americans as a counterargument against black lives matter protests. Similarly, in Ireland, this untruth is relied on by white nationalist groups to negate the existence of systemic racism and displace legitimate claims of racism with tales of our own victimhood. ‘If the Irish can lift themselves out of poverty, the blacks have only themselves to blame for not doing the same’, or so their racist version of the story goes.

Although the ‘Irish slave’ meme failed to capture the imagination of the Irish mainstream, the lingering perception of Ireland as a country hard done by during historical shifts in power is used to justify our identification with Black America. As lamented by Jimmy Rabbitte in the Commitments, “The Irish are the blacks of Europe”.

‘More blacks, more dogs, more Irish’, a reworking of the original ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, is another heavily circulated slogan that resurfaced during the BLM protests following the death of George Floyd. Its unifying quality speaks to the Zeitgeist of a younger generation whose affiliations extend beyond their own kin, and yet I wonder if this urge to overlook difference is always helpful. Although catchy, these well-intentioned but glib comparisons obscure the oceans of difference between how Irish Americans and black Americans are perceived today and promotes the idea that historically we shared the same struggle.

This victim-mentality obfuscates the myriad of ways in which Ireland has directly and indirectly been an eager beneficiary of the white supremacist power structure these shifts created, particularly in the past fifty decades. The dizzying rise of the Irish diaspora in the U.S. is a case in point.

It is quintessentially Irish to portray ourselves in a self-deprecatory fashion, but more often than not it is disingenuous. This well-developed instinct to belittle our own power is far from harmless, and gives rise to the widely held belief that the racism in Ireland is of a ‘casual’ nature, a friendly slagging if you will. By placing racial victimhood at the centre of our national identity we exclude the possibility that we ourselves can act as oppressors, thereby putting meaningful accountability out of reach for those who are subject to racism in Ireland.

George Nkencho

An investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) into the death of George Nkencho is currently underway. Groups such as Black and Irish have asked people to reserve judgment until the full facts of the events are known, and while we wait I will put that question of whether the Gardai’s actions were prejudicial temporarily to one side.

In the absence of an official report two versions of the events that took place on December 30th have emerged. While many condemned the police for racially motivated excessive use force, others deemed their actions justified as George had a knife and bristled that race was brought into the conversation.

False rumours claiming George Nkencho had criminal convictions

Regardless of the investigation’s conclusions, the reaction amongst media and the public speaks to the reality that the fatal shooting of a young black man at the hands of white law enforcement in a majority white country has political implications beyond the scope of the actors involved.

Nkencho’s death trigged an outpouring of grief and anger amongst black communities in Ireland, and the protest marches by friends and family of Nkencho in their local suburb. The response by certain sections of Irish society, instead of listening, has been to double down with fastidious detail on the sequence of events which they believe justified Nkencho being shot by the Gardai.

As part of the online pile-on fabricated accounts circulated purporting Nkencho had 32 criminal convictions including the assault of an ex-girlfriend. Photos of a separate incidence concerning an Everton Football Fan who had been attacked with a knife in January 2019 were attributed to Nkencho. All were later disproven by media outlets.

An image of an Everton football fan inaccurately reported to be the shopkeeper assaulted by George Nkencho

Tarnishing the reputation of a mentally ill person by playing on black stereotypes is particularly heinous and shows just how far Irish people are willing to stoop to keep race out of the conversation, while at the same time illustrating the chronic need for these discussions to take place. 

At a time when it would have served the public well to take a back seat and listen to the grievances of our black population, they escalated racial tensions by missing the point completely.

Even when the last moments of Nkencho’s short life mimicked, blow-for-fatal-blow, those all-too-familiar scenes from the U.S., online commentators refused to acknowledge the similarities and deflected comparisons by fixating on the shopkeeper assaulted by Nkencho at the earlier stages of the incidence.

In adopting a victim mentality they conveniently evade questions of racism, allowing them to, returning to Younge’s point, distinguish the event’s racial undertones from the ‘real’ racism that happens in the U.S.

Regardless of the outcome of the Gsoc investigation, the communitarianism that emerged in the wake of Nkechno’s passing shatters any illusions that Ireland is not a racist country. George Nkencho, a vibrant young man experiencing a mental illness episode, was utterly dehumanised to the degree that hate mail was sent to his family as they mourned his loss.

It is little wonder black activists have spoken of feeling disillusioned given the fallout of Nkencho’s death.

Media outlets were quick to refute false rumours of Nkencho’s criminal convictions

While the majority of Irish population might not behave or think in an overtly racist manner, our passivity misguided perception about the contours of racism in Ireland prevents the masses from making the necessary shift from being non-racist to anti-racist, and further still, tackling our own internalized racism.

The vitriol that emerged following Nkencho’s death held a mirror to the thinly concealed racism bubbling under the surface.

There are no longer good excuses for claiming ignorance of the racism that exists in Ireland. From organisations such as Origins Eile, to Black Pride Ireland, Akidwa, MASI, Abolish Direct Provision, the Black & Irish podcast & Instagram account, MERJ, to vocal activists such Emma Dabiri, Elaine Cruz, Tobi Lawal and Amanda Adé, to name but a few, there are countless individuals and organisations chronicling the racist abuse that occur daily in Ireland, not to mention the well-documented institutionalized racism experienced by asylum seekers in Direct Provision. The attitude that our racism is casual does an immense disservice to their work by undermining the level of reform that needs to take place if everyone is to feel comfortable in their own skin.

As a society, we would do well to listen carefully to Younge’s retort in response to claims that racism is the UK is less problematic than in the U.S.: “racism’s bad everywhere, there really is no ‘better’ kind”.

Hate Crime Law

One need look no further than Ireland’s total absence of hate crime laws to see the damaging effects of our beliefs in action. In the place of robust, targeted legislation to counter the prevalence of hate crimes is the shoddy protection afforded by the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. A revealing quote spoken by the responsible Minister of Justice in 1988, Gerry Collins, downplays the necessity for the act itself and in doing so portends its inefficacy: “We do not have the type of multi-racial society that some of our partners in Europe have. Nevertheless, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the occasional problem of racial incitement does arise here”.

Thirty years later in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties report, ‘Lifecycle of a Hate Crime: Country Report for Ireland’, published thirty years after the 1989 Act came into force, Dr. Amanda Haynes criticised its inability to record instances of hate crime: “From the moment of reporting a hate crime, to the moment where the judge sentences an offender, the hate element of a crime is progressively filtered out of the criminal justice system in Ireland. While Collins may argue he is vindicated by the mere five convictions since its inception, viewed in light of Haynes’ indictment his comments illustrate how a system who chooses not to see something, effectively erases it.

This erasure of hate crimes in Ireland’s legal sphere has created the conditions for racism to flourish and it should hardly be surprising that Ireland is now the among the worst-ranked in Europe for racial violence based on skin colour and racism in the workplace. Last year a UN Committee found that Ireland was not doing enough to tackle increased rates of hate crime and hate speech against minorities.  

A step has been taken in the right direction following An Garda Síochána’s introduction of a working definition for hate crime and hate incident which was introduced last year in its diversity and integration strategy, however, a legislative equivalent is still sorely lacking.

