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The neighbours from hell
In the same week that an Amnesty International report highlighted the alarming incidence of RACISM in Ireland, NIALL STOKES offers one eye-witness example of just how unwelcoming this country can be. Additional reporting: PHIL UDELL
Niall Stokes, 13 Sep 2001
A new survey of ethnic minority views in Ireland shows that 80% have experienced racism in this country.
The survey, published last week by Amnesty International, was the first large-scale survey of its kind and its alarming findings led Amnesty's Irish head, Sean Love, [pictured above] to observe: "Racism clearly already has a foothold in Ireland and continuing complacency simply invites trouble."
The survey of 622 people was conducted by FAQ Research for presentation by Amnesty International to the UN World Conference on Racism - an event which was itself beset by sometimes fierce divisions on the Middle East, slavery and colonialism.
The Irish survey polled black Irish, Africans, Asians, Europeans and Travellers, mainly in Dublin. Seventy-nine percent said that they had experienced racism or discrimination, while more than 80% disagreed with the statement, "Racism is not a serious problem in Ireland today".
Twenty-five percent said they had experienced racism from Gardaí, 20% from employers and 19.5% from neighbours. More than 44% of racist experiences occurred on the street, 24% in shops and 23% in pubs. Racist attitudes were also encountered in banks, schools, churches, buses and taxis and from councils, housing and tax authorities.
For many people, the survey, though deeply disturbing, merely provides formal confirmation of what they already knew, either through direct experience, hearsay or everyday observation. It happens at bus stops, it happens in the streets, it happens on the football field – and it happens in the public parks that should provide a sanctuary for anyone and everyone who wants to walk, jog or boot a ball around in a spirit of fun and comradeship.
On a given Tuesday night at the tail end of August, Bushy Park in Terenure in Dublin is a maelstrom of activity, with dozens of different individuals, players and teams swarming around the place training, playing seven-a-side matches, jogging, pucking a hurling ball back and forth, tossing frisbees, walking an extraordinary variety of dogs and so on. At times it resembles a Brughel painting, complete with the fella over behind the tree having a piss.
A couple of weeks back, the hotpress Munchengladbach squad went for a spot of pre-season training there. It was a good night, with lots of action in the park and in particular a bunch of soccer teams readying themselves for the new season.
There was one game in progress that featured about twenty blokes of oriental appearance, who were giving it loads in the appropriate spirit of park football. Their game had been in progress for over half an hour when they were approached by the park ranger.
From a short distance, it was obvious that something was afoot. Their game gradually broke down, as more of the participants went over to where the ranger was holding forth. Shortly afterwards, a police car arrived, driving across the pitches to get a close look. The Corporation’s park wardens also pulled up in their van. The gardaí took one look at the situation, and disappeared before they could be drawn into it. Smart boys.
A confusing fifteen minutes ensued. The hotpress players were approached first by one of the wardens, who asked were we with a team, and also did we have a permit? The answers were yes and no, respectively – and the warden went on to ask the group of players next to us the same thing.
We were then approached by the park ranger, who told us that we couldn’t play there unless we had a permit. We said that we had been playing there for years and had never been asked for a permit before. The park ranger told us that he had a problem with what he described as "the Chinese nationals" playing in his park – and if he stopped them playing because they didn’t have a permit, then he had to stop anyone else who didn’t have a permit as well.
The guys were, in fact, from China. Over here studying English, they hoped to make it a regular feature of their social interaction that they would have a game of ball together. They were in no doubt that they had been singled out in the first place because of their racial origin. Their initial reaction was one of anger. They took down the address of the Dublin Corporation Head Office and said that they intended to go in there with a solicitor the following day to make an official complaint.
The park wardens who were on the scene were obviously embarrassed by what was taking place. In fact, the letter of the by-law is that people can be prevented from playing football if they don’t have a permit to play on a particular pitch. However, the wardens were aware that this rule was seldom if ever invoked, unless there was a direct conflict with a team that needed to use their pitch for an official match.
On the night, one of the wardens confided, not one among the groups that were approached in the immediate vicinity had permits. They all said that it had never been an issue before for any of them. That made sense: in all my time going to Bushy Park over the years, I had never seen anyone being asked for a permit before – and there are literally hundreds of unofficial games that go on there, especially during the summer.
In fact it was only because of the insistence of his colleagues – that if the rule about permits was to be applied to the Chinese students then it would have to be applied to everyone else – that we and the rest of the footballers were approached at all. The wardens had done the right thing. The evening was messed up for a lot of people. But at least the Chinese students were not alone in being disrupted.
The students never did make their complaint. Instead, they resolved to get a permit – whether they will be successful in that endeavour remains to be seen. But it is deeply dispiriting to see the insidious way in which people are made to feel unwelcome here, in such naked close-up.
You can look at this and think that it’s a trivial incident – but it isn’t. It is the very essence of racism that the man with the badge selects those that he will exert his authority over because of the colour of their skin. And the grim fact is that this kind of thing is going on, all the time, in Ireland at the moment.
One of the young Chinese students, Nick, who speaks fluent English said that he likes living in Dublin – that generally he finds it a friendly place. Except, he said, for the children. They are the ones who point and shout and call you names.
The future is looking bright, eh?