After Toyosi: Racism in Ireland

Following the racist murder of Toyosi Shitta-bey in Dublin, Rosanna Flynn discussed the realities of racism in Issue 41 (September 2010).

Sad to say, Toyosi Shitta-bey was not the first victim of a racist killing in Ireland. There have been several others, notably Marius Szwajkos and Pavel Kalite, the two innocent Polish migrant workers who were murdered in Drimnagh two years ago. To their friends and families, of course, nothing could be worse than that. But somehow, to most of us, the premeditated stabbing to death of a 15-year-old virtually on his own doorstep in a well-integrated estate, by a mature man, his agony being witnessed by his teenage friends, was just about as horrific as it gets.

The group of five teenagers were returning home from the Aquatic Centre in Tyrrellstown, west Dublin, at about 4 pm on Good Friday. The killer and his brother were apparently visiting a friend, and were incensed to see two white girls with three black boys. Racist insults were shouted, and naturally answered. The men left the scene and came back armed with a hockey stick and a kitchen knife. Toyosi and his pals had moved on, but the brothers searched for them and caught up a few streets away. They attacked a bigger 17-year-old, and Toyosi went to help his friend. The rest is tragic history. His last words were: “He’s a bad man. I am alright.” He died later that day in hospital.

The Shitta-bey family are well liked and respected by their neighbours. Toyosi was a very popular boy at school with both students and teachers, and was a talented soccer player. After his death there was a brief but vicious rumour, obviously circulated by racists, that he and his mates were tearaways with criminal records who owned the knife and instigated the fracas. This has been completely blown out of the water. Since his death, his family have received death threats, which have been passed on to the Gardaí.

There was also some unexpected opposition to the massive public demonstration of sympathy which took place in Dublin city centre a week after Toyosi was killed. It came mainly from religious groups, and was supported by some journalists. The reasons given for the opposition were, firstly, that this was not a racist killing; secondly, that a demonstration would create racial tensions; and thirdly, that left-wing political groups were hijacking the demon­stration. None of this was true. Toyosi’s murder was clearly racist. Racial tensions have not increased in the area. Local socialists were very supportive of the family and helped organise the demon­stration, but neither made nor sought to make political mileage out of it. The family were very much in favour of the demonstration and drew some small measure of comfort from it. If it had not taken place, their terrible hurt would have been heightened. At least they know that many people cared.

Relations between young black people and the Gardaí in the area are poor. Witnesses to Toyosi’s killing were extremely reluctant to go to Blanchardstown Garda station, although Gardaí told them they had to. They felt intimidated, and their evidence could only be given when anti-racists arranged for a sympathetic solicitor to take statements from them. There are indications that the Garda investigation has been less than vigorous.

The perpetrators were given separate court hearings, and Toyosi’s parents felt a moral compulsion to attend. The younger brother, accused of possession of a dangerous weapon, was in court first. Toyosi’s mother Bola was shocked to see him enter the waiting area of the courthouse surrounded by friends. She said: “Why did you kill my son?” Ten Gardaí intervened, four of them pinning her face down to the floor and handcuffing her behind her back. She was kept handcuffed for four hours, first in a cell at the court and then at Blanchardstown Garda station. They knew who she was, and when she became ill called a doctor. Her blood pressure was very high and she was badly bruised. When examined in hospital the next day, she was still suffering from hypertension. She has lodged a complaint with the Garda Ombudsman. Toyosi’s father Segun went to the court again for the older brother’s hearing, but he didn’t show up and is presumably on the run. Toyosi’s family have moved: understandably, the proximity to the scene of the killing made it too painful to stay.