In November Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu called out a racist tweet sent by National Party politician Rebecca Barrett. The Mayor’s light-hearted response was widely commented on and the original Tweet ultimately deleted by Twitter, but it is no laughing matter that the first citizen of Dublin is victim to online racial abuse from a fellow politician. In recent weeks the abuse has become even more violent, with Chu stating she fears for her daughters’ safety following messages received from far-right groups. Tell me again, Ireland isn’t racist?

Ireland’s corporate tax policies

As a young child, I have strong memories of learning about the Irish famine in school. I was particularly horrified by accounts that the Irish resorted to eating grass meanwhile British farmers increased their export of livestock. I pictured their skeletal on their hands and knees, reduced to eating side by side with animals just to stay alive.

My juvenile concept of morality recognised the wrongness of swiping food from under the noses of the hungry, but not all bad behaviour is so blatant.

Apple logo

Ireland’s corporate tax policies have, not undeservedly, earned us the reputation of a tax haven. The Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich was a tax avoidance strategy used by international corporations such as Google to put their profits out of reach of the taxman until the loophole was finally closed following pressure by the European Union. Although the 0.005% effective tax rate paid by Apple for earnings spanning 2004-2014 is technically legal, as found by the general court of the European Union last year, the Irish government’s cosying up to multinational corporations is ethically dubious.

The United Nations recently announced that it would be examining its impact on the rights of children due to profits created in ‘developing countries’ being moved to Ireland, behaviour which whiffs of colonial undertones. According to Christian Aid Ireland’s head of policy and advocacy, “This has a real impact on children’s rights and is morally indefensible.”

Despite being a signatory to a whole rake of human rights treaties and earning a seat on the UN Security Council, Ireland’s prosperity comes at a human cost which is barely given a second thought.

Considered in this light, it makes sense why I experienced a cheapened sense of relief, as opposed to pride or some other more assured emotion while standing beneath the statue of King Leopold II. Although only fully grasping it as I write this, something in me then suspected that it was only chance, a lack of opportunity rather intrinsic goodness, that kept Ireland from pillaging other poorer nations.

Right-Wing Extremism

The recent anti-lockdown and anti-mask marches have shown us we are not immune to the siren song of right-wing extremism, as we once thought.

Speaking to The Journal in 2017 Shane O’Curry, director of the Anti-Racism Network Ireland, said there are several reasons why far-right ideologies have never taken off in Ireland, as we have seen them do in the US or Britain. In his experience, Irish people are “instinctively anti-racist”, a quality which he attributes to our colonial past: “Historically, we had colonialism. [Irish people] were subject to penal law which was formerly apartheid law. Irish people in Britain were allies of other minorities in struggling for dignity and human rights. So, we understand these things instinctively.”

Three years on alt-right marches are a recurring offshoot of the pandemic, which led to a violent hate crime against Izzy Kamikaze whose injuries were later celebrated on the social media platform Telegram.

This necessitated yet another painful revision of my view of Ireland. I had also bought into the idea that the ‘Far-right burns elsewhere, fizzles in Ireland’, and yet here it is flourishing in Ireland, incandescent, pyrogenic, feeding off oxygen pumped by Covid-19 restrictions.

George Nkencho as a teenager

A prophetic article written in the Irish Times in 1997 titled, ‘No racism here please, we’re Irish’, touches on the inferiority complex of the Irish and the subtle and not so subtle ways in which our racism manifests. The article anticipates the increase in migration to Ireland and warns of an increase in racist incidences if more is not done to reform our lax anti-racist laws.

The heroic tales of Irish exceptionalism are beginning to ring hollow and I cannot help but wonder where we would be now had we heeded that warning twenty years back. As State-issued apologies for mother and baby homes do the rounds many of us find ourselves wondering whether the same sentiments will be applied to direct provision, whose institutionalised setting draws uncanny parallels. The incumbent government has pledged to dismantle direct provision in its 2020 Programme for Government, and those who campaigned for its abolition will be watching closely to ensure it isn’t replaced with a facsimile.   

Plenty of mistakes have been made along the way, but if the State is sincere in its contriteness there is no time like the present to implement its lesson-learning. Let George Nkencho’s death be the first and the last, instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over as witnessed in the United States. Ireland is a racist country, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Ireland’s Abortion Referendum and Its Inconvenient Truths

Nothing in life is black and white. No one is ever completely wrong or completely right. So when we choose between people, between sides, always and inevitably, a loss is incurred.

The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and remove the legal barrier against abortion takes an issue of immense complexity and reduces it to a yes or no answer. It has taken place within the public forum, pitting one grass-roots movement against the other. Battle lines were drawn. Adversaries were marked. The voting decisions of the Irish public were the spoils of war. Persuading others to also pick your side is a always a tricky business, one that requires certainty and conviction to keep the facts afloat. But matters of public morality elicit the resolute stubbornness of a crusade, a vertiginous unassailability that elevates its ideological underpinnings to biblical heights.

The pro-choice and the pro-life movement carved their memoranda on stone and handed it out to their cheering followers, but in doing so they deprived themselves of the ability to accommodate views that did not mirror their own. Turning a moral issue political leads to such polarization, compounded further by the media-circus documenting the entire affair. The single-mindedness campaigning strategy of both groups conducted their campaign may have been politically astute, but with such rigidity it becomes hard to appraise one’s own actions and ideology honestly. The hostility and vilification that ensued created such a tense atmosphere that empathising with the opposition become a mammoth task.

Moral debates are rarely black and white, but we have made the false binary of the ballot papers our reality.

Language, Images, Numbers and Truth

Since its conception, the Irish abortion debate has inhabited two opposing ends of a spectrum; the mother on one side, unborn on the other. Split and divided, a separation impossible in nature. Together the pro-life and the pro-choice movements have engineered this divide with the many tools at their disposal: stories, emotions, history, rhetoric, words, images, art, facts, statistics, the vast world of science. Those which favour their own agenda are selected and isolated, the rest shed, cast aside, wilfully ignored.

That which is a “baby” or an “unborn child” to one side of the debate is a “zygote”, a “foetus” or an “embryo” to the other. One side employs terms like “beating heart”, “saving lives”, “protecting humanity” while the other side talks about “bodily autonomy”, “self-determination” and “empowering women”. Both wear the mantle of preserving human rights. “Support her, don’t export her”, echoes on both sides of the divide. Amongst the publicly broadcasted vitriol, sparring matches and creative wordplay, one sometimes needs to be reminded that both campaigns are referring to the same physical phenomenon of pregnancy. The pro-choice movement have chosen to co-opt the vernacular of scientists. Pregnancy is viewed through the clinical lens of medicine, a condition with a symptom that can be treated and cured. Pro-lifers talk about the miracle of life. Emotive language hijacks the maternal and paternal tenderness inspired by a new-born. Abortion is equated with murder.

The image of the foetus is the greatest weapon in the artillery of pro-lifers. They point towards its human features to remind us of our own identical beginning, drawing upon non-existent memories. It reminds me of those jelly aliens toys we had as children, embalmed in gloop and enclosed in a plastic egg. But they fail to elicit from this a higher principle of a right to life. What do tiny fingers tell us about personhood? What do tiny fingers tells us about the ability to feel pain or sorrow or less, or even the ability to register and comprehend one’s own death? What do tiny fingers tell us about the right to have one’s life protected above the bodily autonomy of another?

