Eamon Ryan the latest Irish politician to wrongly use the n-word 4 months ago

Eamon Ryan the latest Irish politician to wrongly use the n-word

Green Party leader far from the first person to use the slur in the Oireachtas

Something occurred in the Dáil today that hasn't in almost 16 years of debate, four new governments and three new Taoisigh. It is something that a former Minister for Education, a former Minister for Social Welfare and even a former Taoiseach have all done. It is something that should never happen again.

The 'n-word', a racial slur, was used.

Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan today used the slur in the Dáil, quoting a piece written by Sean Gallen in the Irish Times about his personal experiences of racism in Ireland: "And again in a newspaper today, there was a young Irishman Sean Gallen giving his experience of being of being othered. Of being, from the age of six being given that name; you n*****."

This came after he made a passionate plea to end racism in Ireland; asking "how do we rid ourselves of this scourge?". In a manner similar to other Irish politicians who have (relatively) recently used the word in the Dáil chamber, he was attempting to underline a point that racism exists in Ireland, and that it needs to be dealt with.

Deputy Ryan later issued an apology, saying that "I know this particular word should never be used".

Eamon Ryan is not the first person to enter the racially charged word into the Dáil record, but it is the first time it has been spoken in the Houses of the Oireachtas since 2014. It appears that the word has been used approximately 133 times in the Dáil chamber since its first sitting, over 150 times across both houses, and Deputy Ryan's use of the slur is the latest in a trend over the past 30 years of politicians misguidedly attempting to use the n-word to underline the effects of racism in Ireland.

Over the years

A substantial portion of the word's usage comes in the form of a previously common phrase; "the n***** in the woodpile", which was commonly thrown at opposing politicians and organisations with abandon in the Dáil, particularly in its earlier years.

As recently as 1996, then Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht Donal Carey used the phrase in reference to himself, telling Fianna Fáil's Eamon Ó Cuív that county councillors were holding up subsidies being given for ferry services to Irish islands, not him.

Over the years in the Dáil, the outdated and racist phrase has been used to refer to a wide group of political stakeholders; those holding up the movement of a Harbour Commission to Foynes in Limerick in 1989, the British Government in 1976, the Irish government in 1972, the Department of Finance in 1971, Great Southern Railways in 1944 and the Department of Finance again in 1931.

In total, that particular phrase has been entered into the Dáil record on 43 occasions.

The 'n-word'

As a stand-alone word, we see time and time again the derogatory use of the n-word in our democratic workings. In 1930, a particularly shocking exchange between Martin Corry of Fianna Fáil and Denis Gorey of Fine Gael saw Deputy Corry accuse the government of lacking in priorities when it came to the country's finances; "When we see Ministers coming here and providing £300,000 for the dole for the unemployed, one wonders whether the Government is fit to govern even a tribe of African n*******. I do not believe they are." Deputy Gorey's retort to this was to tell his counterpart "Do not be abusing your relations."

What is also noticeable about this interaction is that it contains something many over the last 100 years do not; an acknowledgement that the word was said. For the vast majority of these instances, the use of the n-word is not addressed. It is barely noticed. Whether it has been used as an insult, as part of a quote or even with misguided intentions, it has regularly been something that has not been called out or raised as something that should not occur, ever, let alone within the chamber of our democratically elected government.

There is one notable exception to this, which occurred in December 1966. Deputy Corry again rears his head, saying he told the General Manager of The Sugar Company "We never fought in this country to have a foreign n***** getting £12 a ton more for his sugar than an Irish farmer". Brendan Corish of the Labour party objects to the use of the word, and is told by the Leas-Ceann Comhairle, Cormac Breslin, that "'N*******' is not a disorderly word." Corish says it may not be, but it still "objectionable", before the debate moves on.

It is a rare example of the word being called out, particularly when it is used in such a derogatory way. Corry stood in every election from Fianna Fáil's first in 1927 until his retirement in 1969, and was returned to his seat on each occasion. His blatant racism, evidenced by his repeated use of racial slurs, never prevented his election.

A noticeable trend

The number of times the slur appears in Dáil records spikes in the 1950s and 60s, with 75 occurrences across the twenty years. It has been entered into the record 17 times since 1970. But there is a noticeable trend in the intention of its usage in that time.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, up to today, the n-word has been spoken in the Dáil chamber on six occasions, and in the Seanad nine times. In seven of these instances in the Seanad, and five in the Dáil, the word is used in an attempt to convey a point, often about the scourge of racism.

In a manner similar to Eamon Ryan today, politicians such as David Norris, Michael Creed and Proinsias de Rossa have, in the past 30 years, used the n-word to speak about the devastating effect of racism in Ireland. They have quoted the abuse hurled at people of colour in Ireland, in an effort to raise awareness and to underline that this is real, and it is happening.

The racial slur has been used over 150 times in the Oireachtas since the foundation of the state, but its purpose and intention has changed from outright racism to misguided attempts to raise awareness about that very issue, and to (ironically) underline the need for the slur to disappear from public discourse.