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Gerry Adams n-word storm: For black people it is never just a word, it is real and ongoing offence

Writer and former IRA prisoner Tim Brannigan on why Sinn Fein president was wrong to use the n-word, however innocently meant

Published 03/05/2016

Tim Brannigan
Tim Brannigan

I was asked by this newspaper if I would write some thoughts on Gerry Adams and the tweet he posted containing the n-word while watching the controversial movie Django Unchained. I agreed.

Two hours later, in west Belfast, a grown man roared the word 'N*****!' at me from inside his own small, terraced house as I passed.

It stung, and it stung particularly intensely because I was on my way home from an interview with the BBC about the controversy.

And there's the problem. How can I condemn - and possibly report - the man shouting at me from his own living room but ignore the same word when Gerry Adams puts it in a tweet?

For me, and for all black people, it is never just a word, a bit of banter. It's never just a "Twitter storm". It is real and ongoing offence.

It's not enough to quote the old line: "The Irish are the n****** of Europe." That racial slur is loaded with meaning, and dehumanising offence. It carries the weight of the kidnappings in Africa, slave boats, plantations, whips and lynchings.

I know Gerry as a sharp political operator with decades of experience. He should - and does - know better. His swift apology can only be welcomed. It was a lapse of judgment on his part.

That's not to say that I didn't understand him. Gerry and I have a shared experience - nationalists living in a unionist state. So, I get it.

Gerry was trying to identify with black people who know oppression and bigotry, just as nationalists did.

Nationalists and republicans have always had an internationalist aspect to their world view.

For example, when the Civil Rights Movement was formed here, it adopted the black American anthem We Shall Overcome, but identifying with the black civil rights campaign is one thing, appropriating it is entirely another. Gerry over-reached.

Northern nationalists were treated as second class citizens over decades, but they were not slaves and they were not chained. Gerry knows this, too.

Just as we wouldn't compare our 4,000 deaths in the Troubles to the Holocaust, we shouldn't equate the nationalist experience of life under unionism with black America. It's a question of proportionality and an awareness of the loaded meaning of words.

Gerry, like his old political ally Ken Livingstone in London, have been reminded that politicians should, where possible, be careful in what they say and how they say it.

Tim Brannigan served seven years in jail for IRA arms offences. He later became a journalist and author

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