Racism in the Irish Experience
Steve Garner, Racism in the Irish Experience, London, Pluto, 2004, £16.99, ISBN 07453 1996 3
'She never let them in, he cried again through his laughter'. So the unctuous Mr Deasy in James Joyce's Ulysses answers his own question, explaining why Ireland is the only country 'which never persecuted the Jews'. Joyce, ahead of the game as ever, shows Mr Deasy's prejudice to be mere ignorance, in the shape of Leopold Bloom, son of a Hungarian, Jewish refugee. And Ulysses also reminds us that Bloom's Jewishness rarely goes unnoticed by those supposedly non-persecuting fellow Irishmen around him.
Deasy's joke relies on an erasure of racial difference in Ireland which has as long a history as the immigrants it forgets. It's a forgetfulness which was particularly important to the calcification of 'Irishness' at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Ulysses is set. The 'revival' of Irish cultural nationalism in the fin de siecle and after eagerly took part in the inherently racialised ideas of nation which were embedded in European thinking at the time. And so the Irish, outside and inside Ireland, came to be thought of as a 'race', with all the dubious benefits of collectivity that bestows, and all the allergic responses to other 'races' which are dragged along with it.
A century after the fictitious events of Ulysses, and in the midst of celebrations of the novel, the Irish Government's slapdash referendum on citizenship rights suggests that the self-denial parodied by Deasy's joke is still in operation. The whole framework of the state is being changed in response to the 'threat' from 'citizenship tourists' who apparently come to Ireland to have their children, and thus to claim EU citizenship. The numbers, it turns out, are tiny, but the 'threat' is understood as substantive. Throughout the debate no political party dared to say the real truth - that racism, of an institutionalised, quietistic, self-denying kind, is at the heart of this disproportionate response. The 'offence' caused by the new immigrants, both legal and 'illegal' is partly an economic one, where the poor of the third world have the temerity to want to use first world resources to have their children, but it is also a visceral and bodily repulsion at the idea of what the charity collectors used to describe as 'black babies', being born in Dublin. As Garner succinctly puts it towards the end of his book, 'it is clear that one of the functions of racism is the control of bodies'. For an Irish state that went through the pain of referenda on abortion, the X case, child abuse by clerics and the scandals of infected blood products in the last decades, the citizenship referendum was just another twist in the incapable anxiety of a state seeking to regulate the bodies of its citizens, and most often those, including women, asylum-seekers and refugees, whose bodies are at once vulnerable and threatening.
Steve Garner's Racism in the Irish Experience is then what is usually called a 'timely' book. Garner's sociological analysis is the most thorough yet of the history of racism in the Irish consciousness, and in its final chapters brings a fresh clarity to thinking on the 'new racism' in contemporary Ireland. Recent writings on racism in Ireland have, in often radical or at least well-meaning ways, hedged around the possibility that Ireland, as a western nation, and for all its colonial history, may be an inevitably racialised, maybe even racist, entity. Garner, quoting Rathzel, suggests that 'racism cannot be fought adequately within the nation state'. In Ireland the nation, the state which represents nationality, and most of all the nationalism which lead to the formation of the Irish state, are still imagined as radical entities. The single-handed overthrow of the might of the British Empire is an Irish national story yet capable of surfacing in the midst of cosmopolitan Europeanness, as if to separate out the Irish experience from the less laudable histories of continental Europe, and indeed Britain. Yet this hides what all nationalisms depend on a necessity to define themselves against Others and aliens, and a historic structure in doing so which assumes that skin colour and cultural difference equals definitive alterity.
Garner has little patience for any residual belief that nationalism, or at least the state, can offer a real agenda for anti-racism. His anti-essentialist reasoning argues that 'race' itself is not a real category of analysis, but rather a way in which singular identities have been constructed, in defiance of a world which only ever offers multiple, fluid and above all migrant identities. 'Race' then becomes a fetishised fixity in the midst of change, and as Garner reminds us, 'race' as an essential category of identity is an idea which has developed in relatively recent times. It's on this argument that Garner is able to say genuinely new things about the forms of anti-racism which can be effective, since he implicates much of what passes for anti-racist thinking, especially in Ireland, as itself buying into the idea that racial differences are visible, immutable and permanent.
To get to this point Garner has to tread carefully. One of the recurrent and persistent tropes of recent discussions of race in Ireland is that those who despair of the 'new racism' which rose with the Celtic Tiger counter racism in Ireland with what Garner calls the 'historical duty' argument. Ireland's diasporic history, its long experience of migration, is used to tick off those Irish who now exhibit a lack of charity towards those whose diasporas cast them onto Irish shores. In two painstakingly thorough chapters Garner examines the history of anti-Irish racism in the United States and in Britain, and his conclusion is not surprisingly that here too it can be seen that 'race' is a shifting concept. He reminds us how the Irish in the US existed on both sides of the boundaries of racial prejudice, discriminating and discriminated against; how the Irish were at once colonised by the British and yet, individually and sometimes more collectively, took an active part in the worst atrocities of the British empire. In discussing this latter, Garner implicitly dismisses those arguments about Irish racism which circle back to blame the British empire, or even the Irish diaspora, for the importation of racism into Ireland - as if 'Ireland' itself, whatever it is, could not possibly be contaminated with such foreign and unpalatable beliefs. It is possible, Garner says, to have anti-semitism in a country without Jews, though he reminds us of the more or less constant and centuries-long Jewish presence in Ireland.
It is however when he discusses the 'new racism' that Garner's book makes its most important interventions in a debate which is otherwise in danger of collapsing under the weight of a liberal decency. When the Irish left Ireland during the Famine they were, as Garner points out, what could now feasibly be classed as economic migrants - and yet in the contemporary Western world 'economic migrancy', an effect entirely created by the logic of globalised Western capital, is seen not only as illegitimate but almost criminal. In Irish discussion of race there has been something much worse than diaspora amnesia - there is a wilful and 'racist' ignoring of the many types of immigration which are happening in the wake of the Celtic Tiger. There is a continual lack of distinction between asylum-seekers, refugees and 'legal' non-national workers, shoving all into one category, with the always available possibility of them all being 'bogus'. The citizenship referendum of 2004 sought shift the grounds of Irishness from ius solis (the right to citizenship by place of birth) to a fudged version which mixes in ius sanguinis (the bloodline qualification). The latter allowed that 'bogus' sporting asylum-seeker Tony Cascarino, to have a long career with the Irish football team through a fictitious grandmother, but more importantly it has been the avenue by which Ireland has kept open its often lucrative connections to the diaspora; ius solis will stay in place as a partial contradiction because it is written into the Good Friday Agreement, with the result that Ian Paisley will have the unalienable right to claim Irish citizenship, because he was born on the island through a bloodline on the island, while the Phillipino nurses without whom the Irish health service would crash cannot get Irish citizenship for their children unless they live in Ireland for three years (work permits are currently normally given for two years). This illiberal mess is only explicable as a product of racist thinking, and bringing the Irish constitution into line with other EU states is little excuse for the doing the wrong thing.
In May 2004, just before the Referendum on Citizenship in Ireland, the journalist Fintan O'Toole used his column in The Irish Times to list a series of around 100 famous Irishmen and women - including St Patrick, Charles Stewart Parnell and Eamon De Valera - whose parentage would have made them, post-referendum, dubiously Irish. O'Toole argued that Irishness was always a porous category, open to migrants and returning sons and daughters. Garner's book goes a stage further and asks us to wonder if when we assert our nationality, Irish or otherwise, we are not always conjuring the ghost of racism.
Colin Graham is the author of Deconstructing Ireland, Edinburgh University Press, 2001, and lectures at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.