Toyosi’s family have official status that allows them to live in Ireland, but the recent publicity around asylum seekers’ accommod­ation in Mosney, Co. Meath has highlighted the plight of people who live in ‘direct provision’. In July sixty single residents were given a few days’ notice to up sticks and move to inferior and overcrowded premises in Dublin. When they refused to move, they and the local radio station were told that the Riot Squad would put them out forcibly with no food, and their belongings would be disposed of. They went ahead with a demonstration, and the media arrived en masse. By the end of the day the authorities backed down and asked for volunteers to move, which is what they should have done in the first place. One cannot help but be impressed by the community spirit in Mosney. In spite of great ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, kids play together and everyone watches out for the welfare of children, the sick and disabled. But the authorities’ overall negativity and blatant disregard for common humanity was summed up by a press photo from Mosney. Two small children and their mother hold home-made placards saying “Ireland is Our Home” and “Treat Us Like Humans”. One woman there has been in Ireland eight and a half years. It is not her fault that her case is still unresolved.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or study, and get €19.10 a week when in direct provision. When they are summoned to the Garda National Immigration Bureau in Dublin, or have to see their solicitors, they have to beg social services for bus passes. If they don’t show up at the GNIB they are arrested, imprisoned, and their children put into care for what may be weeks. Immigration Gardaí often use excessive force, and at least one woman has been hospitalised. Unfortunately, she was deported, still in plaster, before legal action could be instigated. Now there is talk of ‘closed accommodation’ for asylum seekers, a euphemism for prison.

For decades Irish governments have been calling for the un­documented Irish in America to be allowed stay. Of course, this is a demand worth supporting, but when it comes to the undocumented in Ireland, the government calls them ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘bogus asylum seekers’, ‘spongers’ and ‘evaders’: funnily enough, the in­offensive word ‘undocumented’ is not used at all. The actual reasons people migrate vary widely. They may be fleeing war, religious or political persecution, gender or child abuse. At the very least, they are economic migrants escaping poverty as were countless Irish. The negative picture filters down, however, and the same tired old descriptions are trotted out again and again.

All of us are suffering from the economic crisis, and many people are in dire straits. Ethnic minorities are being scapegoated for this. History proves that state racism is a powder keg, particularly in times of recession. Socialists, and indeed everyone opposed to racism, must heed the warning bells now and act. Where, then, is the Irish left? Do we see them on the streets demonstrating their solidarity? Unfortunately, we hardly see them at all. In the week of Toyosi’s killing, asylum seekers marched to the Dáil and the Department of Justice carrying a coffin and wreath in mourning for the death of human rights in Ireland. There were pathetically few Irish socialists among a demonstration made up almost entirely of ethnic minorities. Perhaps the torrential rain dampened the revolu­tionary fervour and the party newspapers. Over the years we have seen many short-lived anti-racist groups set up in the aftermath of high-profile cases. The only inspiring aspect of them has been the titles, and these fronts last a couple of months at most.

Many socialists belong to excellent organisations that campaign against oppression in other countries but somehow manage to overlook the human rights abuses that happen here. Asylum seekers are increasingly getting deportation orders, even for countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. Some so-called left politicians and trade unionists have spoken out against migrant workers. Racism has slipped further and further down the left’s agenda. Let us remember that, as Malcolm X said, you cannot have capitalism without racism. It is a scourge which only a socialist system can properly address.

In England the Stephen Lawrence case was a watershed. Only after a long, hard-fought campaign did the truth emerge: the police, backed up by the state in general, had gone to great lengths to cover it up. The motive for Stephen’s murder in 1993 was racism, and police had watched the killers remove the evidence. In the aftermath of Toyosi’s death the message was put out that it was a random killing, but the Shitta-bey family know this is a lie, and the left must back them up. It is up to us to do what was done in London. There can be no doubt that the killing of Toyosi was a racist murder. We want no more innocent victims. It is time the left got their act together and put anti-racism where it belongs, high on their agenda.

“Socialist trade unionism, not trade union socialism”

Veteran socialist Mick O’Reilly was interviewed by Rosanna Flynn for Issue 3 of Red Banner in May 1998. At the time he was Irish Secretary of the Amalgmated Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite).

What do you think of the possibility of workers’ unity in the North?

