Remembering Pat Guerin

This tribute to a contributor to Red Banner appeared in Issue 53 in September 2013.

The unexpected death of Pat Guerin on 13 June saw the initial shock give way to a deep sadness. Anyone who faces racism in Ireland has lost someone who unflinchingly stood with them; anyone active in the fight against racism lost a valued comrade; and anyone lucky enough to know Pat lost a warm-hearted friend.

Pat got the proverbial “good job at Guinness’s” as a young man, working his way up from the bottling plant to the human resources department. He did his bit in the unions there too, serving as shop steward and branch committee member in the old FWUI, and secretary of SIPTU’s Laboratory Officers Association. But the job became an obstacle to other things he wanted to do in life, and in 1999 he eventually packed it in after twenty years.

By then he was a leading figure in Ireland’s young movement against racism. The early years of the Celtic Tiger were accompanied by a frightening rise in racism—or maybe a racism that was always latent just assumed a more naked and vicious form. There was no shortage of politicians wading through this rubbish for votes, having not yet got used to the less obtuse expressions of state racism that usually characterise Ireland today. Looking back, the contribution of those who stood up to this wave at its start did priceless work, laying a foundation that anti-racist activism has relied on since.

Pat Guerin was nothing less than a constant presence in this early resistance. At public meetings and in the media, he put the case for an Ireland that would welcome people from other countries instead of stigmatising them with lies and bigotry. He stood in protest at every centre of official racism in Dublin, from the Dáil to the Department of Justice, Mountjoy to the Refugee Applications Centre, and more besides.

When Bertie Ahern informed the world in 2000 that putting asylum seekers on to prison ships seemed like a good idea to him, Pat was prominent in taking the protest up a notch. In an action which combined good and bad planning in roughly equal measure, members of various anti-racist groups occupied St Luke’s—Ahern’s constit­uency office, which went on to feature in tribunal dispatches—usefully publicising the issue before getting arrested. Most of them received suspended sentences in the subsequent trial, on condition that they steer clear of St Luke’s for two years. Up popped Pat to inform the judge that his work sometimes took him through Drumcondra, and could he still transit the area? The judge solemnly clarified that he could go through there, as long as he didn’t stop. History doesn’t record whether or not Pat ducked below the windows whenever the No. 16 bus met a red light at the junction with Botanic Avenue.

He had studied at UCD during his time at Guinness’s, but after leaving took a master’s in ethnic and racial studies at Trinity, followed by four years researching for the Refugee Council. His abilities in uncovering and expressing the realities of racism are clear from the article on ‘Immigration policy, racism and national identity’ he contributed to Red Banner 10. He pointed to the double standards applied to human beings as against capital: “As it becomes increasing­ly easier for goods, services, money and wealth to traverse the globe unfettered by frontiers, it is at the same time becoming ever more difficult for people, and especially for those from outside the wealthy club of nations, to cross international borders.” His study of the experience of racism never represented a retreat into academia, and nor did his work for a state-funded body mean making his peace with the system. He continued to take his place on the picket lines as before.

He insisted that anti-racist theory and action shouldn’t be in opposition, that those engaged in researching racism could work hand in hand with those opposing it on the ground. In this he was right, of course, but the problem has never really arisen from the side of activists, who have had plenty of differences with the academic and funded sectors but bemoan the limits of their active participation rather than blocking it. On the other hand, people with letters after their names have sometimes insisted on pre-booking a privileged position for their own way of doing things, while those dependent on grants have often allowed the piper call the tune to the extent of denying support to people who seek solidarity from radical anti-racists. Pat sometimes preferred to paper over these cracks and was guilty of being generous to a fault, but he did play an important role in ameliorating unnecessary divisions, with his own example con­stituting an eloquent argument.

Pat had personal and family issues to confront, issues which may have ultimately proved overwhelming. This led to periods where his activism could be sporadic, but it is untrue to say that he ever left the anti-racism scene. Pat Guerin could no more stop being an anti-racist than a fish can survive without water. While his involvement was far less organised than before, he continued to put in welcome appear­ances at protests against racism, and indeed other injustices.

For the last three years he presented a programme on community radio dedicated to highlighting the realities of racism in Ireland and globally. It was typical of him that he recently became an advocate for the Roma community, one of the most despised and ill-treated of Ireland’s immigrant communities. His emphasis was always on action, as expressed in his frustration at an anti-racist meeting a few months back where racism and anti-racism were discussed back and forth, meetings planned to talk about more meetings, but nothing actually being done. Pat was always concerned to look for a way to tackle racism practically, to cut through the waffle and get down to some activity, and we can all learn from him there.

Throughout all the ups and downs of fighting racism, Pat never failed to alleviate the mood with a joke. Once, when a year’s sub­scription to Red Banner was suggested as a prize in a fundraising table quiz, his reply was to propose it as first prize, with second prize being a two-year subscription. His humour was valuable not just in putting smiles on our faces, but in preventing us losing the run of ourselves, reminding us that making the world a better place requires a sense of humour as well as hard and serious work. It’s hard to think that those quips of his won’t lighten and enlighten our protests any more, that he won’t be standing at our side in those struggles. But the memory of what he did remains, and remains important. If there is any justice in the world—and here is someone who believed there could and should be—then Pat Guerin will still be remembered when racism is long forgotten.