I don’t have a vote in the forthcoming general election in Ireland. (Actually, I have a vote for the Senate but that doesn’t really count). I’ve lived outside the Republic for over 20 years. I have a general idea of the issues and a rough idea of where the parties stand on them, but I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Little that results will have any effect on me. But there is one thing that bothers me.
In September 2002, at a private function in Buswell’s Hotel, Enda Kenny – leader of the Fine Gael party and almost certain to be the next Taoiseach of Ireland – told a story about himself and two colleagues. They were on holiday in Portugal and ended up one evening the only inhabitants of a bar, with a Moroccan bartender. According to the Irish Independent,
Mr Kenny recalled that the barman had “shiny teeth” and that Mr Manning had spotted the name of one of the cocktails on the drinks menu was a ‘Lumumba’. [He] took this to be a reference to Patrice Lumumba, the African Nationalist leader and first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, assassinated in 1961.
He raised this with the barman who, according to Mr Kenny, replied that Lumumba was “some nigger who was killed dans la guerre ” (in the war). The anecdote fell flat in front of an embarrassed audience and Mr Kenny added quickly that it was “not a racist story”.
Three times, it appears, Kenny insisted that he did not want to see reports of this in the newspapers. “Journalists from daily newspapers and radio and television,” the article went on, “dutifully complied with this request.”
Word eventually leaked out and aspokesperson for the party insisted that the word had been taken completely out of context. It turned out that several members of Lumumba’s family were living in Ireland having fled from persecution, and were naturally upset at the remarks. The Fine Gael leader eventually was forced to issue an abject apology: “the fact is that I used the word and no context excuses it. I failed to exemplify my own standards and the standards of a party absolutely committed to diversity. I am sorry.”
The fuss quickly died down. That was nearly a decade ago, it was acknowledged as an error, and the use of the word makes clear that it was quoted from another person rather than chosen by the speaker himself. Politicians in Britain and the US have had to resign in such situations; Ireland is different – perhaps because race is less of an issue, though not by much. Irish voters seem not to have been much concerned about the incident. But it still bothers me.
What is it about it that troubles me? The ‘shiny teeth’. The fact that, in the cosy world of Irish politics, journalists were willing to keep quiet about it. But most of all I wonder what was supposed to be funny? From what I can see, the punchline was that a dark-skinned African – with shiny teeth – described another dark-skinned African as ‘a nigger’. I am not sure why that would be a surprise. Maybe our parliamentary representatives were genuinely unaware that ethnic minorities sometimes make racist remarks about other ethnic minorities.
The problem here is not a slip of the tongue; it is a state of mind. The sort of provincial anecdote that sees foreigners as funny, and has a tin ear for racial stereotypes. We have had decades of this kind of thinking and only now Irish people are waking up to the reality. The present government’s gross incompetence has tossed the likely leadership of the country into the lap of a man who shows no sign of ability to handle it.
Like I said, I don’t have a vote in the election. All the signs are that Fine Gael will emerge as the largest party and Enda Kenny as the next Taoiseach in February. In March, the new Taoiseach will get to visit the United States and present President Barack Obama with a bunch of shamrock on behalf of the Irish people.
I just hope he doesn’t tell any jokes.