#800babies, racism, homophobia: the cancer of absolutism

This morning on Nolan, we had an insight into Peter Robinson’s worldview as the DUP, as a whole, seems to be accepting corporate responsibility for what he alone said:

Clearly, racism in the DUP isn’t confined to Robinson, as the words of Dineen Walker demonstrate. Paradoxically, though, while the DUP decided that, due to her comments, Walker wasn’t to be considered for the post of Mayor of Newtownabbey, it doesn’t appear to have any issue with Robinson continuing as First Minister. Even with the wider Paisley dynasty chipping away at the margins, Robinson appears very much the absolute ruler of the DUP these days, with one rule for himself and another rule for everyone else.

Absolutism in the DUP isn’t really the core issue here, but rather absolutism more generally, in society. A racist attack, like in Parkmount Street, allows an obvious causal link to be drawn between people being forced from their homes due to some perceived otherness (in this case race and/or religion), the preaching of a relatively local pastor and the subsequent support shown to him by the First Minister. Solutions here are obvious; some high profile visits to the victims, apologies (of sorts) broadcast across the media and there the story is ended, everyone having learnt their lessons. Yet, such a tidy narrative doesn’t extend to the prevalence of racist attacks and, whether we like to admit it or not, the underlying dynamic of racially-motivated crime (along with homophobia and sectarianism) persists, effectively un-addressed. The reality is often the case, such as in Parkmount Street, that the victims leave after the story has supposedly ended. High profile stories are managed, spun and then the news moves on.

In the south, a story re-emerged last week of 796 malnourished babies who were buried in an unmarked grave in the Bon Secours home in Tuam in County Galway between the 1920s and 1960s. Over on Feministire, Stephanie Lord has written an excellent post tracing the threads of modern official misogyny and social injustices directly from the attitudes and absolutism that created the institutional abuses of the twentieth century (and note that we are only now hearing detail on similar institutions in the north). It isn’t very hard to find echoes of that same absolutism resonating loudly in the kidnapping of school girls by Boko Haram or the death sentence passed on Meriam Yehya Ibrahim in Sudan (ironically, cited as the source of, or justification for, Pastor McConnell’s own racist preaching).

In reality, the harsh experience of the brutal realities of inter-community sectarian conflict may still condition some collective responses in the north. Racist verbal abuse, meekly reported violence, homophobia all appear, to some extent, passively tolerated since they register so low on the scale of the possibilities people are all too familiar with. Indeed, even with all the attendant publicity, last Saturday’s protest was, in hindsight, poorly attended compared to the likes of the 2003 anti-war rally. At some level, there may be a slight hesitancy about how such a protest will play out in the news media: do you attend a protest that may, at some level, be depicted as a protest about you? The extension of responsibility for Peter Robinson’s comments to all of the DUP seems to partially illustrate this point.

‘Hate-crimes’ [I hate the Orwellian look of that term but its got currency now] like racism and homophobia segment society to attack a group of people by attaching negative connotations to them based on some preconceived difference. One of the key elements is introducing the absolutism that doesn’t recognise complexities, such as that Islam, like Christianity, is a broad mosaic. Blurring the responsibility gently and imperceptibly pushes out the boundaries, dumbs down, dilutes the problem and creates the space where absolutes can be used: we all did it, so don’t blame me.

Subtle shifts in language like that are very much an obstacle to isolating and reducing the likes of racist, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes. Another example is the article published by John Nagle yesterday in The Conversation as Nightmare in Northern Ireland seeing race replace religion as society’s open sore and then on The Slate as In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics Unite … to Hate Sexual and Racial Minorities. Not only does it not actually manage to create an argument to back up the claim in either title, but it also, in its way, quietly implicates everyone in the north. As a variation on the they-are-all-as-bad-as-each other myth that the self-proclaimed centre in the north usually employs, absolutes are utilised to avoid doing what seems to be regarded as unpalatable: explore the actual detail and complexity and identify the source of the problem. A measured response would segment communities and individuals to properly identify, isolate and challenge those promoting racist, misogynistic or homophobic language and violence, rather than deploy absolutes to implicate others along with them.

In that respect, and unless they are happy to endorse what he said, individual DUP members should refuse to accept corporate blame for Peter Robinson’s words. The local community in Tuam can’t all shoulder the blame for those behind the social architecture that created the Bon Secours home. Muslims aren’t responsible for the horrific attitudes in Sudan, no more than Christians can accept blame for what other Christians do worldwide. Dealing with racism, like homophobia or misogyny, demands a range of approaches. The most obvious are educational, regulatory and policy-driven. What seems to be the least obvious, is to explore both complexity and detail, both things conventional news media simply doesn’t do well. Individuals like Peter Robinson should be left to breathe their own oxygen and not taint others around them. Only when they are challenged to accept responsibility for their own words and actions will we appear to be isolating and resolving such negative attitudes.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Roy Walsh

    Surely the term ‘racism’ is wrongly applied given the north Belfast pastor was commenting on the religion of some people rather than where they come here from!
    In the alternative, the ‘holy orders’ responsible for management of institutions where babies born out of wedlock died before or during birth are heaped outside consecrated ground is the fault of those orders and the state which funded it.

  • Mick Fealty

    John, nice to see you haven’t included original sin as part of your very comprehensive list of things that the DUP is retrospectively responsible for…???

  • John Ó Néill

    I thought I only blamed the DUP for (a) taking corporate responsibility for Robinsons own words and (b) punishing Walker but not Robibson for the same thing.

    I probably could have (eg) hyperlinked a DUP story every time I mentioned homophobia, but that would have got tedious.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sorry, just that the title starts with the 800 babies tag and the article with the DUP. I think I see the point you’re making, but I’d have held my punch till I got the premise established.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I begin to wonder what Peter Robinson has to do to be told to stand down. His continuing role as leader of the DUP implicates the entire party in his attitudes, as John Ó Néill says, but surely the failure of the other parties to strongly demand that he steps down from the post of FM, a role in which he symbolically represents every interest in the province, also requires some attention?

    Firstly he can use a “letter from his mother” approach, an in office consultation that permitted him to claim that he had “no case to answer” at the time his wife’s irregularities were made public, and now a simple public apology simply wipes the slate clean on a major faux pas!

    Well, clearly not for my American friends who keep asking me exactly how he can stay in office! Hardly the person to give US investors confidence in putting their money into the province’s future……….

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – you mean you commented before you read it? 🙂

    (That was aesthetic – the hashtag just looked wrong in the middle of the title).

  • Alan N/Ards


    Robinson is an embarrassment to us all. He should never have made the comments. He can’t be trusted to hold the position of FM. He needs to resign.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Alan, it would be good to be governed by honest men.

  • Gopher

    Interestingly the mass grave at Tuam was for years blamed on the famine and people believed that, truly shocking. You can get away with absolute murder when you create bogeymen. Robinson is in a job because he is better than the opposition which speaks volumes of how crap the rival political parties are. At the end of the day only East Belfast ever delivered a knock down credit to them, I think the rest of the commentators, parties like getting a good living out of Peter. Certainly no Grants among them.

    “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what are we going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

    U. S. Grant

  • Taoiseach

    How do you know the 796 children were malnourished? From what I can tell based on the very scanty factual coverage most died of the common diseases associated with poor children in that part of the century. After that it’s mostly lurid descriptions of septic tanks, bodies dumped and photos of nuns from entirely different homes. What facts do we actually have?

  • Gopher

    Dead bodies spun as famine victims in an unmarked mass grave where the umbrella organization claim to have no records, your right we don’t have many facts. Perhaps we should have an investigation and autopsies to ascertain a few.