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'From the moment a hate crime is reported, the hate element is filtered out by the system'

Grace Tierney of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is living in the US through lockdown and witnessing the Black Lives Matter protest. She says Ireland must ask itself the hard questions.

Grace Tierney

SINCE THE KILLING of George Floyd last month, cities across the United States and the world over have erupted into a protest with a clear message: enough is enough. The racism and discrimination that have endured for so long will no longer be tolerated. Here in the US where I grew up and am working from home, we have reached boiling point. 

In Ireland, where I live normally, we can feel somehow immune against these twin plagues. But minority groups in Ireland, such as the Traveller community and people living in Direct Provision, are at the sharp end of the persistent inequality within Irish society. 

The US demonstrations are not happening in a vacuum; images of protesters demonstrating while wearing facemasks are a reminder of the wider context of our times. The potential criminalisation of solidarity protests in Dublin reminds us that Ireland is not immune.

Covid-19 discriminates

These protests are occurring during a deadly global pandemic – one that has disproportionately affected minority groups in the US and in Ireland; a direct result of the entrenched inequalities that affect the lives of vulnerable and minority groups every day.

At the beginning of lockdown, many remarked that this pandemic was the great equaliser – that it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, if you caught Covid-19, it would not discriminate. We now know that this is not true. Evidence emerging from the US and UK suggests the disease affects some minority communities more than others.

Proper access to sanitation and space to socially distance is key to combating the spread of the disease and not all communities have the same access.  Many have also remarked that society and the economy have been paused. But racism, discrimination, and inequality do not have pause buttons.

Racism and intolerance are key obstacles to meaningful equality in Irish society. Covid-19 has presented unprecedented peacetime challenges to human rights like the rights to liberty and free movement, but also exciting opportunities to address longstanding structural inequalities in areas such as housing, poverty, and refugee and minority rights. 

The specific gaps and weaknesses in Ireland’s legislative response to hate crime are a key sticking point in effectively tackling racism and discrimination in the country.

Ireland has among the highest rates of hate crime against people of African background and transgender people in the EU, but no laws to address it. In Ireland from the moment a hate crime is reported, the hate element is filtered out by the system. This makes it impossible for victims of hate crimes to get the justice that they deserve. 

During the February 2020 general election, every major party in Ireland committed to outlawing hate crime. Slowly and quietly in the background of everything else going on, a government is forming. We must all hold those in power to the promises that they have made. 

Covid-19 and race issues

A particular black mark on Ireland’s response to Covid-19 has been its treatment of people in congregated settings, like those in Direct Provision centres. Of significant concern were the reports from the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen that people had been locked into the centre with padlocks on gates. Lack of proper cleaning following an outbreak of Covid-19 within the centre and mishandling of transfers caused significant trauma for residents. 

We don’t yet fully understand the extent to which Covid-19 has affected people in these settings, but it has served to highlight again the fact that the Direct Provision system is failing asylum seekers in Ireland.

It facilitates a range of human rights violations, including the right to dignity; to work; to education; to health; to private and family life; and to justice. We must end it. A post-Covid Ireland working toward justice, freedom, and equality is one where newcomers who arrive at our shores fleeing danger are housed with dignity.  

Racism has a particularly Irish flavour when we think of the Traveller community. There were serious concerns about basic sanitation at halting sites when the pandemic began. It’s simply not acceptable that there are people without sufficient access to running water in our country. Overcrowding also made it difficult to observe social distancing. County councils for years have not provided proper facilities. 

Black Lives Matter bringing change

This is a turning point in history. While those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so are at home following public health guidelines and keeping safe, we must think about the issues that have been laid bare in recent months.

Is this really who we want to be? We must use this time to decide what kind of a world we all want to inhabit in the post-Covid era. 

This emergency period has seen a number of positive changes – ones that we were previously told were not possible. Ireland, for now, has a single-tiered healthcare system, increased social welfare payments, and a ban on evictions.

These are just a few of the positive measures that could be extended after the emergency period is over; it’s up to us to ensure that they do. We get to choose what Ireland looks like going forward – that’s the beauty of a democratic society.

American author, poet, and activist Cleo Wade said: ‘The voice within you that says “this is not okay” is a direct call from the basic goodness of your spirit.’

We must all now listen to that voice, stand up, and move forward toward progress. 

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Grace Tierney is the Funding Development Officer at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. She is currently working from home in Maryland, US.

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