Chris Eisenstadt is a US citizen who has been living in Northern Ireland. He is also a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. Here he considers the controversy over Sammy Wilson’s engagement captured by BBC reporter, Conor Spackman.
Northern Ireland isn’t a racist place. Sure, it has issues with racism, and a few racists live here, but fundamentally it isn’t a place where racism is part of the fabric of society. It isn’t a place where causal, ignorant and lazy assumptions or accusations about a person’s ethnicity are socially acceptable by and large.
This has been my experience living in Northern Ireland since 2001.
My name is Christopher Eisenstadt, and I’m Jewish. I’m not a practising Jew, I don’t eat kosher or go to Synagogue on Saturdays, but ethnically I am Jewish. In the past, my name and genetics have been more than enough “reason” for anti-Semitic comments. The people that said those things didn’t seem interested that my reading of Hebrew is pretty poor. It was enough that I was “an ethnic”.
I’m also an American – at least, half-American.
Why does Sammy Wilson’s reaction to these views being expressed to him bother me? Obviously, they are suggestive of a deeper seated ignorance. But that isn’t the reason. I can live with the fact that there are people out there who will hate me because of what, or who I am.
Because I am Jewish, or because I am from the USA or because I am a Unionist. I’m an adult, and I can handle the fact that racists, bigots and sectarians exist.
Of course, Sammy Wilson did not make the comments himself. This is a key point to understand, his mistake, in my view, was not saying something bigoted.
His failure was the lack of leadership shown in that pivotal moment. He had an opportunity, as well as a responsibility to not acquiesce or ignore those comments.
Sammy Wilson may well comment that he doesn’t agree with the idea that “ethnics” ought to be “put out”. In subsequent interviews, he doesn’t deny hearing it, and therefore he ought to have challenged those views. Certainly, he is keen to point out his credentials with ethnic minorities.
As an MP, as a politician, and frankly, as a decent human being it is beholden upon him to defy these views when he encounters them.
He has the power to do so – unlike many who face racism alone, or in positions of weakness in society. He can call someone out for saying something so hateful with little personal risk. A young Filipino nurse walking home after a nightshift, set upon by those who “want the ethnics out” doesn’t have that luxury.
He has never proven himself to be shy about expressing his views before – even when those are out of step with science, politeness or reason. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that he would fail to question such loathsome comments when they are presented to him. There is a reasonable expectation that he will do so – every single time he hears them.
If that is the case, he also needs to clarify who he means by “ethnics”. Do I count? Does my father? What about the EU citizens who work in Northern Ireland? The Poles? The Germans?
Sammy Wilson should do the right thing and apologise for not challenging those views when expressed to him. They were offensive and by failing to apologise for his inaction he gives comfort to those who hold those views.
As I said at the start, Northern Ireland is not a fundamentally racist place. The people here have welcomed me, and made me feel at home. Where there have been isolated incidents of racism or bigotry directed at me, there has always been a number of people keen to step up and denounce it. What we must take care with, is that our representatives share those values.
Sammy Wilson’s actions suggest that he does not. If he is allowed to simply brush it off, or ignore it, it sets a poor precedent. “Ethnics” are welcome in Northern Ireland. I think we ought to make sure everyone else knows it.