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Varadkar: 'Racism too is a virus... We don't need to look across the Atlantic to find racism'

The Taoiseach today spoke at length about racism at home and abroad in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said we’ve witnessed “the absence of moral leadership or words of understanding, comfort or healing from whence they should have come” in the United States in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests over the past week. 

He said the world had watched “in horror” at the events in the US in recent days, and said that “racism too is a virus… [that is] never easy to cure”. 

In a speech in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said we “don’t have to look across the Atlantic [Ocean] to find racism”, and said we have “many examples in our own country”. 

He said that the country had come together in the fight against Covid-19, and said that same sense of community would be needed to take on racism in this country to change the experiences of young people of colour in Ireland “for the better”. 

George Floyd killing

The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis has caused an outpouring of anger and protests around the world. 

There have been scenes of looting and violence in some parts of the US in the wake of the killing, and US President Donald Trump was widely criticised for tweeting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” last week.

He has since claimed he will send the army in to quell protests, and his former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said last night he was trying to “divide” America

In Ireland, a Black Lives Matter protest was attended by thousands in Dublin on Monday, and a further protest is planned this weekend

Speaking in the Dáil today, the Taoiseach said there’d been a “palpable outpouring of emotion” since Floyd’s killing.

He said: “We’ve also seen genuine revulsion of the heavy handed response [in the US] in some instances, towards peaceful protesters and journalists. And we’ve witnessed the absence of moral leadership, or words of understanding comfort or healing from whence they should have come.

It is right to be angered by injustice. Racism too is a virus, transmitted at an early age, perpetuated by prejudice, sustained by systems. Often not recognised by those it infects. Possible to counteract and correct for, but never easy to cure.

Irish experiences

The Taoiseach then turned to his own experiences, and those of others, in Ireland and said that racism is not unique to the United States.

“The Ireland I grew up is a very different place to the one that we live in today,” he said. “In recent decades we’ve been enriched by racial diversity, people of colour who came here, and more were born here.”

He said we’re “fortunate” to have a policing model based on consent, with strict gun control and a highly professional police force in An Garda Síochána we can be “proud of”. 

“However, we don’t need to look across the Atlantic to find racism,” Varadkar said. “We have many examples in our own country. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour is pernicious. Sometimes it’s overt discrimination when it comes to getting a job or promotion or being treated less favourably by public authorities, including sometimes government officials.

Sometimes it manifests itself in the form of hate speech online, bullying in school, name calling in the streets, or even acts of violence. Sometimes it’s almost innocent and unknowing, and all the more insidious. Little things, small but nonetheless othering.
Being asked where do you come from originally, because your skin or surname looks out of place. How often you go back to the country that your mother or father was born in? Being spoken to more slowly. Cultural and character assumptions made based on your appearance. Being made to feel just that little bit less Irish than everyone else.

Varadkar said that “sadly this is lived experience for many young people of colour growing up in Ireland today”. 

He said a strong sense of community had helped the country during the Covid-19 crisis, and this would be needed to help take on racism and change the experiences of young people of colour in Ireland for the better. 

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“We can learn from the mistakes of other countries,” he said. “And make sure that we do not follow their path or be subject to their fate.”

‘We too need to do our bit’

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald agreed with the Taoiseach that racism was a global problem, and said “we too need to do our bit”. 

In the Dáil, she said anyone within the Irish system that decries racism but fails to “dismantle the disgraceful, discredit system of Direct Provision is no good at all”. 

McDonald said such talk was also not acceptable when “open, blatant discrimination” is still present against the Travelling community. 

“We have the diagnosis, now we need the treatment,” she said. “The ball is in our court. What do we do? That’s what the death of George Floyd asks of us.”

On the issue of Direct Provision, Varadkar said he accepts that some accommodation is “substandard” but it was “ultimately a service provided by the State”. 

He also said that Direct Provision is “not the same thing” as a man being killed by police, as in the case of George Floyd. 

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Sean Murray

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