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 It sat in a folder with other unpublished articles I had written, a digital purgatory until I finally got round to paying my WordPress subscription.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.