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Fr. Des Wilson: “Racism is just a manifestation of a much deeper problem: desperate humans need to hurt other people in order to feel good… ”

By Irina Malenko

-Fr. Des, you are a well-known figure not just in Belfast, but in the whole of Ireland – a Rebellious Priest, as they call you… But our readers are actually foreigners, so most of them would know very little about you… Could you say a few words about yourself?

- I was born and lived all my life in Belfast.  I was working here as part of the college staff, then – in a parish, until I finally decided that if I wanted to get things done that I wanted to do most in my life, I had to detach myself from all this apparatus of the church. But I am still remaining a Catholic priest, of course… This is an educational project that was found in 1972 – and this is my full-time business…

- The Irish people have experienced an enormous amount of racism, both in England and in America and back at home, in Ireland itself. It seems that because of their own history, the Irish should know better than most of other Europeans what it is like to be racially discriminated against, and how does discrimination affect your life… Yet, at the moment we are witnessing a strong growth of racism in this country that is becoming more and more obvious – because of the growing number of newcomers from all around the world. Why do the Irish tend to feel this way about the immigrants?

-There is an assumption there that people from other countries are in some way less important or inferior. People here might not realise the extend to which they were subjected to propaganda that came mainly – well, almost exclusively! - from the English speaking sources.  Children are brought up to believe a number of things: a) that the Native Americans, Australians, Canadians  are inferior and that it was quite right for Europeans  to go over and to conquer and to destroy their systems and cultures; b) there is also an immense amount of propaganda coming through newspapers, films, books etc, which said that the continental European people were inferior to the Great British.

And, of course,  a lot of us were subjected to this propaganda, and it seems that it is now printed somewhere in people’s minds an idea that somehow there was inferiority there… Although you might not actually be antagonistic… As well as the Irish missionary work  assumed that we were bringing something to the Africans and the Native Americans and that our version of  life and of Christianity were much better than anybody else’s – and the right thing to do was  to dismantle other people’s cultures… All this was horrifying when you look back at it, but this is until now built into people’s minds, so I am not surprised if, say, people come from Nigeria or Kenya or any other country to Ireland, that they are being looked upon as “not quite as important as we are…”.
And then all racial prejudges come in: “they are taking our jobs, houses”, “ they are being better treated than we are”…

On the other hand, Americans are being looked upon as superior. British are being looked upon as superior. And then, of course, there was the whole history of  the so-called “Cold War”, when you had to look upon the Russian system or any other systems, in Nicaragua or Cuba, at any system that was disapproved by the American and the British government : they were held to be “inferior”, and it was “right” to dismantle them, so it was all built-in into the people. And no matter how much good will you have, you will find that  these prejudges will come through, and I have been making a plea that if we are going to be serious about fighting racism in Ireland, we have to talk in the first place about the anti-Irish racism. 
And the amount of anti-Irish racism in the Irish media is quite astonishing.
Some years ago they found in Canada that  racism was built even into schoolbooks, and they had to change them. We would now find here that racism is rampant – and anti-Irish racism, indeed.
The best way to eliminate racism is to make sure that all its manifestations are outlawed, including racism against your own people.

- That brings us closer to my next question: the Irish people here, in the North of Ireland, are still suffering from sectarian discrimination. Sectarianism is just a form of racism . Could you tell us how does it affect people here in their daily lives, until now?

- On one hand – there is a quite open manifestation: people are being refused jobs, houses, even being refused to be allowed to live in a certain area because of their religion. On the other hand, again and again people who wanted to be pleasant to you, would make remarks about how they admire your religion or your culture… That becomes so tedious that you just simply say: “I don’t want to talk to those people anymore!” – because they are going to tell me how many Catholic priests they know, and how wonderful Irish dancing is or Irish whiskey is…  All of this made together will come to the point that “how wonderful it is to meet an Irish priest because he’d always offer you an Irish whiskey” – which is ridiculous… But that’s the kind of a mindset : that they had to please you by this.

