The idea is to get politicians to prove that they are against hate speech, says Memet Uludag, the national chairperson for United Against Racism.
At the weekend, his group invited politicians to take an election pledge against racism, challenging them to commit to rejecting racist and xenophobic language ahead of votes later in local and European elections later this year.
“What we are saying is act on the speech or statement you make and show us in reality that you are actually following up on your promises,” says Uludag.
Some have already signed up, some say they will. One councillor questioned whether focusing on language risks ignoring structural and institutional racism — and how racism works in societies.
Racism, he says, “is a poison”. It creates divisions and scapegoats people for problems that are actually the responsibility of the system.
“Migrants are not responsible for all the many deficiencies in our public services, they’re not responsible for problems related to unemployment, it’s the responsibility of the system, the bankers, the developers,” he said.
Pat Dunne, Crumlin-Kimmage councillor with Independents 4 Change, says he too “certainly would” make the pledge. “We should all be working together to ensure we have a society that provides for everybody.”
Uludag said last Friday, less than a week after the launch of the pledge, that United Against Racism had received initial responses from almost every political party “bar one or two”.
The pledge itself reads as follows: “We the undersigned political parties and candidates pledge that in the coming elections we reject racism and all attempts to appeal to racist ideas and sentiments.
“In particular we reject any attempts to target the Traveller Community or migrants, refugees and asylum seekers or to scapegoat them in relation to housing, health and other social problems.”
Not every councillor is on board with the idea of a pledge. “I think it’s really strange to sign a pledge saying you won’t be a racist. I think it’s an excessively low bar,” says North Inner-City Councillor Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats.
Committing to the pledge might let those who still use harmful language “off the hook”, he says.
They can point to how they made this pledge as a way to excuse their behaviour, he says. Take 2018 presidential candidate Peter Casey, who made derogatory anti-Traveller comments last October. “Peter Casey says, ‘I’m not a racist, but … ’,” says Gannon.
Uludag says Casey’s comments were part of what motivated them to organise the pledge. “The presidential election discourse was a wake-up call for most of us because at the national level there was racist campaigning by a guy who didn’t even have a chance of winning.”
“It is an accumulation of these examples,” he says, citing a mayoral candidate in Limerick who made xenophobic comments in 2017.
There are limits in focusing on language only though, says Gannon. “I want to have a broader discussion about what it means not to engage not only in casual racism but also structural racism,” he said.
“There’s no point in saying we’re not going to be racist when we’re probably going to be engaging in a system that has structural inequality built into it. I don’t want to be tokenistic. I don’t want to just say I’m not going to be a racist,” says Gannon.
Sending a Message
Not all councillors responded to queries about whether they were on board with the pledge. But some did.
“I think often people running for election put out messages to their supporters that could come across as being racist and I think, particularly looking at vulnerable groups in Irish society, it’s important that such messages are killed at birth,” says Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe. He’s already made the pledge, he says.
Says Sinn Féin Cabra-Finglas Councillor Seamus McGrattan: “I think anyone holding any public office should declare before they’re going in, that that’s their views, there’s no room for that in any life, least of all a public life. I think it should be the standard.”
Uludag says that targeting vulnerable groups during elections is an opportunistic move with short-term benefits. In other words, votes.
“But,” he says, “history has shown us that bringing division and hatred to politics and targeting individual groups based on whatever the issue may be ultimately affects the entire community and it doesn’t do anything good for others either.”