How does this foetal image, plastered across the length and breadth of our country, help us to find answers to the philosophical and ethical questions about the beginning of consciousness? The meaning an images conveys is never limited to its contents alone, which functions symbolically to point us towards something further. This distant and abstracted thing rises silently from the depths of the image, meets the surface of our mind, transacts, transfers, then plunges deep once again. A silent and algorithmic fusing of knowledge and emotion. Caught unawares, we are highly susceptible to manipulation. A constant state of critical hyper-vigilance must be maintained if we are to retain mastery of our own mind, authorship of our own opinion.

On the LoveBoth website, a cartoon strip documents the progression of the unborn from conception right up until the day it is born. The unborn is painted with a smiling face and rosy cheeks, frolicking and cavorting across the screen as it coos goo-eyed at its parents. The unborn is imbued with a voice, self-awareness and a fabricated personal identity as it reports to its mummy and daddy the changes that it is undergoing. “Mark the calendar — I can’t wait to see, Mammy!”, it exclaims.

When the facts are sterile, diffuse them with whimsical fiction to pull at the heartstrings.

Where there is no voice, supplant it with your own and mute the Other.

For the longest time the profusion of Irish abortion stories that accrued over decades were denied the light of day because it made the lies will liked to tell ourselves easier to believe. When the repeal campaign began, for the first time women in Ireland were given permission to speak. Once the floodgates were opened the stories poured out. In these stories the mother was cast as leading role. A developed and intelligent being with the capacity to think, to feel, and to articulate. A voice that speaks for itself.

In Ireland’s public sphere two opposing narratives run side by side; never touching, never interacting, a single protagonist the focus of attention. Choose a side. Choose a perspective. Choose the facts that work in you favour and overlook those that don’t. Shift the emphasis. Tell the truth, but only the useful bits. This is how people are convinced. This is how campaigns are won.

Inconvenient Truths

A crisis pregnancy is an inconvenient truth, the beginning of a chain of inconvenient truths from which many more spring. As much as we may loath these truths they will not disappear on their own, hence the inconvenience. Whether we speak of them or not, they exist and persist, they duplicate and they multiply, they fester if ignored. Both the pro-life and pro-choice groups have been indulging the ignorance of inconvenient truths when it is at odds with their campaign strategy. Here are some truths they have sought to avoid:

Pro-Life

  • It is an inconvenient truth that by choosing to save the unborn, the physical and mental health of Irish woman is jeopardized.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that by prioritizing the life of the unborn over the mother, Irish women are denied their bodily autonomy.
  • It is an inconvenient truth by that the 8th Amendment disproportionately affects the disabled community, migrant women and the lower social strata of Irish society.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that Irish women who travel to England to procure an abortion will not receive adequate health care.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that even though abortion is illegal in Ireland, 12 women in Ireland have an abortion anyway.

Pro-Choice

  • It is an inconvenient truth that by ending an unplanned pregnancy you are ending another human life.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that the provision of abortion services might disproportionately be used against those with disabilities.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some women regret their abortions.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some men who want to be a father will have their unborn child aborted.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that abortion services may be used by mother’s who want their child, but can’t afford it.

Unpalatable. Unsavoury. Inconvenient. The solution to a crisis often is. The undecided middle are all too aware of the inconvenient truths that are absent in the Yes and No campaign. They remain undecided, sceptical and unconvinced.

Coming To Terms

When I first started learning about abortion, it was described to me as a procedure that terminated pregnancy and would end the life of my baby.

Baby.

A word with pleasant associations. A salty-sweet smell. A tiny fist grasping one long finger. Pure innocence. Death. Baby. Death. Baby. Words that do not look or sound good together. Words that do not belong together. I was terrified of becoming pregnant long before I lost virginity. This is the legacy of the Catholic Church and Ireland’s education system. The fear of pregnancy, even at a distance, prevented me from ever judging someone for having an abortion. But could I carry out one myself? Could I bring myself to kill a baby? My baby? As long as the conversation involved the word ‘baby’, abortion was going to be a guilt-laden affair.

But that was the point after all, wasn’t it? With England only a ferry or a plane ride away they couldn’t outlaw abortion completely, but they sure as hell could fill us with regret and shame till we rotted from the inside. Until a non-Irish friend of mine had an abortion it never occurred to me that this was a decision that could be made easily. By easy I do not imply that it was a light or casual affair. By easy I mean it was a comfortable decision that was not wrought with guilt or shame, and didn’t require a plane ticket.

A guilt free abortion? This was something new and strange. To an Irish woman, this was something radical. Around the same time the Repeal movement was really kicking off and for the first time in my shortish life I was invited to consider this possibility on Irish soil. The impact the incorporation of abortion services into Ireland’s health services would have should not be understated. Women in Ireland were supposed to travel for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to pay for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to be denied medical aftercare. Women in Ireland weren’t supposed to have abortions at all, but if they did, it would be the Catholic way, secret and alone, shamed by society. Up until recently this is what abortion meant to me; I may have long since renounced the Catholic Church but I was only beginning to grasp the extent to which its ideologies still coloured my worldview.

Reckoning with abortion’s terminating human life was still an aspect of abortion that tripped me up so I turned to science to fill in the gaps. Embryo. Foetus. Zygote. I said these words and thought of a goo-ey alien in its plastic egg belonging to my childhood. Words without association. Clean. Hard. Rough. Unhuman. Clinical. Medical. These words belonged in the mouths of doctors. Shapeless and faceless in their white coats and surgical masks, always male in my mind’s eye. I could say these words and feel nothing.

Battle on the Homefront

The repeal movement was a contentious topic in my household, particularly between my pro-life mother and me. On the surface we argued about politics, knowing however that one other’s emotion ran deep. We disagreed on every single point there was to discuss. Eventually I vetoed it as a conversation topic for the sake of peace. When friends came over our chats inevitably drifted to abortion and the repeal campaign. They were always firmly on my side and my mum would find herself outnumbered.

One such typical Sunday morning spent moralising abortion, my friend and I left my mum at home while we went to fetch a coffee. An hour later I returned alone to find my mother in the kitchen in the exact same spot we had left her, hunched over an ironing board and visibly upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me the conversation we had earlier had upset her. I was filled with remorse. The hurt that pro-life supporters might be feeling was not something I had dwelled on much, prevented by my indignant anger. I said nothing except to offer her a hug and wrap my arms around her.

My belief that appealing the 8th amendment is right and correct course of action is unwavering. As the tragic stories of Irish women poured out, stories which they had held on tightly to for years, my conviction that I was right and she was wrong became evermore steadfast. I had grown righteous. I had a wealth of facts and stories and letters of the alphabet to hand. I had thousands of my peers agreeing me. I had stopped listening to her arguments (if I ever listened to begin with), instead waiting for an interlude and an opportunity to hear my own voice. It was time to start listening again, not to change my mind but to acknowledge my mum’s perspective. Suddenly it was important to me that she felt heard and understood.

