Reginald D Hunter. Photograph: Getty Images
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Kick the racism out of football, don't kick out the discussion of racism

Reginald D Hunter's set at the Professional Footballers' Association awards dinner, and the response to it, shines a light on one of the great linguistic arm-wrestles of our time.

So this has actually happened. The Professional Footballers' Association, or PFA, booked Reginald D Hunter, the comedian, as the main entertainment for their annual awards dinner; and now, after Hunter has duly delivered a typically forthright show, the PFA want their money back. This, for all kinds of reasons, is not a good look.

The first reason is one of plain and common courtesy. It is rude, if not unpleasant, to hire a performer to adorn your ceremony and then publicly criticise him or her for being too offensive. It is particularly unpleasant when the most cursory inspection of his material would have made him a contentious choice for the event at hand.

The event in question was no ordinary dinner: it was a dinner at the end of two seasons where the issue of racism in football had been discussed at length and yet to unsatisfactory effect. Both Luis Suarez, of Liverpool, and John Terry, of Chelsea, had been censured by the Football Association for their use of racially offensive language. And now, at the end of all this, the PFA booked Hunter to perform: a man who has largely made a career from intelligently exploring the discomfort that exists around racism in contemporary Western society. 

Now, we don't know for sure what Hunter said during his routine. What we do know is that his set was liberally sprinkled with uses of "the N-word", which is to say, the word "nigger". This is a word which gives me extreme disquiet to type, since it conjures images of burning crosses on lawns, men riding the streets in white hoods, and black men hanging from trees. (See, for example, Claude Neal.)   

I hate this word because it reminds me of a prejudice that I wish were long gone. But that’s the whole point of Hunter’s act. He is shining a light where many of us no longer wish to look. Much as we might try to move on from or ignore it, racism is with us still.  Black and Asian police officers, for example, have only recently stated their beliefs that the Metropolitan Police Force is still institutionally racist. As Jimmy Gator comments in the film Magnolia: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."

I suppose what I am trying to say is that Hunter is not to be primarily faulted for bringing up issues, however uncomfortably, which are the most pressing in our current social discourse. The PFA could have chosen any number of bland, uncontroversial comedians to fill this berth. Hunter was a subversive choice, and having booked him the PFA should have stood by him. Most concerning of all, though, is the suggestion in several quarters that Mr. Hunter's use of the word "nigger" is somehow just as offensive as if a member of a lynch mob had used it. This is a false equivalency, and a dangerous one. 

Hunter uses this word to expose the discrimination that exists in a society that often complacently considers itself post-racial. He uses this word rather as a surgeon might use a scalpel without anaesthetic: it is surely painful, but its deep incision ruthlessly exposes the tumour. On the other hand, a lynch mob uses this word as the accompaniment to, well, a lynching.

“Nigger”, meanwhile, is a word that many black people now use as a term of affection, of solidarity, of sorority or fraternity.  Hence Jay-Z and Kanye's "Niggas in Paris". It is a word that black people are still trying to reclaim from the people who wished to break them with it: it is one of the great lingustic arm-wrestles of our time.

But here’s the thing. I think that the PFA knows this. I think that it made a terrible mistake and is retreating on the basis of anxiety over backlash rather than on the point of principle: a stance which ultimately serves the issue of racism in football no good at all. It seems that rather than kicking racism out of football, the aim is instead to kick the discussion of racism, as Mr. Hunter would propose it, out of football.  And that, all in all, is an appalling shame. 

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.