The roots and realities of racism in Irish society

By Manus Lenihan and Myriam Poizat

Mass protests of young and working-class people have spread across the US in a call for #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. Led by black youth, the multi-racial movement has spread across all states and has already forced authorities to charge the police officers involved in the racist murder of George Floyd. But these protests are now reaching further, putting the whole system on trial, demanding that #BlackLivesMatter, and condemning all injustices, oppression and inequality. 

The protests have drawn solidarity from across the world, with 50,000 marching in Vienna last week. In the south of Ireland, 1 June saw 5,000 march in Dublin. The next weekend,  5 and 6 June saw safe and disciplined – but angry and determined – protests in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Dingle and Monaghan, and at the US embassy despite threats of prosecution from the Gardaí. A feature of these events was black Irish youth taking to the streets like never before to express their outrage at the racist state murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

Opposition to racism in Ireland

Why are so many young people protesting over events that happened so far away? One major reason is that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has tapped into the real-life experiences of young people of colour in the south of Ireland, who feel like their challenge to racism can finally be heard, and who are demanding that their own daily experiences be taken seriously. 

The issue of racism and racist oppression in capitalist Ireland has been kept quiet for a long time. The BLM movement has given confidence to young and working-class people of colour and oppressed groups to speak up on the untold and unchallenged racism in this country towards people of colour, refugees, migrants and Travellers. This horrendous state racism is imposed by a system which perpetuates Direct Provision, deportations and a general lack of investment in public services for all. This, in turn, creates an environment for racism to be stoked up in society in the form harassment and abuse in the streets, schools and workplaces, as well ethnic groups such as the Travelling community being barred from pubs and hotels. 

Last September, a report conducted by the Fundamental Right Agency found that 17% of those who are people of colour suffered racism in their workplace because of their background, a third of those suffered surveyed faced discrimination because of their skin colour and that black people are three times more likely to experience discrimination in access to public services. 

Many young people of colour have given testament to the racism that they have experienced in their daily lives. An example of such a powerful testament was given by in a recent article anti-racism activist Diane Ihirwe. She described how: 

“When that son was eight years old, when he still believed in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, he was told by another child at school that ‘black people don’t amount to anything’. He was told black people aren’t loved. 

He has been called the n-word.

In those 11 years (between having my son and talking to him recently about black and white), I’ve had my windscreen smashed, my windows broken, eggs thrown at my car, the n-word scrawled on my door.” (1)

A recent joint statement by various Traveller groups in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and Ireland is indicative of the mood and demand for action to the end systemic racism that they and others have suffered:  

As Travellers, we have long since been exposed to anti-Traveller racism in Ireland and elsewhere. We call on the incoming government to act immediately to address the discriminations, including structural racism, experienced by Black communities here and by many others including Travellers and Roma.

The time for action is now. (2)

“Progressive” Irish establishment unmasked

In recent years, with marriage equality passed and the 8th Amendment repealed, the Irish ruling class have milked the opportunity to present themselves as modern, liberal and progressive. Yet, when the protests around BLM emerged, the government tried to break them down by framing the protests as unsafe during the pandemic. However, young and working-class people of colour especially, who finally got a space to voice their real life experiences, were not ready to be silenced and were ready to defy the government. 

If businesses can open in the interest of profit with no real health and safety measure for their workers, why can’t people protest safely outdoors? To defend his popularity, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar therefore tweeted a response to the killing of George Floyd that superficially made all the right noises. But it was a hollow and meaningless gesture, particularly given his own record on racism. In 2008, Varadkar proposed that unemployed migrants should be paid to leave the country. (3) This was a profound insult and attack, scapegoating people from migrant backgrounds for the economic crisis, just to grab headlines and boost his own career.

The European Union also likes to promote a progressive and anti-racist image. In reality, “Fortress Europe” has committed terrible violence on refugees. The Mediterranean Sea is the most deadly migration route in the world, with 19,000 drowning between 2013 and 2019 alone. (4) This is a policy supported by successive governments here. Shamefully in October 2019, MEPs from Fine Gael voted against measures to enhance rescue operations for migrants making this perilous crossing. 

The vile racism of the far right is also a real danger of which we must be vigilant. The antics of racists like Gemma O’Doherty and the protests and arson attacks related to refugee accommodation, all point to a violent fringe whose activity has stepped up a gear since the election of Trump. More broadly, such figures can often be emboldened by the racism of the Irish capitalist state and its political establishment. It’s important to note that the desire for real change in the recent election did not benefit these forces and support for the main capitalist parties reached an all time low. This reflected, albeit in an inchoate manner, a desire for left-wing change on the part of working-class people, particularly working-class youth. 