The North has been pulled asunder by the troubles. The divide between the working class is particularly difficult. But I have to say that the Belfast agreement offers the possibility of some co-operation. One, there has to be some kind of a healing process between the two communities, particularly on the level of the working class; and two, there will be an assembly in the North. Working class people have aspirations in the social field and they will make demands on the Assembly. Those demands will have a social, rather than a sectarian character. If we can find agreement on what constitutes social exclusion, unemployment, and the other things that affect working class people, and argue for the working class in a totality, we can begin to tackle this. In other words, if there are sections of—for want of a better term—the Catholic working class who suffer marginally worse than the Protestant working class, or vice versa, as long as their representatives—like people in the PUP, in Sinn Fein—have a common definition of social exclusion, then it’s an argument about sufficient resources to tackle the problem. And in that way you begin to solve the problem, but I think it will take a long time to get a situation where there will be real, meaningful co-operation.

Has what happened in Omagh made the situation worse, better, or is it still in a state of shock?

Well, it’s in a state of shock, but it has also made the situation paradoxi­cally—and there are contradictions in this—worse and better, in the sense that it’s obviously worse, because of what it has done to the people of Omagh. When the public grieving is over, on a private basis and in a town like that, it has probably destroyed the lives of a very, very significant number of people and I don’t think there’s any public way to heal that or to resolve that. That’s a personal trauma for each and every one of them, who’ve seen their loved ones slaughtered and murdered. But the Omagh tragedy highlights the futility of violence in present circumstances, and I think, paradoxically, it will mean greater support for the Belfast agreement, rather than less support for it. You don’t have to believe that the Belfast agreement is the answer to the problems. What you have to believe is that it lays a structure which has the potential to put aside sectarian violence as the answer to the problem, and it allows for the primacy of politics as the way forward. And I think everybody on the left has an interest in doing that, because elitist, terrorist bombings of this kind, by their nature, exclude the participation of civil society from the debate, and from the idea of advancing the interests of working class people and of people in general. So there’s a contradiction in what’s happened in Omagh, but in the long term, I believe, it will strengthen the agreement rather than weaken it, and the same is also true in what happened in the aftermath of Portadown.

What do you think about the situation in the south industrially, particularly in relation to Partnership 2000?

I think there isn’t a majority for Partnership 2000. I think it’s simply the mechanics of how the votes are counted, and how the votes are counted at the ICTU. I think even the last agreement was probably—was certainly rejected by a majority of workers in the private sector. And I think actually it’s the biggest obstacle to both co-operation and movement on the left. Where the trade union movement sees itself as a three year referendum club, where the members vote on wages and conditions every three years and then do nothing in the interim, I think that turns off the whole trade union movement, and I think it’s very, very anti-democratic. We have hundreds of full-time officers, we have thousands of shop stewards who can, because of these agreements, do very little. They can’t make claims on their employers, they can’t learn the skills, because these are skills which are only learned by doing. You can’t learn them in any other way, and like anything else, if you don’t practice the art of free collective bargaining, if you don’t hone the skills of negotiating with employers, they become rusty on you, they become out of date. We have a whole generation of trade unionists now who have never actually made a claim on their employer. I believe, because of the growth in the economy, there is no possibility of a repetition of an agreement like Partnership 2000, and I think what we need is an agreement which, if you like, reflects the diversity of the circumstances that we face. Certainly—because workers in the public sector have a common employer, the government—there’s nothing wrong with them combining to negotiate with their employer. But that should not be at the expense of the private sector, and these agreements have been constructed by the leadership in Congress in such a way that they have given marginal advantages to the public sector at the expense of workers in the private sector, and they have sown the potential seeds of division, which are very, very dangerous in the trade union movement. Now many people are reluctant to speak about this because they feel if you speak about this, you will be seen to be supporting right wing economists and others who argue about holding down public sector wages. That’s not the point I’m making. The point I’m trying to make is this, that the restrictions of these agreements on the private sector are dividing the trade union movement, and the private sector, actually, should be allowed to lead the push for improved wages and conditions, because always, in a period of free collective bargaining, you look to the strong sections of the movement to make a breakthrough, and lead it.

