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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Kilkenny mosque debate 'This could become dangerous. Tensions could escalate'
This week I wished I lived in Ballaghadareen and not in Kilkenny, writes Malcolm Noonan.

WHAT WOULD HUBERT Butler make of his native Kilkenny in the week that has passed? In 1941, our internationally celebrated humanitarian and essayist wrote: ‘We must create some social organism to overcome the barriers between ourselves.’

I have no doubt that Butler would be outraged by the scenes which took place in O Loughlin Gaels GAA Club last week when proposals to build a mosque in the town, sparked an outpouring of hate against the Islamic community who have lived here for decades.

At the same time as events unfolded in Kilkenny, the town of Ballaghadereen was also in the headlines on a theme of integration, but was being celebrated at the People of the Year Awards for welcoming Syrian refugees.

In the news for the wrong reasons

This week I wished I lived in Ballaghadareen and not in Kilkenny. My hometown – ‘the creative heart of Ireland’ – was all over the news and social media for the wrong reasons.

I know in my heart that the hate speech directed at the local Islamic community both at the meeting and online is not reflective of Kilkenny. We have been outward looking and welcoming for centuries. We are home to three times Oscar nominated Cartoon Saloon, lots of creative enterprises, children from all nationalities joining our GAA clubs. So many people have settled here and call this place home.

Unfortunately though what happened in Kilkenny last week is not atypical. Integration NGOs are reporting a marked rise in hate speech, hate crime and incitement to hatred all over the State.

With only a handful of convictions for hate crime since the Incitement to Hatred Act was enacted in 1989 and at a time when much vitriol towards minorities including Travellers is vented through social media, it’s time for ‘fit for purpose’ hate crime legislation.

Hate crime legislation

In the absence of such legislation, unregulated offensive commentary continues unabated.

Perhaps some people forgot themselves, boundaries were blurred and they took it for granted that the hate that so freely spews from their fingertips could be articulated verbally without fear of sanction. Or maybe it is simply just fear: fear of the unknown and fear through a lack of information.

With no facilitator or participative structure to the meeting fear was exploited by a small number of people present with a hate agenda. Everyone lost: the local Islamic community, the residents with genuine concerns regarding a development in the area and the people of Kilkenny.

Leadership was lacking in the room that night. Now we look like some backwater. Inward investment, tourism and third-level college ambitions took a dent.

This could become dangerous

The uncomfortable reality however is that in an Ireland where the gap between rich and poor is widening, where individualism is the goal over the common good and where battles for resources - housing and health in particular – are becoming acute, fear becomes more pronounced and embeds itself in our collective imagination.

This could become dangerous. Words are hurtful but tensions could escalate into something more sinister. Government and local authorities need to ramp up investment in education and awareness, in establishing Integration Forums and developing community led integration strategies.

Church and religious leaders could work together to lead community conversations on interfaith, tolerance, diversity and respect. We also need robust hate crime legislation and to make a collective and collaborative commitment that we will not tolerate hate speech in any form, on any forum at any time.

Finally we must arm ourselves with knowledge and understanding. Compassion, friendships and empathy will follow. But most of all we should not let those with hate in their hearts exploit our fear for their own agenda, perhaps they were afraid at one time too.

Malcolm Noonan is a Green Party Councillor in Kilkenny and is Party Spokesperson for Rural, Community Affairs and Local Government. As Mayor of Kilkenny, he helped establish and chaired Kilkenny Integration Forum.

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