So, there are all kinds of manifestations of it in a daily life. And ,of course, the terrible need that people felt  - to  find out what religion you have.. You have to fight very hard against it and to say : “No, we are not even going to ask…”
But the most vicious thing, of course, is the refusal of jobs and houses. That happens to a lesser extend now, because there are some Fair Employment laws which are not very good, but at least, they made some change…

- Well, I must confess to you, Father, that even I am still fighting with it in myself: since I came here, whenever I am being introduced to a new person, I AM UNWILLINGLY STARTING THINKING AND TRYING TO GUESS WHAT IS HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND… But I  am struggling with it and hope to overcome it soon. However, I noticed a striking difference in attitude towards immigrants in the South and in the North of Ireland: here, in the North, people seem to be much friendlier, much more interested in you in a friendly way than in a more hostile, in general, South… I wonder: is it because, so far, there are much less immigrants here or does it have to do more with the hardships of life people here had to go through, while in the South people are getting more spoiled and materialistic, because of the Celtic Tiger?

- It’s very hard to know. And that’s why I would like to see a study of what racism really means and what are its manifestations. It means , if we got a situation  where in the church and in the political parties is somehow this assumption  that some people are less worthy, then you are bound to have a reaction reflecting this, on the streets. Here, in the North, we would look upon discrimination  against ,or  public insult against homosexual people  rather than insult based on person’s colour, for example.

I’d say there are many areas in Belfast where a person who is Black would walk quite happily along the street, while a person who is known to be a homosexual, would not be able to do so. Where as in Dublin, I noticed, that the whole question of homosexuality has been brought out in the open and has become very much acceptable, I’d say, to the majority of people, but they are having another problem – with a  colour of somebody’s skin. So, there is a difference in manifestation of people’s dislike of difference.

I think here we have a reasonable chance: there is an initiative now  of Irish-African friendship and that is being run by a number of people, including academics from Queens University, and I’m sure things like that will help. It also helps that over the years we’ve had people coming here from Nigeria and going here to university and being very closely associated with some of the Catholic organisations – which helped a bit.  But up here, way back in 1969-1970,  it was very interesting to see 2 manifestations of racism:
- Clergy who complained that there were Black soldiers in the British army on the streets, and  said: “We are supposed to keep them in order – not the other way around!” It was very revealing   when they said this, because it was the first time you heard an explicit racist comment coming from this highly respectable people… And yet, the Black soldier was probably just English from Liverpool or Scottish from Glasgow. They were English just as much as people here were Irish. 
-The second manifestation of racism was with mother Theresa’s nuns: and there were some elements of racism there because they came and said: “How can we help you?”. And part of the reason why they were told that they were not wanted, was racist: “What can THEY teach US?” They had a note at their door: “Missionary Sisters”, and some clergy said to us: “We send missionaries to them-  they don’t sent them to us!” The people in general, however, had no such hang-ups or prejudge . They wanted them and welcomed them. So, there was these big difference between the people of all of us here and the people “ the higher up you go”, the more superior the felt… Of course, a lot of insults in Dublin and places like that come from the people who are not very well off and not so much from people in power. So, it’s a very mixed situation, I think.

- When you were speaking, I just remember how I came to Holland with my Russian University diploma – and I was told there, even though people there had no idea what our educational system was like, that my diploma will be “ worth nothing in this country”… It was quite hard to study in Russia, the education I got was excellent, and I did a lot of work. Yet, I had to go “back to school” – and to study in a Dutch university from the very beginning. And, I can assure you, that even though I was studying in a foreign language, it was much easier than back at home – and I didn’t really learn much there… But such were the assumptions and the prejudges of the western society about ours…

- That’s very interesting, because  the same assumption is here that, once you get beyond America or Britain, there are lands where people are inferior and so is their level of teaching and their culture…It’s very difficult to sustain that when most of your music and literature comes, from, let say, France or Germany. But nevertheless, there is an idea that a foreign university  or a foreign institute of any sort  is “less competent” I remember  this tremendous surprise I got as a youngster when  I first learnt that Italians had a great reputation for engineering and the surprise that I got when I saw first the pictures of the African cities with high-rise buildings.  “That is not what we were being taught!” But the things was built-in, of course, that somehow they were inferior – and it’s still there….