The other thing that’s been completely neglected has been the whole question of hours of work, because, with the growth of technology, the biggest challenge facing the trade union movement is the question of the hours of work. The hours of work are something that was referred to in Marx’s Capital. The hours of work was what the first May Day demonstrations took place about. The hours of work are the biggest thing facing us, because if you make a breakthrough on the hours of work, you cannot take it back—employers have historically never been able to take it back. They have, of course, been able to take back wages, through inflation and taxation, and many other things that affect us. So the hours of work are the big issue that’s facing us. We need free collective bargaining and we need to make that a big issue because that’s relevant in a society where we have huge levels of unem­ployment. So the hours of work are, I believe, the biggest issue facing the labour movement in Europe as we go into the next century, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a radical slogan like ‘A 30-hour week’. After all, this century, we’ve moved from probably about 80-90 hours down to less than 40. There’s no reason why, if our grandparents did this, we shouldn’t have the same ambitions for the working class of today.

What do you think are the chances of left unity?

Well, I’m not sure what the left is any more. There’s been, I suppose, a his­toric breakdown with the collapse of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, and many people have, because of their association or belief in those countries, lost their vision of building an alternative. Now I think the need for left unity is still there. I think it’s a difficult situation to build. I think you have to try and build left unity while simultaneously you have to tolerate left competition. I think if you see unity as a basis of wiping out competition, then you won’t get unity. So unity has to take place in diversity, and amongst com­petition, and it seems to me it has to be over a number of very minimum kind of demands. Most people on the left—though not all—would agree that Part­nership 2000, for example, is a barrier and it’s probably easy to get some kind of a consensus on the left about that. I can’t think of any other thing that is so easy to get some kind of a consensus around. And as I say, even on that issue, there would be some people in the Democratic Left who would favour agree­ments like that. Now because somebody wants to make an argument over something like that, I don’t think they should be excluded from participation in the building of some kind of a broad left. But I think building a broad left both within the trade union movement, and in society generally, is not easy.

I have to say it is made easier by the Belfast agreement, because the great division in Irish politics has been the whole question of the national question. How we address the Protestant working class, what we say to them, how we build an inclusive kind of socialism, do we do that on all of the island or do we ignore the North? I think most people on the left do wish the Belfast agreement well, and I think because of that it would probably be easier to build left unity, though I think left unity will only be built over a minimum kind of demands. And the big thing that’s facing us is that there’ll never be any advance for the left whilst the trade union movement and the trade union leadership in particular see themselves as a prop to the government of the day, rather than as independent representatives of the membership, and that’s the most important thing the left can do. Win—not the trade union movement to socialism, but simply to win the trade union movement to independence from the state, because if that’s not done, there’ll be no progress in relation to left unity, and no progress in relation to any other matter.

Have you any comments on a European currency?

Well, I’m a sceptic in relation to a single currency. I’m a sceptic in relation to the creation of a single European state. I think the idea that you remove, if you like, the politics and the control from national states to a superstate or a superbank in Europe is, by any definition, anti-democratic. There are, of course, difficulties in relation to the Irish currency standing on its own, but I believe at the end of the day, that’s the better thing to do. We can, of course, sack an Irish finance minister. We cannot sack a centralised European bank which we have no control over. And this idea that a single currency is a technically better way of running Europe, I think is disastrous. It has meant and will mean attacks on the welfare state. It is an attempt to try and take the politics out of currency, and I don’t think that’s possible. And I think there will eventually be a revolt against this kind of thing, because although all the political parties in Ireland seem to favour it, it seems to me that a state has two things which it normally controls: one is an army, and the other is currency. And if you hand over your currency, you’re not far away from handing over the state itself. And it’s a great paradox, when people are blowing the guts out of Omagh to try and advance the idea of an Irish state, we have an Irish state actually in existence handing over many of the mechanisms which we need to try and improve the lives of the people. So I am a sceptic. I don’t favour the idea of a single currency in Europe. I think it will, in the end, be to the disadvantage of smaller countries, particularly small countries like Ireland.

It’s a while ago now, but have you anything to say about Packard?

