Editorial – Will the government actually make racists in Ireland feel ‘uncomfortable’ as the UN suggested?

United Nations Headquarters in Geneva

Over the last week the Irish government has faced the ire of the United Nations (UN). As part of a regular review of member states, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has been meeting with representatives of the government to discuss the levels of racism and discrimination that exist here. But for at least the last year, activists and NGOs have been sounding the alarm about the sharp increase in racist rhetoric being spread on social media and in daily life in Ireland. 

They’ve also been trying to highlight the fact that in some cases rhetoric has turned into action, with two hotels earmarked for asylum seekers suffering arson attacks. Of course the role of the far right in this almost goes without saying. Where racism exists the far right thrives. Most of this went unheeded by officialdom. But it appears that a tipping point of sorts has been reached. And as a result, the level of racism that we know exists in Ireland can no longer be ignored. 

CERD apparently agrees. It took the government to task for its failure to deal with racism directed at the Traveller and Roma communities. CERD also took note of Ireland’s laws on hate speech. Given their inadequacy, the committee called on the government to properly “criminalise” hate speech once and for all. Verene Shepherd, the UN Rapporteur on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Ireland called for more, saying

I encourage you to take all steps necessary to make racists feel uncomfortable in your country

Shepherd also took aim at the gardaí, saying “rogue members” of the organisation must be likewise targeted. 

She is not the first person to raise the issue of racism within the gardaí. A spokesperson for the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) had previously explained to The Beacon that

They don’t respond to ethnic minorities appropriately with regard to racist, homophobic, or any other kind of attack.

The gardaí, he went on to say, suffer from the existence of a “racist culture” within its ranks. 

Shepherd’s comments are rather, sadly so, uncontroversial then. Further evidence of this can be seen in events that took place today, Sunday 8 December. As reported by End Deportations Belfast on its Facebook page, gardaí boarded a bus travelling over the border between the North and the Republic. According to the organisation, gardaí

simply made straight for a southern European looking passenger and insisted on their ID then removed other passengers without ID who looked Middle Eastern.

 This is nothing new. Reports of similar raids are commonplace these days, especially since the Brexit referendum. 

Problems like that are not an easy fix. The public consultation on the proposed updating of the hate speech laws is a positive development. But it’s nothing in comparison to a complete structural overhaul of how our national police force deals with racism. Add in the structural racism directed at the Travelling and Roma community over the last few decades and you can begin to imagine the scale of the problem. 

In a case like this the government is, at the very least, likely to continue to baulk at its responsibilities. Conversely, the updating of the hate speech laws is a relatively easy fix compared to structural reforms within government departments. Given this, it’s incumbent on us to not allow the government an easy PR win if it does update our hate speech laws. 

People’s lives and well-being depends on all of us ensuring that the government takes its responsibilities seriously for once. To allow the racist status quo to continue just cedes more ground to extremists from where they will continue to operate and spread their hate. Instead, as Verene Shepherd suggested, they must be made to feel “uncomfortable”. 

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Cayla