There are many troubling ideologies buoying the No campaign, but they do hold one fundamental belief that is untainted: all human life is precious and deserves the right to live, no matter how fleeting or tenuous. Taken on its own, it is a pure intention. Talking to my mother forced me to confront the inconvenient truths of the pro-choice position, and critically examine my decision to push against the natural instinct to preserve human life. This was something I had to admit silently to myself. I understood the nuances between the different stages of life. I had weighed the conflicting interests of mother and unborn. I accepted the loss, without guilt or shame. I will cast my vote to repeal the 8th amendment appreciating all its consequences. Somewhere along the line we forgot to seek the humanity in one another’s arguments, opting to build straw men out of one another’s arguments.

May 26th will bring winners and losers, a victory and loss that will be black and white. But let us not forget we live in a world of grey.

In the aftermath the Belfast rape trial, where do we go from here?

It is unnecessary to spend much time rehashing the disturbing details of the Belfast rape trial, which has dominated news headlines in Ireland in the past two months. If you have been following the case closely you will be all too familiar with the facts. If you haven’t you can find a detailed overview of the case here, or a more succinct version here. In brief, the four accused stood on trial for the following offences against a then 19-year-old Belfast student; Paddy Jackson for vaginal rape, Stuart Olding for oral rape, Blane McIlroy for indecent exposure (he claims she performed consensual oral sex on him although she claims they did not engage in sexual intercourse of any kind), and Rory Harrison was charged with perverting the course of justice by withholding evidence from the police. Following a 42 day trial, the four accused were acquitted of all charges and left the court room as free men.

The Irish public viewed on the side lines as court reporters revealed one sordid detail after the other. For some, the revelations made throughout the trial were a shocking insight into the attitudes and behaviour towards women in society. For others, it simply made overt what had been familiar and known to them for some time. Elements flagged by the general public include the exchange of sexually explicit and derogatory messages and photos in an all-male WhatsApp group, the sexually aggressive posturing within alpha male rugby culture, and the general pervasiveness of toxic masculinity. Above all, it elevated a much needed conversation about consent to the top of public agenda.

An emotional and exhausting trial for all involved culminated with a not guilty verdict for all charges brought against the four accused. No matter how the jury decided, the public, who are not held to strict standards of proof, were always going to exercise autonomous judgment derived from a mishmash of news sources. The response was predictably divided. Some pockets of society argued that justice has been served, while supporters in favour of the victim prompted an #Ibelieveher campaign and took to the streets to show their compassion.

‘Beyond all reasonable doubt’

Rape cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute due to the high burden of proof, ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. This standard must be met in respect of both prongs of a rape charge: the jury must be satisfied firstly, that penetrative sexual intercourse took place, and secondly, that the intercourse was not consensual and the defendant was aware of such. Unlike a murder trial there is no body and usually little conclusive physical evidence for the jury to work with. More often than not, the successful prosecution of rape charge hangs on the jury’s interpretation of the intentions of the accused, which can result in a verdict grounded less in evidence than personal experience.

How does one go about proving something as intangible as intentionality beyond all reasonable doubt? The answer is with great difficulty. Which is why most reports do not result in a formal charge, let alone prosecution.

It is with good reason that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. It is with good reason that the burden of proof in criminal trials is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. But in the case of rape, such barriers to prosecution are causing the law to become stuck. The most recent Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report conducted in 2002 found that 42% of women experienced sexual abuse in some form. The report also finds that only 10% of sexual offences were reported. The latest figures for conviction in rape cases from 2016 showed that the conviction rate for rape in the Republic of Ireland was at just 2%.

Such a low conviction rate could be interpreted to suggest that a lot of women reporting rape are simply lying. Yet according to research carried out by Trinity College Dublin and London Metropolitan University, it is estimated that 9% of rape allegations made in Ireland are false.

The disparity between a 2% conviction rate when 91% of cases are deemed to be legitimate is staggering. In its efforts to protect the accused, the vast majority of guilty men remain unpunished (and therefore undeterred) while the vindication of woman’s right to bodily autonomy is left shambles. It is no wonder only a limited percentage of Irish women choose report in the first place.

At what point have we tipped the balance too far in favour of the accused when the statistics would implore us to act otherwise?

Toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity. A ‘buzzword’ that make some men bristle, and the most apt description of the WhatsApp and text message conversations that were revealed during the trial. The defence team may have successfully argued that the accused were ‘braggarts, not rapists’, but there was little hiding the vile and objectifying view these young men have towards women with whom they engaged in sexual relations.

From where does an attitude of such demeaning inequality spring? I have spoken before about the over-sexualisation of the opposite sex in Ireland from a young age, which begins in the segregated school system and influences the way men and women regard one another at all levels of society.

An object cannot feel pleasure. An object cannot give consent.

The so-called locker room talk the defendants engaged in is rampant in our society and it would be naïve to think the opinions that inform such commentary are restricted to words alone. Sending an explicitly demeaning text about women does not make someone a rapist, but their attitudes towards women as mere sexual objects are aligned. Both herald from a broader culture of unbridled male dominance and privilege, whose consequences are wide-ranging.

The minimalist definition for rape under Irish law is sexual intercourse without consent. That does not mean tying her to a bed, holding a knife to her throat or forcing yourself on her in the back of an alley. Violent rape is its most extreme classification, and while it is the predominant narrative that grips our attention, it is not the category into which most rape cases fall.

For some rapists, the unwillingness of their victim is part of the thrill. For others, they engage in the act purely for their own sexual gratification. In the latter category the woman serves as a pleasure vessel, whose consent is irrelevant to the entitled actions of the rapist. Such men fail to identify their own behaviour as unconsensual.

When you reduce a woman to a sexual object her consent becomes beside the point. An object cannot feel pleasure. An object cannot give consent. A sexual object is for your pleasure only.

The law does not concern itself with your attitude towards rape it concerns itself only with your attitude towards consent. Unfortunately, wider society and the sexual education of Irish children fail to reflect this.

‘Sex’ should be followed by ‘consent’ as soon as it enters a child’s vernacular, and for this reason it is imperative that consent classes go hand in hand with sexual education classes beginning with primary school. Thankfully, Minister for Education Richard Bruton seems to agree. Rather than the responsibility being foisted on universities, no child should leave the Irish education system without knowing what sexual consent is, how it is given and received, and vitally, how it is denied.

Despite the complainant of the case being in a state of shock when reporting the rape to a medical examiner, her inconsistencies were exploited by the prosecution when the case reached the courts. This tells us that an inexact knowledge of what constitutes a sexual offence and how it should be reported can be detrimental to the case of the complainant.

If women and men in Ireland are to fully appreciate the need for consent, they should be well versed in the legal terminology for sexual offence that are committed in its absent. They should be able to identify when a sexual offence has been committed and the necessary steps to follow to report and preserve evidence in the immediate aftermath. Educating young school children in how they should report a rape feels rather Margaret Atwoodesque but it is the reality in which we live.

An emphasis on the precision of oral evidence is also critical, and each person handling a victim of a sexual offence, from medical professionals to members of an Gardai Siochana, should be specially trained in how to handle such cases and the importance of the accuracy of their account should be impressed upon the victim from the initial stage.