Well, I suppose it was that kind of business where maybe the closure of Packard was inevitable. The lessons to be learned from it are that there are great difficulties in trying to industrialise an economy like Ireland in situa­tions where you simply make components, and you have no control over the end product. There were possibly 28 plants of General Motors which operated on a European level. I think about 3 or 4 of them were organised in unions. Most of them were not. The Packard work as such, and what happened in Packard, is part of what’s happening in the whole of Western Europe. There were about 3 or 4 million people who worked in that business throughout Western Europe, and the Brookings Institute did a study on that industry, and predicted that over half of those jobs would be lost. We were in a very difficult negotiating position in Packard. We had to make very complex judgements about, for example, whether we would defer wage increases; about, for example, whether we would loan the company one extra hour a week’s work. Our judgement was that a straightforward simple confrontation of holding everything that we had, was not the way to do it. It’s like dancing with a bear: it’s a very difficult process. But every agreement that we made with Packard —we made no concessions to them, because every agreement started with the words, ‘We are loaning you one hour a week, which you owe us, and you will pay back to us in the event of this situation not working out—the same wages, and so on’. So all the conditions at the end of the day were held up.

But the big lesson of Packard is really about the power of multi-nationals, and I suppose the need to spread trade union organisation; and the trade union movement, although it talks about internationalism, doesn’t really invest in it. And there needs to be a dialogue with members about getting more resources, and investing in a better international structure, to try and match, in some measure, the global nature of these multi-national corpora­tions. And of course, again, to make the argument at the level of the state, that we would be much better making components in Ireland for cars, based on our own resources. We have lead, we have zinc, these go into many of the components of cars, yet we export them in the raw, and we end up with these sub-assembly plants where it’s very, very difficult what you can do. I’ll say one thing about Packard, it’s very difficult to live through a closure and lose almost 2,000 jobs and stand at the end of that and be clapped by workers who would go out and say at the end of the day, the unions did not let them down. And I think we managed to shift the total burden of the closure on to the company, and we managed to give Packard and General Motors a bad name in the media—now that’s very difficult when you think what their advertising budget is. And I think all credit to the shop stewards, for the way that they managed that. But at the end of the day, the big lesson in Packard is about the kind of industrialisation you want to go for.

And finally, why are you in the Labour Party?

Well, I suppose ultimately the real reason I’m in the Labour Party is I believe in socialist trade unionism, I don’t believe in trade union socialism. And unlike many people who are trade union officials, I came to being active in the trade union movement through politics, not the other way around. I was first active in the Connolly Youth Movement, I was then eleven years in the Communist Party, and I then joined the Labour Party, partly because the union is affiliated to the Labour Party, and the union plays a role in the Labour Party. I may say I have never felt comfortable in the Labour Party. It asks actually very little of its membership, other than that they be a kind of a support machine for the TDs. But at the end of the day, if you want to try and influence events, you have to influence parliament. Parliament is an impor­tant place in the Labour Party. It is the largest representative of working class people and trade union opinion in parliament, and you have to try and influ­ence that. There are a lot of people who would be quite happy to see me out­side of the Labour Party. And I have no intention of obliging them.

It hasn’t gone away, you know: The fight for abortion rights

This article by Rosanna Flynn featured in Issue 2 (May 1998). At the time, abortion remained a criminal offence in Ireland, with thousands of women still forced to travel abroad for terminations.

An unplanned pregnancy is never welcome news. If you are a 13-year-old rape victim, from a problem family, forced by poverty and discrimination to live in overcrowded conditions without basic amenities, it must be hor­rendous. When the powers that be spend weeks discussing whether or not you will be allowed to travel to another country for an abortion, it gets worse. On top of this, when your father is suddenly and mysteriously con­vinced that you should go through with the pregnancy, and you are sub­jected to harassment, and told that you will be guilty of murder if you re­verse the invasion to which your body has been subjected, it must be un­bearable. No wonder you see suicide as the only alternative.

All this happened last year in Ireland. The girl in question stuck to her guns, and was finally allowed have her pregnancy terminated in England. But this was not the first time. There was a similar case in 1992. Irish people in their thousands insisted that the victim was allowed to go to England for an abortion, and forced the Supreme Court to accept that a suicidal woman has that right.

But in many other cases, women were denied such a right. In 1981, midway through drug treatment for cancer, Sheila Hodgers became preg­nant. To protect the “equal right to life” of the foetus, the drugs were with­drawn. After three months a tumour developed and she bore a premature baby which died immediately. Sheila died three days later.