A racists state and establishment 

The Irish state has a long history of oppressing different racial and ethnic groups that exists to this day. Just this year, the segregation, profiling and identity theft of non-white children in mother and baby homes came to light. Rosemary Adasar, a person of colour and a survivor of this racist abuse, aptly pointed out how the state and the Catholic Church fostered racist stereotypes and prejudices: 

“If you think about it, where would Irish people get that level of racism? They got the racism from the Roman Catholic Church, and their missionaries and their penny for the bloody black babies and images of savagery and fear.” (5)

The Catholic Church, alongside other Christian churches, both in Ireland and globally, helped promote the imperialist and racist idea of “the white man’s burden” and of the supposed need to bring “Christian civilisation” to the “dark continents” of Africa and Asia. This was a historic justification for colonialism and imperialism. Hence the racist and paternalistic idea of supposedly helping the “black babies” referenced by Adasar. Even though Ireland was historically a country colonised by imperialism, the political representatives of the emerging Catholic capitalist and big farmer class were largely supporters of the British Empire, as long as they gained limited self-government within it. In doing so, they invariably embraced the racist ideology of white supremacy that was part and parcel of imperialism. Many of their offspring also participated in the direct maintenance of imperialist rule, in colonial service in India, for example. The most notorious example of this was Michael O’Dwyer from Tipperary, Governor General of the Punjab in India, who was responsible for the horrific massacre of Amritsar, where 379 unarmed Indians were killed for protesting against imperialist repression. 

Travellers are an ethnic group, only recognised as such by the state in 2015, who have experienced racism at the hands of the southern Irish state. Travellers were institutionalised in mother and baby homes at a disproportionately high rate, were barred from academic subjects in schools and were the victims of racist abuse by those in authority. In the early 1960s, the Irish government – in a report written in consultation with big farmers, business interests and the Church – disgracefully talked of finding a “final solution” to the “itinerant problem”. The report went on to inform the thinking of the state in the decades to come, the strategy of which was to isolate Travellers on the edges of towns and cities in substandard accommodation. (6)

All the main establishment parties have engaged in racist comments in recent history, albeit in a more subtle form, in order to garner votes in elections. A notable example of this was Josepha Madigan, whose 2014 local election leaflet said that spending on Traveller accommodation was “a waste of valuable resources”.  Today, councils up and down the country leave Traveller accommodation funding unspent year after year. 

Racist practices are routinely carried out by the state apparatus in the South, such as deporting those fleeing poverty and persecution. Last year, there was a 45% increase in deportations. In 2004, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both supported the 27th amendment to the constitution, denying citizenship to children of migrants born in Ireland. Those in power still defend the brutal Direct Provision system. Thousands of people are forced to live locked out of society for years – in overcrowded facilities on less than €20 a week; with no driving allowed; restrictions on work and study; no cooking facilities and therefore no access to the food they used to eat; and without enough respect paid to cultural dietary restrictions, such as Muslims not eating pork. The cost of Direct Provision last year was likely over €120 million – money directly into the pockets of private contractors who cut corners with food and facilities.

Racism in the education system 

Three thousand people have signed a petition online calling for more books by people of colour to be added to the school curriculum, and more petitions in support of including Black History in our education system are popping up. There is a lack of real education and awareness around racism in schools. For example, there is little to nothing about Traveller culture or history. This is unsurprising, as the vast majority of schools are run on a conservative Catholic ethos, which has been strongly linked with the Irish state. 

While there are countless inspiring stories of solidarity – staff and students taking initiatives against racism or standing together against deportations – there is a lot of racist abuse and discrimination behind closed doors. Examples which are bubbling to the surface online now include some teachers and management giving out to black students, using language like “ghetto,” “slum,” “gang,” “monkeys”, and racial profiling being used to stream classes. 

This discrimination comes not just from individuals who have bad attitudes. It has come from school management; from Gardaí in the street; from bosses in the workplace.

Racism and capitalism 

Why are the establishment so embedded in this injustice? The answer is that racism and capitalism go hand-in-hand. The recent BLM protests have correctly turned their attention to the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and the racism that was used to justify this. Both of these crimes were essential to the development of capitalism and its racist legacy remains deeply entrenched within the society it has built. 

Under capitalism, a small number of people, most of them white and male, own and control the resources, investing only for profit. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $149 billion, in stark contrast to the precarious and low-paid jobs disproportionately done by people of colour in the US – including Amazon’s own predominantly black, Latinx and Asian labour force. (7) 

The powerful and wealthy can get away with discriminating, and they have every incentive to do so. Fostering racist division and prejudices only helps maintain their class rule. Migrant women are often frontline workers in healthcare, hospitality and retail, on low pay and precarious conditions. The vulnerability of these workers equals more profits for the huge agencies that employ them. Many landlords refuse to rent to migrants or people of colour. When young people look for jobs, the most damaging discrimination can happen without a single word being spoken: “[Racism is] knowing we could get skipped over when employers are looking at CVs because of our last name.” (8) Bosses and landlords can, out of sheer bigotry, refuse to deal with people of colour. Then those who have jobs or housing often feel lucky and keep their heads down, meaning rent, conditions or pay get even worse. 