Social Media

A commonality of the Belfast rape case and the #Metoo movement is the role of the public as the final adjudicator. As with Kevin Spacey, Michael Colgan and countless others embroiled in naming-and-shaming momentum that began with Harvey Weinstein, the disclosure of the defendant’s name in rape cases in Northern Ireland (but not in the Republic) will have far-reaching consequences for all four accused in spite of the final outcome of the trial.  The greater public know that a verdict of not guilty is not the same as innocent when such a high burden of proof must be met, and for most people their pre-conceptions based on news reporting will remain intact. It remains to be seen if and how the rugby careers of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding will progress.

Margaret Atwood recently spoke out against the dangers of trying an accused in the court of public opinion when the proper judicial channels are deemed ineffective. Her warnings came around the same time as the publishing of the ‘Sh*tty Men in Media’ list, a spreadsheet compiled of the names of 70 men within the media industry who had been accused of sexual misdemeanours, much of it violent. The women who updated the list did so anonymously and none of the claims were investigated when the list went viral.

The journalist Moira Donegan who published the list did not intend for it to go public and her intentions were only to protect her fellow colleagues. Her plan was deeply flawed and left potentially innocent men without opportunity to defend themselves. Alternatively, traditional channels of justice have proved hopelessly inadequate and forcing to create their own avenues for protection.

The fallout of the Weinstein reporting has the potential to harm innocent men while circumventing the course of justice, but unless women feel protected by the higher powers they cannot be blamed for taking up this role themselves.

Amongst all this discussion of past sexual misdemeanours committed by men, it cannot be forgotten that the effective reporting incidences of sexual misconduct and violence is not just about punishment, it is about protecting other women in the future. It was this impulse above any other that prompted the 19-year-old victim in the Belfast rape case to finally go to the police.

The same systems which encourage women to report offences of sexual assault simultaneously make its prosecution prohibitively problematic. If such an incident takes place within the framework of an official institution or organisation, this does at least potentially provide non-legal avenues for recourse, but if such structures are not in place, an all-or-nothing court case is the only available option. It is little wonder that the majority of women choose to remain silent. While all perpetrators of sexual violence and misconduct should feel the full force of the law, the legal system in its current form has proved impotent and it is clear that it is not designed to handle the realities of such crimes: their regularity, their systemic nature, and frequently, their lack of physical evidence.

If women are to be protected it is obligatory that there be established a whole new body to handle reports of sexual abuse when the available evidence is unlikely to meet the burden of proof in a criminal case. A civil suit is always an option but this is costly, placing a huge financial burden on the victim, which could be devastating if they lose. Furthermore, on a whole current procedures are still vastly ill-suited to the everyday occurrence of sexual misconduct in its many forms and contexts. It is likely in such a system that the punishment would no longer fit the crime but for most women the end goal of reporting sexual violence is to ensure it doesn’t happen again, to themselves or other women.

The complainant in the Belfast rape case was forewarned about the realistic chances of the state winning the case, but she pressed ahead regardless. Her bravery has stimulated an overdue conversation about the misogyny which is rife in Irish society and the devastating consequences it can engender. Let us not waste this precious opportunity.

Featured image¨Rape of the Sabines¨ By Girolamo del Pacchia – J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48327746

Men need to start identifying their own behaviour as sexual assault

Like millions of women around the world, it is impossible for me to follow the story of Harvey’s Weinstein with the same distance that is afforded to most -but not all-men. It brings up memories of sexual violence and sexual misconduct in the real world and the workplace that is all too commonplace for women.

As a young girl growing up the burden of femininity is slowly impressed upon you. It begins with restrictions being placed upon your freedom and stories told by way of caution. Movies, books and newspapers lay bare the oppression and subjugation committed against women, but like much of the suffering recounted through words on a page it remains at a distance, belonging to the lives of strangers.

But as your body moulds itself closer to the form of femininity, so too do your experiences start to resemble the lives of those once distant women.

Of all the stories you were told growing up, these are the ones that come true.

Is modern society as equal as we like to think?

Irish people like to believe that we live in an egalitarian society, with equal treatment for men and women alike. However the corresponding reality played out on streets, on nightclub dance floors, in offices, on college campuses, behind closed doors, virtually anywhere that men and women congregate together, repeatedly informs Irish women that this is not the case.

To face the staggering numbers – to face the truth – requires an admission that some of the men we know and love are guilty of harassment and sexual violence against women. As a society this is hard to accept, as an individual, even harder. We prefer to believe that most men treat women with respect, the men we know personally at least, even if statistics and experience tell otherwise.

I have experienced countless iterations of catcalling, groping and unsolicited sexual behaviour that I could draw upon as examples from my own life, most of which has occurred within the public domain. To add a filter, I will talk about my experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace and some of the more watered down versions of sexual assault that I have experienced.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

It is one of my first jobs as a teenager and my significantly older manager appears to take pleasure in making my job more miserable in whatever way possible. The ‘light-hearted’ teasing for which I am singled out becomes relentless. A male colleague compares it to the textbook schoolyard tactics of using bullying as a front to conceal one’s true feelings.

Leering at me with a self-gratifying smile on his face he says, ‘You can’t report me because its the pen touching you and not me.’ The sexual overtones are blatant and I feel deeply uncomfortable.

One day while I am standing in the corner of the workplace, my manager approaches and starts poking me with a pen. Leering at me with a self-gratifying smile on his face he says, ‘You can’t report me because its the pen touching you and not me.’ The sexual overtones are blatant and I feel deeply uncomfortable. I know his behaviour is inappropriate, but I am young and lack the confidence to stand up to a figure of authority. The next figure in the chain of command is in the habit of giving unsolicited shoulder massages so I doubt I will be listened to anyway. I try my best to forget it ever happened and stay quiet.

A few years later I am working a job as a waitress. Drunk, the owner tells me that he knew he wanted to sleep with me from the first moment he saw me. His delivery is intended both as a compliment and a proposition. I am a terrible waitress and I strongly suspect this is the only thing that has kept me from being fired. The line between personal and professional is blurred by a matter of course in the running of the establishment, and I know if I were to complain I would be dismissed as ‘too PC’. Again I say nothing, and leave my job soon after.

Fast-forward a few years later. I have graduated from university and it is my first time working in a job that could be described as ‘professional’. The office environment is a novel experience; I marvel at the rows of computers and cubicles, the business attire, the unfamiliar level of formality. One day an older male colleague on my team invites me to go for lunch. It is Friday and virtually everyone leaves the office for lunch, so I agree without reading too much into it. We sit down and he encourages me to order an alcoholic drink, despite not drinking alcohol himself. I decline and order water instead.

As I stutter in reply, he appendixes his question with a sexually suggestive hypothetical situation involving him and I on a bed.

Once we have ordered food, (I order soup, the cheapest thing on the menu), he launches into a peculiar and probing line of questioning. ‘What is the craziest thing you have ever done?’ he begins by asking. Very quickly, I realise the lunch holds more significance for him that it does for me. It is not often that this middle-aged man has lunch alone with a twenty-five year old woman, and his delight as this exclusive ‘access’ granted to him through the corporate world is thinly disguised. The personal questioning continues, culminating with him asking how I would define the nature of our relationship. As I stutter in reply, he appendixes his question with a sexually suggestive hypothetical situation involving him and I on a bed together.