There are many reasons why women have abortions. They come from all age groups in the childbearing years, and from all social and economic backgrounds. Some are married, and some are not. For some the pregnancy is just bad timing. Some see themselves as too young, or too old. Some have pressures of work or study. Some have completed their families. Some do not wish to become mothers at any time.

Many working-class women cannot afford to bring up a child. But pov­erty alone should not preclude motherhood. The state should provide full back-up services: proper free crèches, top grade medical care, good hous­ing, good education and a good income. Capitalist society puts enormous financial strain on parents, whether married or single. The state should recognise this and play a much greater part in their care and upbringing. What is needed is more practical help in the upbringing of children, and less scaremongering about the supposed psychological damage caused by abortion.

The “inevitable, life-long trauma” resulting from abortion has little foundation. Nine times out of ten, women’s post-abortion feelings are of overwhelming relief. When guilt is felt, it is either connected with the re­lationship that led to conception or because of the pro-life lobby who por­tray abortion as murder, and subject us all to large gruesome photographs of aborted foetuses.

Why do these fanatics constantly talk about the unborn? A foetus is a potential human being, completely dependent on the woman for life, nour­ishment, oxygen, etc. Her body is host to it—a wonderful thing if you want to bear a child, but not at all pleasant if you don’t. She, and only she, has the right to determine the future of the foetus. If a woman opts for termi­nation, then obviously, the sooner this is done the better. Here her financial status plays a part. For working-class women getting the money together can be a very big problem, and can mean quite a long delay. There are the extra expenses of travel and accommodation. If she lives outside of the big cities, information and assistance will be more difficult to get.

The pro-lifers also tell us that we will sustain physical damage from abortion. This is just not true. The fact is that, up to twelve weeks, it is safer to have an abortion than to give birth. If the problem is addressed early in the pregnancy, theoretically surgery can be avoided altogether. A pill, called Mifegyne, that can terminate pregnancy, has been available for some years now. In theory, any GP in Britain can prescribe it up to nine weeks, but in reality they don’t, as the law requires written permission from two doctors. The treatment consists of one pill and one pessary—no surgery, no hospitalisation, no anaesthetic—and is successful first time in 96 per cent of cases. The only proviso is that the patient is within ten miles of a GP, or near a hospital with 24-hour emergency service. Much safer than childbirth or surgical abortion, it costs £70. Going to England for an abortion costs on average £1,000.

Therefore, one would assume the days of invasive surgery were over. Not so. This pill is the best kept secret in the medical profession. It is used in just 5 per cent of cases. You need to know the name of the product, and who will prescribe it. The only problem is one of cost. It is, of course, too cheap. Mifegyne was denied a licence for ten years in Britain. Huge profits are made out of women with unwanted pregnancies. Only 10 per cent of abortions in Britain take place on the NHS. The real immorality involved in abortion is the profiteering of the private healthcare industry.

The media never tire of telling us that, of course, “no one in Ireland wants abortion”. But an opinion poll in December told a different story. 77 per cent believed abortion should be available in certain circumstances (or in all circumstances, according to 28 per cent). 16 per cent wanted the ‘pro-life’ eighth amendment to the constitution repealed, and another 33 per cent favoured limited abortion legislation. Those who want abortion rights for Irish women are no tiny minority.

The often proclaimed end of the liberal agenda is perhaps most non­sensical when it comes to abortion, where the rights won for Irish women remain pitiful. The eighth amendment, and the British Act of 1861 that forbade abortion, need to be repealed. Abortion must be made available free of charge to all women wanting to terminate their pregnancy. The ‘soft option’ of legislation within the terms of the X case judgment won’t do. Legislation requiring women to prove suicidal tendencies to the satisfac­tion of judges, doctors and other self-proclaimed ‘experts’ would do noth­ing to extend abortion rights. In practice, no woman would put herself through such an added ordeal, and the trail to England would continue.

The nettle has to be grasped. Free abortion on demand is a necessity for Irish women. When it comes to abortion rights, the fight has only just begun.