Housing and jobs for all 

The state would rather pour endless resources into Direct Provision and deportations than invest in social housing and properly funded public services for all. They would rather see people of different races fighting over scraps than see us all taking a seat at the table. The capitalist politicians always play the poor mouth when it comes to health, housing, etc. In reality, there are plenty of resources to provide jobs, homes and services for all. The €14.3 billion unpaid tax from Apple is just the tip of the iceberg.

There is a real anger and frustration on the part of working-class people about the absence of adequate and affordable housing in our society and the disgraceful lack of funding for education, health and other public services. All working-class people, particularly with the onset of a new economic crisis, are struggling and will increasingly struggle to make ends meet. We should not allow ourselves to be pitted against one another for the scarce resources the system is willing to provide. The disgusting attempts to scapegoat vulnerable refugees and migrants by right-wing politicians for the failures of their capitalist system must be rejected. We must build a mass movement based on solidarity and struggle of all working-class people to fight for public homes on public land, a one-tier public health service that is free at the point of use, and for public investment to fund jobs with decent wages for all. 

Fighting racism with solidarity

There are countless examples of mass struggle by oppressed people and interracial solidarity pushing back and challenging racist discrimination, starting with what is happening now in Ireland, where racism is finally being spoken of, where powerful statements have been made around the need to challenge state racism and the reality of racism in our schools, streets and workplaces. It is the start of a conversation and people’s attitudes being challenged, rallying alongside young and working-class people of colour across the country.

In the current protests in the US, bus drivers have refused to transport cops or arrested protestors. This is an example of how socialists and trade unionists can build vital solidarity with oppressed people fighting racism. Two examples from the south of Ireland further illustrate this point. 

Dunnes Stores workers in Dublin went on strike in 1984, refusing to handle South African goods as a protest against apartheid. These 11 workers were met with condescending sneers from the media, then brutal violence and vile racist abuse from the Gardaí. But they stood firm on the picket lines and won the dispute with the aid of socialists such as Nimrod Sejake, a political exile from South Africa and member of the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) and Labour Youth, which was at the time under the leadership of Militant. The former Dunnes Stores strikers were invited to the funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2013.

In 2005, a dramatic strike unfolded in Ireland. Turkish construction workers employed by a corporation called Gama were on criminal pay and conditions, sleeping in barracks on-site, working 80 to 90 hours a week, and being paid €2.30 an hour. Aided by the Socialist Party, the Gama workers went on strike and, against the odds, won. This was a victory for all workers in Ireland because an attempt to undermine pay was defeated. The active and latent support from Irish working-class people was crucial to winning this strike and putting pressure on the company and the state to concede to the workers’ demands. This support was reciprocated in 2017, where the favour was returned in a moving gesture of solidarity: the former Gama strikers donated the remainder of their strike fund to the Jobstown Not Guilty campaign.

Clearly, people of all class backgrounds, including workers, can fall prey to racist ideas. But workers as a social class have a vested interest in fighting racism. Regardless of background, we live in the same areas, we use the same public services, we share the same workplaces, schools, colleges and trade unions. A majority in society, those who work by hand or by brain, are exploited in this system by a small circle of big business interests. This system employs every kind of prejudice and bigotry to profit and to divide workers – racism, but also sexism, LGBTQI+ phobia, and many other forms of oppression. The lived experience of working-class people being exploited in the name of profit, and fighting back, forges solidarity and can overcome prejudice. 

In the last five years in Ireland, we witnessed the victories for marriage equality, repeal of the 8th amendment and the winning of abortion access up to 12 weeks on request. The winning of these gains did not come from as a result of the generosity of the capitalist establishment. Ultimately, they were driven by a grassroots movement of the working-class and young people for progressive change and to affirm the rights of LGBTQI+ people and women. There are, of course, real prejudices that are the by-product of capitalist society – racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, that impact on the outlook of working class people, that must be challenged and cannot be ignored. These events, however, are inspiring examples of how a movement of solidarity against oppression can be built, encompassing working-class people from all backgrounds.

Radical socialist change

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton said: 

“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best ; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism […] with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.”

Socialism means taking the major industries and resources out of the hands of a handful of rich people and putting them under public control, run by elected representatives of workers of all races, religions and nationalities. This would obviously not solve racism in the short term. But investing on the basis of need and democratic decisions, instead of private profit, would allow us to begin correcting the historic crimes against people of colour and undermine the social roots of racial prejudice. 

The BLM protests have exposed the ugly face of capitalism, how it affects working-class people of colour far more brutally. With the murders of George Floyd and others, the outrage against racist state violence directed at people of colour, youth and workers has again exploded to the surface. The fight-back has risen to a new level, demanding an end not just to murderous oppression, but all injustices and inequalities. 

These protests have shaken the US and the world. The sustained and global nature of the movement, the blows it has struck against the prestige of the armed forces of US capitalism, are truly remarkable. This shows that it is possible to build a mass movement of the youth, the oppressed and the working class to challenge capitalism, to pose a socialist alternative and to end all forms of inequality and oppression.

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