Despite a rise of serious racial attacks, authorities in Ireland are still in denial about racism.
The events of the last month have been sobering for anti racism and social justice in Ireland. On 22 February two young Polish workers Marius Szwajkos and Pawel Kalite, who had been in Ireland for just a year, were savagely attacked by a group of youths in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh and both died from their horrific wounds. All reports have described the men as ‘quiet and hard-working’. The attack happened on a Saturday evening at around six o’clock when the men were going to buy food. Accounts are still hazy but it appears they were asked to buy alcohol by a group of teenagers and when they refused an altercation took place. Most chillingly one of the group seems to have gone to deliberately fetch a weapon – a screwdriver – and subsequently stabbed the men, one in the head and one in the neck.
The family of one of the victims has said they will never be sure if the fatal attack was racially motivated. Several youths have been questioned by police about the murder, but, so far, only one has been charged. In the days after the death of the two men a fund was set up for their families by concerned local people and a vigil was also held. In the anguished debates that have followed, the problems of youth crime, ‘hooliganism’, underage drinking and the soul of the Irish people have been discussed, but racism, as a motive, was quickly dismissed. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern, who was on a state visit to Poland at the time, vociferously condemned the murders which, he said, ‘had nothing to do with the fact that they were Poles’. Given that Polish workers are one of the biggest groups of migrant workers in Ireland, numbering up to 200,000, it must have been important to settle any disquiet. Equally the Polish ambassador has been anxious not to impute a racist motive to the attacks.
However Cida Jeangros, a Brazilian woman, who was assaulted on 14 March, is doubtful. She was attacked, knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked by a group of teenagers at 11.30 pm as she was walking home in the Summerhill area of Dublin. The fate of the two Poles was very much in her mind as she was attacked. She doesn’t want to walkalone on the streets anymore and a number of her friends and colleagues have been verbally abusedand another Brazilian friend also attacked. Ali Bracken wrote in the Sunday Tribune, ‘The recent murder of two young Polish men in Dublin brought back painful memories for fellow Pole Kazik Anhalt, who was seriously injured when he was stabbed in the back several times with a screwdriver four years ago.’ His problem was that when he spoke English, his accent got him head-butted in the face. He got stabbed in the back with a screwdriver, spent three days recovering in Tallaght Hospital, was interviewed by gardai but nothing ever happened beyond a few cursory interviews. ‘That kind of follow-up by authorities encourages foreign nationals to keep their head down and not make trouble.'
Lack of political will
Yet the official statistics still paint a picture of Ireland as a place with low levels of racist crime. However whilst there is an acknowledgement that the legislative framework is inadequate, the political will to instigate meaningful change has been woefully lacking. Some impetus has been given by the fact that these inadequacies were highlighted bythe response of the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Committee also highlighted concerns about policing in general. In its summary it referred to the Ionann report by a group of consultants: ‘The Committee invites the State party to include in its next periodic report data on the number of complaints against members of the police concerning discriminatory treatment as well as on the decisions adopted. It further recommends that the State party intensify its sensitisation efforts among law enforcement officials, including the setting up of an effective monitoring mechanism to carry out investigations into allegations of racially motivated police conduct.'
In the 2005 research report on institutional racism, Amnesty Irish section and the Irish Human Rights Centre called for action on effective sanctions for hate crimes: ‘Take immediate action to review the effectiveness of sanctions for perpetrators and redress for victims in cases of racial discrimination. This should include measures to strengthen legislation and improve access to remedies, judicial or otherwise, in addition to measures taken at institutional level.
The lack of effective accountability for racial discrimination may actually lead to an increase in human rights abuses of minority ethnic communities. The State must have effective sanctions against hate crimes, including hate speech and breaches of equality law in order to ensure respect for the law.'
In the course of the ten key years, 1997 to 2007, Ireland has gone from beginning a debate on racism to practically erasing the word from its collective vocabulary. There was first a recognition and acknowledgement of racism in Irish society through the media public debate and the European Year against Racism and a high profile campaign by Amnesty International Irish section in 2001. However it is extraordinary how even the word racism has disappeared from the public debate, now superseded by supposedly more innocuous buzzwords like interculturalism’ and ‘integration’. The government’s national Action Plan Against Racism, which ends its current phase in 2008, carries the strapline ‘planning for diversity‘.
Under-reporting of attacks
Amnesty Irish section produced the first ever report on the experience of Black and other minorities in Ireland highlighting the fact that 79 per cent had experienced racist abuse. (There had been multiple studies of Irish attitudes towards others but, tellingly, little data on the actual experience of minorities.) The survey interrogated the relatively low figures for racist offences and consequently Amnesty mounted a campaign calling for leadership against racism and for the repeal of the inadequate Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989; better reporting mechanisms and training for garda .The Act is still in place and has been under review for the last seven years. As part of the Irish government’s National Action Plan Against Racism (NPAR), a new research study is being undertaken by Professor Dermot Walsh and Jennifer Schweppe, both of the Centre for Criminal Justice, University of Limerick, to ascertain whether Irish criminal law is sufficient to deal with racist crime in Ireland.
The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism has also called for a more comprehensive report on racially motivated crime to be published each year that provides some analysis arising out of statistics.
There have been some improvements in the way the police deal with racist crime including the setting up of the Garda Racial and Intercultural Unit but the experience of NGOs working on the ground indicates that the discrepancy between low crime figures and convictions is a story complicated by lack of trust and a under-reporting of racist crimes and attacks. It seems that some convictions have been successful under public order legislation but then are not recorded as racially aggravated, thus contributing to the under-reporting phenomenon. It is not just a question of lack of adequate legislative redress. It is the ambivalent attitude to racism displayed by Irish politicians and figures of influence. Judges and local councillors can get away with overtly racist comments and there is very little protest, never mind demands for their resignation.
Institutionalising racism through citizenship
In the broader political context, the introduction of changes to citizenship and immigration status have sent out negative messages and introduced punitive measures.The Irish Government hastily organised a referendum on 11 June 2004 to radically change the basis of citizenship from jus solis to jus sanguinis (citizenship by birth in a country to citizenship by descent) with the inclusion of a new Article 9. Under that Article, only those born in Ireland to at least one Irish national parent, will acquire citizenship. Approximately 80 per cent of the electorate voted in support of the government’s proposals and Irish citizenship was changed through the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 2004.
The proposed Immigration and Residence Bill that is currently being debated also contains drastic measures and curtailment of rights for migrants. With a silence that is shameful, the majority ofIrish political leaders have reverted to a state of denial about the pernicious effects of racism and hate crimes, allowing a vacuum to develop where alienated young people can vent their rage on minorities who have come to stand as the symbols and scapegoats for everything those left behind by the ‘Celtic Tiger’ have not achieved during Ireland’s boom years.