I stop him in his tracks before he can go into any kind of detail. I tell him in no uncertain terms that he has crossed a line and that his behaviour is inappropriate. Half-heartedly he attempts to convince me that I have misunderstood him, but judging by the expression I am wearing he quickly realises the futility.

At age of twenty-five I have finally found my voice against male sexual harassment. I have learnt to use my feelings of discomfort as a barometer for inappropriate behaviour instead of setting the bar so low it requires non-consensual physical contact or even violence to be counted as ‘serious enough’.

When we finally leave he insists on paying for my meal despite my protests, claiming that he ‘earns four times my salary’. My purpose to stroke his male ego has been dispensed with. It disgusts me, yet still I say nothing (initially at least).

A warped sense of bodily autonomy

As a woman in the world, sexual harassment and sexual assault begins early in life. Growing up in Ireland is no exception. At a young age, sexual acts had little to do with mutual lust and desire and everything to do with individual power. Sex was never portrayed as a shared physical pleasure founded on consent and respect, but something to be given, taken, or preferably abstained from. This has dire consequences for its segregated youth, which highly sexualises the opposite gender from a young age while lacking a firm grasp of appropriate boundaries – an incendiary combination.

This bleak disparity between the treatment you deserve but the behaviour you are subjected to, fuels an immense internal conflict.

Although I appreciated the sacrosanctity of bodily autonomy, for years upon years I put up with the actions of boys and men that violated this. As a teenager growing up, the frequency of groping my friends and I were subjected to on nights out was so profuse we grew to accept it as normal (despite always knowing that it was wrong). This inappropriate touching we experienced at the hands of our peers appeared to be a non-issue, never discussed within the education system, by the state or by the media. There was never any encouragement to report such behaviour and so we simply learnt to put up with it.

This bleak disparity between the treatment you deserve but the behaviour you are subjected to, fuels an immense internal conflict. Added to this is the guilt and self-flagellation for staying quiet, which to the inner critic is perceived as silent acquiescence. Many times I wanted to shout stop!, but could never get the words out. I would be leered at, shouted at, or touched without consent, confined to silence by a perverse aversion towards causing offence. But more than anything, my silence was an act of preservation. My gender is a source of danger, and so fear lurks below the discomfort.

The hidden dangers of passive terminology in public discourse

The conversation surrounding sexual violence and harassment in the public sphere has, till now, predominantly been conducted using broad strokes. Nameless, faceless men are responsible for the violence against women. Sometimes men are not even part of the conversation. Sexual violence is described in passive terms such as ‘committed against women’, with the perpetrator omitted from the sentence entirely. Its implications are far from benign; because men are never seen to actively commit sexual assault it enables the shrugging off of responsibility and guilt, the turning of a blind eye.

Borne of unwillingness and ignorance, men fail to identify their own actions, or the actions of their peers, as harassment or assault. The man that grabs the ass will never describe his actions as ‘sexual assault’. This shelters men from viewing their own actions through the same lens as women, and so inappropriate behaviour continues, uncorrected.

There is one night I can recollect that clearly illustrates the unwillingness of men to classify their actions using legal terminology. I am at a music trying to escape a man who is continuing to touch me inappropriately from behind. Despite deliberately moving away to discourage him, he is not to be deterred. Seeing no other choice I am forced to detach myself from the crowd and so I join my group of girlfriends on the outskirts. Upon telling them what happened, the conversation turns to our individual past experiences of sexual violence.

Feminism and bodily autonomy were for him a brand, a form of social currency that might be borrowed to increase his appeal to the opposite sex.

Midway through, the same man whom I had sought to avoid attaches himself to the group. Without a hint of irony, he proffers an educated and seemingly enlightened spiel about the simply awful mistreatment of women at the hands of men. I stand there listening to him, hardly able to believe his gall. I wonder if I am being Punk’d. As I re-enter the crowd, I think to myself, his hypocrisy has at least one silver lining – I will finally be able to listen to the music in peace. But no! Lo and behold, he has taken up his position behind me once again, his roaming hands as active as ever.

It was a classic case of sexual assault unidentified from the male perspective. Lofty feminist declarations are no good on their own, and actively harmful if the contravene one’s own actions. It was painfully clear to me that he did not understand, nor care, about the meaning of his own words. Feminism and bodily autonomy were for him a brand, a form of social currency that might be borrowed to increase his appeal to the opposite sex. Examining his own actions with the measuring stick he produced with such a flourish was not something that served his own purpose. It would entail the curbing of his own behaviour around women, or worse, counting himself amongst the sleazy men he so eagerly rallied against – two things he was unwilling to do. But unless men are prepared to examine their own actions very, very carefully, nothing will change.

The Passive Bystander

In the numerous reports of sexual violence involving public figures, there are often three people involved: the victim, the perpetrator, and the invisible bystander. Regarding Weinstein in particular, a recurring theme in his victims’ accounts was that ‘everyone knew’ what was happening, but nonetheless said and did nothing.

The ubiquity of inappropriate sexual behaviour has led to its normalisation, which is further reinforced through the passivity of bystanders. At best this undermines the severity of the offending action; at worst, if self-defence is classed as an ‘over-reaction’, it censors the victim and hinders their ability to protect themselves.

I would be lying if I said my sense of bodily autonomy remained intact through all of these experiences….

In the early hours one morning I was standing in line of a fast food restaurant when a male behind me in the queue repeatedly cupped my ass cheek. I turn to throw him a dirty look but the cupping does not abate. In frustration I turn to my boyfriend at the time seeking intervention, but I might as well be talking to the wall. He is nonplussed and clearly thinks I am over-reacting. To shut me up more than anything else, he eventually throws a filthy look of his own. Coming from a fellow male, this time it has the desired effect. At long last the touching stops.

I would be lying if I said my sense of bodily autonomy remained intact through all of these experiences, if it had even been whole to begin with, but I am finally beginning to ‘unlearn’ the message that has been repeatedly impressed upon me, that my body is not my own.

One moment clearly illuminates my atrophied sense of physical boundary. I am standing in the queue of a club one night with two men, one a friend of mine, and the other a stranger. We are talking about tattoos, and when I mention I have one on my wrist the stranger grabs my hand and turns my arm over to take a look. My friend comments on this afterwards, describing the non-consensual action as ‘aggressive’. For a moment I am dumbfounded. I consider myself perceptive to breaches of personal dignity but I had not detected the aggression nor the lack of consent in the stranger’s handling of me. It disturbed me that I needed someone else to point it out.

Speaking out is our power!

In contrast to public discourse, when women talk privately about sexual assault the conversation is held in particulars – we ourselves are the objects. In safe spaces we lather salve on one other’s wounds, but we are careful to keep the stories within our inner circles.

In recent months, buoyed in large by the many brave women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful male figures, I have come to realise that as long as women continue have these conversations solely amongst ourselves, nothing will change.

While trauma is intrinsic in the aftermath of a shocking event, many of the fears (accusations of slander, career damage etc.) are man-made and therefore avoidable.