- We are having similar problem in Russia, it was existing to a less extends in Soviet times as well, but it has grown enormously since: when people seriously speak of African students who come to Moscow that they “just got off the tree”… I was always fighting with it back at home…

- That’s very sad – that one of the problems is that the people who suffered themselves from discrimination or racism or other sorts of oppression, quite often turn to be very heavily racist themselves. I noticed this when I went over quite  a lot of times to America in the 80s – and I was amazed! The most of the people I met there, were good people with a very strong sense of  justice, but from time to time I met people of Irish origin who had the most amazing prejudges against Black or Hispanic people. And this was very hard to understand. And you won’t talk about it because you don’t want to raise ghosts for other people… The fact  of the matter was that the majority of people I met, were decent people who would have done anything for justice – but there also were these people, strange enough , of Irish origin…  So, it’s not surprising for me  what we see now in parts of Ireland, but I do believe that  there has to be a tremendous campaign by the schools and anybody  else in order to eliminate this- and wherever you can eliminate this or not, I don’t know…

- … But we have to keep on trying…

- That’s exactly the point!  And I think , you have to be very  severe to people  who do it. You see, I’ve given up the idea of reforming the institutions…  You might as well talk about “reforming banks” as about “reforming churches”! You don’t do that. It doesn’t work. They tried – and it didn’t. Instead of that, you concentrate all your attention on getting  laws made  which will immediately stop on their track anybody who makes a slightest reference to a person to their disadvantage because of their race or whatever – and until we make those laws, we are not going to get very far… Now, our laws in this country, North or South, are not efficient. For instance, there are laws that say that you must not make any derogatory reference to another person. But if you will try to put this law into practice,  you’ll find out that they’ll tell you: unless you can prove that that remark actually resulted in physical damage to you, you have no case!

-… And unless you can prove that it was said deliberately…

- … And there are all these exceptions which they have very deliberately  put into these laws, so that, for instance, when a very disgusting remark was made here to a Catholic bishop, well, he was well able to defend himself, but my point was that we should put it as a test, so I made a complaint to the relevant authorities – and I was told: “If you could actually prove that this remark has resulted in a person going to the bishop’s house and smashing his windows, you would have a case… But as this actually didn’t happen…”

That means that you could have any numbers of insults – and the law didn’t work, so you can be as insulting as you like . The antiracist laws and the laws to protect your good name just do not work. 

- That was exactly my perception of this society – when I, from my Soviet background, was confronted with it for the very first time, my sharpest and strongest impression was  that in this society criminals have more rights than their victims!

- That’s perfectly true- and people would have to think about it here!
For example, if somebody will break into your house and break  a leg – no, not your leg, their own leg! – they can actually sue you, and you will probably lose the case… It’s amazing, and people find it very hard to believe, but it’s true! You are responsible further more if a burglar comes into your house – and you beat him and injure him (or her!), you can be brought up to court for an assault, and the police has actually told people that: “I am sorry, but if you do anything on anybody who will break into your house, then you will be accused of assault and lose your case!” 

It has to be emphasised that those laws have been made very deliberately because they want to make sure that nobody will be legally able to defend property or a person, except the police.

The police must be given the monopoly of force – just like the army must. That, to me, is very sinister. It’s not a question of protecting people . It’s just to make sure that the police have a monopoly of force – even if they don’t use it. They must have it. And so, you are forbidden to use it.

