THE horrific death of George Floyd at the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis in May sparked mass protests worldwide, and a new and historic awakening of people of all ethnicities to the problem of racism.
Here in Ireland, it shone a light on the uncomfortable reality of racism in our country and the discrimination that happens on our shores every single day.
While we have become a more diverse society, we have not always been, and still struggle to be, tolerant of difference.
In the weeks that followed Floyd’s death, across social media, and on Instagram in particular, young black people and people of colour shared their experiences of racism in Ireland and their perspectives on a society in which racial issues are often unspoken.
These powerful testimonies on social media have culminated in a strong anti-racism movement in Ireland, both online and on the ground, with young people to the fore.
We now have a generation of young people who realise the power they have to enact social change and who intuitively embody active citizenship to bring this change about. A generation who refuse to stay in the shadows of Ireland’s racist legacies, but are actively pushing towards a more inclusive society rooted in the values of empathy, solidarity and respect.
In recent weeks, the continuation of these efforts has proved vital in the context of videos circulating on social media depicting deplorable racist attacks, such as the incident in which a woman was racially abused before being pushed into the Royal Canal by a group of youths.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated events. The number of racist incidents reported across the country has more than doubled in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period last year, according to the latest figures released by the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR). Their report concludes that these figures represent only the tip of the iceberg, as racist attacks are significantly under-reported in Ireland.
The aggressors involved may be a very small proportion of society, but as citizens, we must reject racism wherever and whenever we see it. While we have an individual responsibility to call out racism as we witness it, the State itself must provide greater leadership.
Incredibly, in Ireland, there is currently no specific law to deal with attacks which are motivated by prejudice — including racism, homophobia, misogyny or transphobia.
This lack of legislation against hate crime leaves Ireland lagging behind other EU states and is not reflective of our views on such attacks. Introducing hate crime legislation would send out a strong message that we value an inclusive society, where crimes committed based on a victim’s identity are not tolerated.
It is equally imperative that we do not treat racism in Ireland as a patchwork of individual isolated incidents. Rather, we need to recognise racism as a structural and institutional problem: one that permeates through the Direct Provision system and in our treatment of the Traveller community and other minority groups.
Over the past 20 years, we have seen a growing population of asylum-seekers and refugees in Ireland, but with no obvious bridges to the general public. Where those social bridges don’t exist and a vacuum emerges, a circulation of fear and mistrust emerges.
Understanding the immense power sport has to unite different social groups, the Sanctuary Runners was established in Cork in February, 2018, by feature writer and broadcaster Graham Clifford and photographer Clare Keogh.
The Sanctuary Runners is a running group which enables Irish residents to run alongside, and in solidarity with, asylum seekers and refugees in Direct Provision. The movement has rapidly grown around Ireland to 22 different locations and now has more than 2,000 members.
Up until the pandemic began, every Saturday morning, I met up with the group in Ballincollig to run and afterwards have a cup of coffee together. As well as fostering some great friendships, the group has allowed me to become informed about Direct Provision and help tackle the misconceptions and, often, irrational fears about others which can develop when this kind of respectful interaction doesn’t take place on a regular basis.
The labels of citizen, asylum-seeker or refugee disappear once we put on the blue Sanctuary Runners top. The Sanctuary Runners, as a movement is not political and protest is not part of what we do. The ethos of the group is more about building bridges across society, to create a community of diverse people united by a love of running, coffee and conversation. A community where we celebrate all that we have in common rather than be divided by difference. One where solidarity, friendship and respect dictate how we treat one another. One where we see the person rather than the labels that can distort reality.
The ongoing pandemic has tested the bonds of community and solidarity in Ireland and has shown that they are strong.
We now need to harness this pride in who we are as a society, to challenge those who try to sow division and grow hatred. Our Céad Míle Fáilte must not falter.