Reporting non-consensual sexual behaviour of any degree feels like a big deal when it shouldn’t. As someone that has stayed quiet on many occasions, but also reported incidences only to have the veracity of my statements challenged, or no charges brought at all, I understand why silence is easier.

Following sexual assault or harassment, a victim’s instinct is to retreat to safety. Reporting is the opposite of this, and the reliving of the incident through the retelling of intimate details to a stranger is often referred to as a ‘second victimisation’. While trauma is intrinsic in the aftermath of a shocking event, many of the fears (accusations of slander, career damage etc.) are man-made and therefore avoidable, but unless a culture of speaking out is actively fostered, in which women are listened to and believed, silence is often the simplest and most logical option.

This is how I felt in work as I continued to sit in close proximity every day to a man whose presence put me on edge. I thought about speaking to HR but mitigating factors stopped me: he was in a more senior and added more value to the firm than I did, and his comments weren’t severe enough to result in his dismissal so reporting the incident would likely do little besides exacerbate my grievance. The company’s stance on sexual harassment was never discussed, so I had no idea what I would potentially trigger by talking to the HR manager. A fear of the unknown and further loss of control over the situation stopped me. My contract was due to end shortly and so I decided to grin and bear it.

That was until a female friend of mine urged me to speak out. She said that similar patterns of lecherous behaviour were rife in her office, but as it was largely unreported the men continued unfettered.

It became obvious that by trying to protect myself I was protecting him too. By staying quiet I was perpetuating the false belief that my office was free from sexual harassment, which potentially put others at risk. For victims of sexual harassment and assault, our strength lies often in numbers rather than truth alone. In case he repeated similar patterns of behaviour with someone else, I was unwilling for it to be treated as an isolated event.

Thinking of all the men and women that had suffered sexual harassment in a workplace but were afraid to speak out, thinking of unknown people in my office who may have suffered harassment, or might in the future, I swallowed my fear and marched myself to HR.

By the time I walked out I felt a million times lighter!

The long reign of decorous silence is finally over.

If you don’t see colour or gender you’re probably a white male

“I only see people, I don’t see colour or gender.” I’ve heard it said countless times, a self-effacing testament to the speaker’s ability to see the true person unobscured by race, gender, sexuality or religion. With such decisiveness, they detach themselves from such bodily or social hindrances, and get to all the good stuff, the real stuff that makes us who we really are. Up until a while ago I would have counted myself amongst such people, but now I’m not too sure. The motivations of this sentiment are admirable, but I’ve been wondering lately whether it is little more than a fanciful ideal and an expression of privilege. Can we really unearth the unadorned personhood, shining in its glorious purity beneath the pressures and prejudices of the mortal world?

Identity is used to describe something outward, an external marker that makes us identifiable to others by prescribing us to a class of other beings. It aligns us with some and diverges us from others. Depending on the person and the form, it can make up who we are to greater or lesser degrees. In the case of a devout Christian for example, their religious belief will form a large part of their identity, perhaps even more so than other identity markers such as nationality.

Turning to social constructs such as gender or physical attributes such as skin colour or sex, it gets more complicated. They are on display for everyone to see and we have little choice in the matter. Of course we can chose to get gender reassignment surgery and choose our own gender, but even such cases are generally a matter of realigning the body with a predisposition. Either way, we are forced to identify as something. We cannot shed ourselves completely of these qualities and present ourselves as colourless, genderless or sexless people.

I think it is nice that someone wants to get to know the genderless, sexless, colourless and nationless Elly, but even I’m not sure who she is or whether she even exists. According to John Locke our personal identity is shaped by our conscious experiences and memory, so according to him there is no Elly minus my experiences as a white, Irish, female. She doesn’t exist!

This sidestepping of identity is most often evoked in situations when we are “getting around” one another’s difference. Other times, we embrace it; the sacred bond of female friendship, for example, is practically a religion it is so widely celebrated. Our femininity becomes a virtue we recognise in one another, that we reach out and grasp, and fuse it with our own.

In a world where much of our views are dictated to us, it would indeed be refreshing to start all our relationship in factory mode, to decide the perimeters of friendship completely fresh and free from judgment. Close relationships such as friendship are a safe space that allow us to see one another as equals, although we should not conflate this we thinking we are the same.

This lack of sameness is both natural and unnatural: natural in the sense that there are objective, bodily differences between people, and unnatural because most differences are superficial, derived by social structures.

The most pronounced natural and physical divergences are those that exist between man and woman. As a female I have different body parts. I am naturally slower and weaker. I menstruate each month and body holds within itself the possibility of carrying a child. No matter the kind of world we lived in we would be different, and our experiences of the world wouldn’t be the same.

However most of the differences, such as skin colour are superficial, and could easily be ignored. Others, such as sex, strength and disability could be accommodated for and mitigated. The world we live in, nevertheless, exacerbates these differences and makes them unnatural in the process. Depending on the situation, my femininity becomes either a weakness or a strength. My skin colour gives me an advantage. My sexuality makes me ‘normal’.

I think this urge for identity blindness comes from a place of seeking to restore the natural equality that exists between every human but which society has disturbed. This disturbance adds an extra layer to relationships of every kind, from brief interactions to enduring friendships. It creates an initial ballast of uncertainty between two people that are other, a fear of unacceptance engendered by society’s debate of your differences. It turns everyone into a potential homophobe, racist, sexist or bigot.

In some cases the layer of uncertainty barely exists. We flock to people, places, settings & communities where we can leave this burden of uncertainty at the door. For most people it is burden we never asked to carry, while others wear it with pride

And still I do not feel that identity blindness is the answer. Not in the world we live in right now.

It is denying reality, so much of it unfair and unnecessary, but reality nonetheless. My black friends have a different experience in the world because of their skin colour. They create communities around their blackness. It is something we should be curious about and strive to learn more. We should attempt to understand one another’s issues and extend a helping hand. We need to know what makes us different as much as we need to know what makes us the same.

Campaign for Government Approval of Orkambi: “They are putting a price on our child’s lives.”

15354128_10209739695242387_1360940305_o Campaigners gathered today outside the Dáil in efforts to suede the government to approve cystic fibrosis treating drug ‘Orkambi’.

The NCPE (National Centre for Pharmeconomics) has recommended the government not to approve the drug as it does not represent value for money.

Vertex, the pharmaceuticals company manufacturing the drug are currently charging €160,000 per patient annually, while the National Pharmaceutical Agency has valued the drug at €30,000 per annum.

The final decision rests with Minister for Health Simon Harris who will receive a recommendation from the HSE, but a report in the Sunday Business Post indicated that the HSE would not recommend funding the drug.

Significant impediments blocking approval of the drug are its hefty price tag and gaps in its effectiveness. Professor Michael Barry of the NCPE said Orkambi would only work on about 25% of patients.

“You’re being asked to pay a really high price for a drug which won’t work in a lot of people,” he said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has indicated that the government would be willing to approve the drug if Vertex were willing to come down on the initially quoted price, but it does not appear as if they are willing to do so.

Lisa McMahon from Cork was protesting outside the Dáil today in the hope that Orkambi will be approved. She has two children between the ages of five and four, who are diagnosed with a mutation of Cystic Fibrosis that will respond to the drug Orkambi.

