The publication of three irish jokes by prison newspaper Inside Times caused much offence recently among other prisoners and support groups.
The Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas reported receiving complaints from a number of prisoners. “There is no debate about this – anti-Irish jokes are racist and totally unacceptable. They should never be printed,” said Conor McGinn of the ICPO.
The paper responded to one prisoner’s complaints, quoting Dave Allen making jokes about the Irish, claiming “you might as well laugh at yourself once in a while – everyone else does.”
There is no doubt that there are Irish comedians around, like Patrick Kielty, who do make jokes at the expense of their own nationality. But there is somehow a line that says it is ok to joke at yourself but when others of the opposing dominant nationality in the society take the same approach it has a different context.
Jennie McShannon, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Societies, does not think that irish jokes are any longer meant to offend and ridicule. “They do however by their nature carry on such a tradition which is now outdated and irrelevant. Why would successful people such as Bono, Bob Geldof, Dermott O’Leary, the Cusacks, Michael O’Leary, Tony O’Reilly and those of Irish decent including parliamentarians such as such as Stephen O’Brien,…., etc find such jokes either relevant to them or funny?” said Ms McShannon. “And who do they target but the more vulnerable Irish people in our society, those who perhaps did not benefit from education or economic success but who still contributed greatly to British life.”
The question of racist jokes surfaced recently in the context of the Strictly Come Dancing show where one of the dancers Anton Du Beck said his partner looked like a paki. There was much furore resulting in the dancer apologising. Then show host Bruce Forsyth chipped in questioning the whole context of political correctness. "We used to have a sense of humour about this. You go back 25, 30, 40 years and there has always been a bit of humour about the whole thing,” said Forsyth, who also later apologised.
Go back 35 years, though, and there was Alf Garnett on Till Death us do part ranting on about black people. The ITV opposition saw Love thy neighbour starring Rudolph Walker, now or Eastenders fame, in another attack on black and ethnic minority peoples. These programmes disappeared with the passing of the Race Relations Act in 1976. So to a large degree did the No blacks, irish or dogs notices in boarding house front windows.
It is significant that the ethnic jokes are always made at the expense of a weaker minority that is not in a position to defend itself against attack. How often do you hear jokes about the stupid Brit or English person?
This tendency to pick on the weakest is no better illustrated than in the case of Irish Travellers, who over recent years have often been the butt of this type of humour. Comedian Jimmy Carr was recently forced to apologise for comments he made on the BBC programme Loose Ends. Maybe it is in the anti-traveller joke that can be seen the real agenda running behind such humour.
The Travellers are among the most vilified of groups in British society, under constant attack particularly in the tabloid press. Derogatory comments are made about them without any concern. This is due in part because Travellers lack advocates to stand up for them – though this has improved in recent years. It is felt ok to attack Travellers in the mainstream so they are seen as fair game for the joke world.
The Irish community has been voluble in its denounciation of slurs aimed at their nationality. A few years ago columnist Julie Burchill made derogatory comments about the Irish. A complaint was made to the police under the Race Relations Act and an investigation followed. The matter was taken no further but the bad publicity that followed, no doubt made an impact on the liberal Guardian for whom the column was written.
It has been as a result of the culture that has developed in the wake of legislation brought in to outlaw overt racism that has largely seen the death of the ethnic joke.
Jennie McShannon refutes the claim that political correctness has gone mad, that people have lost their sense of humour, and that British culture is now under threat. “This is the kind of rhetoric which undermines all the very positive work done here to create a more cohesive, accepting and egalitarian society and which has supported so many from different minorities to engage positively and contribute to a thriving British society,” said Ms McShannon, who welcomes the forthcoming Equalities Bill as providing further legislative impetus for the inclusive agenda.
Ruling out offensive racism whether in joke form or normal conversation has helped cut down discrimination. The world is not a worse place for the absence of jokes aimed at ethnic minorities. This is not to say ofcourse that racism has disappeared as a result of these developments. In many ways racism has tended to become more covert. Moves are made to exclude ethnic minorities in far more subtle ways from work and other arenas. Public attacks are launched under other guises. Immigrants and refugees can be catch all phrases symptomatic of attacks on the other.So there is still plenty of discrimination around against ethnic minority groups. Fortunately much of the overt racism has disappeared from popular discourse as a result of legislation and the growing confidence of the minorities under attack. As a result the gutter humour reflecting an “acceptable racism” has largely disappeared in most areas of life. This is something to be welcomed but will only remain so if the minorities under attack continue to volubly complain when someone seeks to get a cheap laugh at their expense.