Racism is not a matter of manners

29th October 1999

Graham Geraghty’s infamous insult in Australia wasn’t all that bad. Many footballers suffer worse insults every weekend which don’t amount to international incidents. His sin was that he attached a general insult to his opponent’s racial identity.

The whole episode tells us a lot about the issue of racism and particularly middle class attitudes to the problem. Our woolly-headed right-on commentators fell over each other trying to get Geraghty hung out to dry in order to atone for our society’s sins.

Their fake liberalism was exposed for what it is. Some wanted him to be sent home in disgrace with no thought for the consequences for him or his reputation. Geraghty made a mistake (a relatively small one) but our avenging liberal heroes wanted him to be made an example of so that the rest of us would learn a bitter lesson.

This is, as I say, fake liberalism but it is also a travesty of the fight against racism. It has turned a matter of human rights and dignity into a matter of manners.

Racial prejudice is no worse than any other form of prejudice. It isn’t worse to be refused a job because you are black than if you are female or a Traveller or if your address is Dolphin’s Barn.

When I worked on a building site in London I was told that the company would not employ blokes from Dublin or Belfast. Dubs, you see, couldn’t be trusted to turn up in time in the morning and were a bit more bolshie about overtime and safety.

And right enough, I never met anyone from Dublin on the site. Without a doubt Dubliners would have come to the site office to ask for a start (a huge number of Irish did in those days). Faced with a Dublin accent what did the foreman do? “‘No work today, lads”. Imagine the humiliation and frustration that such a refusal engenders.

Somehow I can’t see the liberal set getting as worked up over something like this. Essentially racism is a question of fairness. It matters only because a huge number of people are disadvantaged by it. It doesn’t matter simply because it looks bad.

Wrapped up in the ideology of political correctness is the idea that language contributes to the general attitudes of society. Maybe so. But it is more likely that language reflects social attitudes. Changing language won’t necessarily change realities.

You can read all the papers and listen to all the politicians and you won’t hear the word ‘knacker’ used when talking about Travellers. At the same time Travellers are living up back roads without refuse collections, without sewage, in conditions reminiscent of Third World slums and with the life expectancy to match. Still, as long as we’re nice about them.

Racism is going to become a big issue in Dublin. We’re going to have a multi-racial city and its not all due to asylum seekers and refugees. There are already a wide variety of races in the EU and all have the right to live and work in Ireland. Dublin is one of the most prosperous cities in the EU and will attract migrants of all shapes and sizes.

If we go down the route of the Geraghty incident we will be concentrating on the trivialities instead of the substance of the issue. We must ensure that everyone is treated fairly in this new city. This will not be achieved by posing political correctness tests.

The new Dublin will be a diverse place, not only of peoples and races but also of opinions and attitudes. Not everyone who feels a bit grumpy about the changes and the newcomers is a racist. A little bit of humanity and compassion is called for all round.

© Niall Gormley