- That was one of the striking features of the Western society to me when I just emigrated. I was brought up with the idea that as soon as you will see something bad happening, don’t just stand there – go and help people, do something. Because evil is there to fight with! Because in 9 cases out of 10 criminals are such cowards that, once you’ll stand up against them, they’ll run away. Because it’s a question of human dignity – not to watch the evil, but to fight it! My favourite quote is that of a Soviet writer Bruno Yasensky: “Do not be afraid of your friends – in the worst case, they can betray you. Do not be afraid of your enemies – in the worst case, they can kill you. Be afraid of the indifferent ones : it is from their silent blessing that all the evil is happening in the world!”..
And then I came to the West where the whole society is teaching the people: don’t fight with it, run away, hide, ring the police after, think about yourself first, give your wallet to the robber etc. The main idea of this society is “don’t fight the evil, it was always there, it will always be there, it’s part of human nature”! Of course, we are not going far if we will not stand up against evil!

- And, of course, if you do stand up, you learn how to defend yourself and then you have taken away some of the power of the state. And you must not be allowed to do that. The law is quite determined that the citizen should be powerless. It happens in a number of spheres. The propaganda was always telling us that you only got that kind of treatment from the state in communist countries- and that is why people here fail to understand that their powers, their ability is being taken away from them day by day. And we are left where you can’t defend yourself, you are not allowed  to educate your children the way you want to,  you are not allowed to do practically nothing.. And with the rise of the European Union it is going to be only worse… So, I think that the opposition by the Irish people of the Treaty of Nice was one of the brightest spots in our lives!
…Anyway… It’s interesting – in order to understand this you have to overturn a lot of notions that the people have about themselves and their own life.

- I also think that in order to understand this, you have to know different kind of life, which, for instance, I know (because I come from a different system). Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the establishment here is so afraid of newcomers: we, foreigners, will bring with us knowledge of a different kind of life – and we will tell about this and eventually, will bring it across to the people here. That different life is possible. That their own life is not what they think it is….

- And then, of course, you will also have to cater for them! In a country like ours – with overwhelmingly Christian ethos – it comes as quite a surprise to the people to find out that there is a need for a Mosque. A synagogue  – OK, they got used to that  idea of having it, only occasionally, but a mosque… Plus you will also have to cater for people’s food, religious and cultural customs, traditional clothing… People say: we didn’t realise it. And that’s a big test: to see of we are going to be able to receive newcomers or not. I think, as the time goes by, they probably will realise that a lot of racism here is of the same kind as insults that people would use to their fellow citizens. It’s the same as  shouting at them loud because they are lame, blind or supporters of a different football club. 

- Because they are DIFFERENT!

- That’s right! I come back: in order to understand  why people who are doing  it, why do  they have this instinct that they want to insult others,  you have to get down to the very root of this basic desire  to hurt other people. And one reason why I would like people to start with the question about anti-Irish racism by Irish people, it’s because that’s the root  of why people do those things.

- Because they  feel bad about themselves…

- The dreadful thing is that you feel better yourself because you hurt somebody else. That’s an educational problem. There is the other thing too: the difference scares people, and therefore they want to attack people who are different.  The schools will tell you that they are fighting against all this, but they are exactly the people who are demanding that everybody will be the same! At school children must have the same religion, they are of the same age in the group, they read the same books, get the same lessons, say the same prayers… They also have uniforms – they even look all the same! How can a school claim that it teaches people a respect  for difference if it doesn’t tolerate it?

- That’s a problem for many countries. In fact, in the Netherlands that claims to be such a tolerant country,  it is apparently a big problem for the majority if a Moslem woman or girl wants to cover her hair and to wear a traditional dress. People were loosing jobs because of this!

- Those “liberal” people – when it comes down to things like that, you’ll find out that under the surface they aren’t that liberal, after all… It must be because people resent difference. If you are going to deal with it seriously, you’ll almost have to create a cult of difference in schools. And they are not doing that – and in the churches, of course, people must all say the same things, believe the same way…Imagine: hundreds of people must get up in a public place and announce that they all believe the same way! I don’t know how that works! They couldn’t – and if they couldn’t, they shouldn’t say it!
The big thing is not just a question of difference not being respected … The racism is only a manifestation of a much deeper problem:  a desperate human need to hurt other people in order to feel good…

Belfast, Ballymurphy,
June 2001

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