Is Ireland a racist country? This is a question that has been asked frequently over the last few months, and it raised its head once again this week with reports that gardai are investigating “vile and horrific racist abuse” on social media platforms aimed at Republic of Ireland underage soccer players. 

This followed news that League of Ireland players in Kerry were also subjected to racial abuse, leading to a statement by the Kerry Football Club that condemned “discrimination in football and will not tolerate any form of hate towards any of our players or staff.”

All of this coming in the week that further protests against the accommodation of asylum seekers took place in Mullingar and the government finally announced a new five-year plan to tackle racism, the first such plan in 15 years.

Ireland's population is ethnically varied, with different minority ethnic groups making up about 15 percent of the population according to the 2016 census.  This compares with six percent in 2002. 

Both the percentage and the number of Irish citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds significantly increased in recent years, and estimates for 2021 show a further jump in the number of people who are not Irish.

There is a plethora of different laws currently in place that protect against racial discrimination. The issue is also covered by EU directives.

However, they will only act as a deterrent if properly enforced. 

A case in point that garnered lots of publicity was that of Arsenal and England legendry soccer player Ian Wright who was sent racially abusive messages on Instagram in 2020 and threatened with death through Covid by a native of Tralee, Co. Kerry. 

After a garda investigation the matter ended up in court but the individual, despite pleading guilty, was given probation and walked free from the court. This led Wright to say prophetically, “Seeing this judgment, I can only wonder what deterrent there is for anyone else who spouts this kind of vile racist abuse.”

If stronger action had been taken then, would the current controversy in Kerry have taken place?

The question of objections to the placement of refugees in rural locations is a more problematic one.  Placing up to 100 males in locations with non-existent infrastructure is always bound to raise questions. 

With a lack of schools, health facilities, and jobs, gardai will constantly have a problem as scarce resources are spread more thinly. In truth, you cannot place large numbers of people from abroad into a village in rural Ireland without considering the effects of it. 

However, it is how these issues are dealt with, or not dealt with, that has given rise to allegations of racism and allowed the far right to get a foothold in communities as they are only too happy to exploit people’s fears. 

Whenever objections are raised, a variety of spokespersons, usually from non-governmental organizations but also from the government, are trotted out to accuse local communities of alarmism and racism. Consequently, those with legitimate concerns about the government’s handling of the refugee crisis are afraid of being labeled as racist if they voice their opinions. 

The vacuum created by their silence has been filled by those with a more sinister motive who fabricate stories and false claims, all with racist undertones that in many cases spread virally through social media. 

Frankly, we struggle to have a grown-up debate on this, and as concerns go unaddressed it allows the agency tasked with housing refugees and asylum seekers, the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS), to ride roughshod over local people. 

There is a real argument to be made that the most prejudiced in society are those living in the leafy, well healed, suburbs in south Dublin who per head of population have accepted among the least amount of refugees and asylum seekers.

Those who have experience in working in communities that have taken people are clear as to the best way forward.  A conference in Maynooth organized by the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) called on the authorities to “include the local community more in planning direct provision centers and create more ‘safe spaces’ for local communities to mobilize and discuss issues.”

But there is racism in Ireland, and the INAR publishes an annual report on the level of incidents in the country.  The most recent publication published in 2022 shows an increase in occurrences over previous years. 

There were 600 reports received from the public about racism which included 223 reports about criminal offenses. Assault rates, mainly by strangers, remained high.

Indeed, one such assault reached the courts in December of last year when a teenage boy was found guilty of attacking and racially abusing a Chinese woman and pushing her into a canal in Dublin.  Much like the case in Kerry, the guilty party avoided jail, yet another indication from our judiciary that racism is not considered a serious crime. 

Among other findings in that report was that while businesses and service providers were the most common perpetrators of discrimination, there were also complaints in the public sector including five cases of discrimination by GP surgeries, three reports of discriminatory conduct by the garda, and nine complaints against bus drivers. 

Education is also included on the list as there were 10 cases that described incidents in education across primary, secondary, and third-level, including one case in preschool and three cases in higher education.  

This ties in with a more recent survey among international students which showed that 40 percent of respondents had encountered racism here.  This happened in the classroom, among fellow students, and in seeking accommodation. 

That then is the background against which the government strategy to combat racism was published.  It is ambitious in scope, but then so are so many government plans that are sitting gathering dust on shelves across Dublin. 

Covering areas such as protecting people from racist incidents and crimes, addressing inequalities, and enabling minority participation as well as research into the impacts of racism, the plan needs two things to succeed and make a difference: buy-in and budget.  Without both, it is dead in the water.

To get the former the government needs to show that they are listening to people and accepting the concerns of genuine citizens that want the best for their communities, which in most circumstances will include welcoming displaced refugees into their towns and villages.  Goodwill works both ways.

To return to the opening question, is Ireland racist? I don’t believe it is, certainly not any more than our neighbors in the U.K. or further afield. 

Where racism does occur, it needs to be rooted out and people need to be informed and educated, not by those pontificating and virtue signaling from high positions of power, but by their peers, colleagues, family, and friends. 

I leave the last word to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who has in the past spoken eloquently about being biracial. Speaking of Ireland he said, “A lot of racism isn’t malicious, it’s just that people aren’t clued in and don’t understand these things.”