Cystic Fibrosis is a progressive disease causing lung function deterioration as well as affecting the pancreas and other organs. There is no cure but Orkambi has proven as an effective treatment in some cases.

Lisa believes that access to the drug would result in a significant improvement in the lives of her children that would reduce hospital admissions, increase lung function and ultimately let them “lead a normal life.”

Vertex has approved the use of Orkambi for patients from the age of twelve onwards.

According to Lisa some people in Ireland diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis are receiving Orkambi on a “compassionate” basis.

McMahon and her family as well as other sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis face a situation in which they are being denied the only hope of live saving treatment due to a dispute over money. Ireland is also the country with the highest instances per capita of Cystic Fibrosis worldwide.

“They are putting a price on our kid’s lives.”

“They are forgetting there are people in the middle, and some of these people are dying.”

However it should be acknowledged that in England and Australia funding for Orkambi was rejected for similar reasons. Vertex has indicated that it believes Germany will be the only European country to contribute to sales in 2016.

Taoiseach Entreats Irish Families to Talk about Porn

While making an appearance at the launch of a new helpline for the victims of crime, Taoiseach Enda Kenny called for there to be a discussion about the ‘corruption’ of young people of Ireland due to their exposure to porn. In a country where open discussions of sex are limited to sex-ed classes and tend to follow the strain of thinking that abstinence is the best, his move is a bold one.

With the burgeoning adulthood of those who grew up with unlimited access to the internet, the corrupting effects of porn on young people has emerged as a contentious social issue in recent years. Describing pornography as ‘ubiquitous and damaging’, Kenny called for a national conversation on the issue and said it would form part of the government’s up-coming agenda.

It pains me to say that the internet and porn are practically synonymous, but porn has consistently been the most searched word since, well, the conception of the internet itself. The ubiquity of porn is undeniable. In fact, my very first experience of the internet involved porn when, as a naive eight-year-old I typed “girls” into the Google search bar and was greeted with an onslaught of naked female pictures. While I managed to recover from the trauma, the hyper-sexualisation of men and women in porn has left an indelible mark on young people today due to its influence on what is considered normative sexual practise. The Taoiseach himself made reference to the contorted depiction of sexual behaviour in porn, which risks becoming normalised in the minds of impressionable youths.

Bringing the topic of sexual education so unabashedly into the public consciousness is an unprecedented move amongst high-ranking political figures in Ireland. I applaud the Taoiseach for his outspokenness, he raises a valid point, and his sentiment for a ‘more caring’ Ireland is touching. I am curious to see what, if anything, will happen on the back of his instigation. Banning pornography is certainly not the answer and is almost one hundred percent not possible either. As long as teachers and parents continue to talk about sex like it is not something to be enjoyed, the internet will continue to be a fountain of misinformed knowledge for the Irish youth.

Will the Taoiseach share his own refined and less deviant ‘lad magazines’ that he mentioned from back in the day? Will the topic of pornography be elevated to the status legitimate dinner-conversation? Or will the country go down the well-tread road it usually does whenever we encounter something we don’t like…absolute prohibition.

An Irish Millennial’s Reaction to President Trump: I’m Scared

I woke up this morning to a stream of news notifications flashing on my phone, each bringing me closer to the reality that has come to pass: Donald Trump is president.

The running joke that has been the US Presidential elections has come to a close. Like a tightly wound Jack-in-the-box everyone was taken by surprise when the grinning clown sprung up, including those pushing the handle.

I’m not going to lie, the teeniest tiniest bit of me wanted Trump to win just to see what happened. Not because I actually wanted Trump to win but out of morbid curiosity, like a child sticking their hand in the fire.

My all-female friend Whatsapp group was buzzing this fateful morning. Needless to say, everyone was terrified. Friends based in New York reported multiple instances of people crying. They had friends so petrified by the result they couldn’t eat.

From my position in Ireland I have seen most of the election through the lens of parody, reality TV gone wrong. Oh crazy ‘ol America, there she goes again. She’ll get it together in the end. They’ll vote Clinton and we’ll tell our kids about the time a tangerine tycoon was nearly president.

This Can’t be Real

It was easy to pretend things weren’t really so bad when you get all your information through the media. America has always possessed a surreal quality, an extremity so cartoonish and at odds with Ireland it didn’t seem real.

The election and its build up fed this perception even further. To think that this hated-filled, licentious character, wholly unprepared for the role of President was ever a viable candidate was shocking in itself.

Trump’s escalation to power as he usurped his numerous challengers with ease elicited the correct responses: disbelief and dismay. But the sorry affair was treated with the levity of a TV show. With facetious SNL caricatures, sensationalist articles and comic debates dominating the media, the line between parody and reality became blurred.

Conversations became dominated by superlatives and words soon lost their meaning. Revelations of sexual assault and rape charges were almost expected. The ‘October surprise’ became a daily affair. ‘Unprecedented’ was the buzz-word of the campaign.Amid the complacency of the political elite Trump lay his insidious seed and paved his way to the White House.

6,500 km away with no voting power I could only watch on the sidelines as the nastiness unfolded.

America’s Saving Grace

Although Hilary Clinton was easily the better candidate there was an indelible question mark hanging over her. Amid smear campaigns and a continuous barrage of corruption allegations, it became hard to decipher the truth. By virtue of her womanhood she faced unjust scrutiny and her character was tarnished. But where prejudice ended and her character began became a difficult line to decipher.

This is the saving grace for Americans. You were lied to, toyed with, your fears and emotions played upon. This is the source of my compassion for Trump voters.

While the election evidenced the sorry state of American politics, I was always sure that Hillary would win. The frustration of Americans may have unleashed itself in a torrent misogynistic, bigoted and racist abuse far worse than previously imagined, but the circus act had to end somewhere. ‘President Trump’ seemed such a fictitious character he simply didn’t hold in our minds as a person of truth.

Visceral Fear

When I read the victory announcement on my phone it was like watching the final episode of sordid drama. When I gossiped on Whatsapp it was entertaining. It wasn’t until I spoke to my grandmother that I felt something real.

She uttered the words ‘We don’t know what is going to happen’, and my stomach dropped. I felt fear. Real gut-wrenching, bodily fear. Any thoughts of entertainment withered. For the first time during the whole election my brain and my heart connected and I had a visceral understanding of the trouble we are all in. Trump’s victory marks the first irreversible notch on the course of world history since this whole mess began. There is no more pretending.

I am scared.
I am scared, not for myself, but for the minority groups in America who are waking up this morning wondering if they should flee the country and in fear of their own safety.I am scared for the women of America, whose hopes of a female President are dashed and in its place a misogynistic pig accused of child rape.
I am scared for Muslims, abhorrently singled out by Trump and used as a scapegoat for terrorism.
I am scared for the Clinton supporters, who feel alienated from their fellow countrymen and even members of their own family. Their nation is now divided.

I was so sure Hillary was going to win and in that certainty I felt comfort. With Trump elected the future holds uncertainty, and in the unknown there is fear.

Will the saga continue next election? Trump v Kanye?

At this stage, anything is possible.