Tribal Divide Behind Racist 'Stain of Shame'

An analysis piece on the racist attacks in Belfast i wrote for the opinion pages of The Scotsman:

scotsmanOn Monday night the windows of City Church in Belfast were smashed by vandals. Attacks on religious buildings are common in Northern Ireland, but this was different: the small City Church, near Queen’s University, was where 22 Romanian families fled, under police escort, after a mob wielding bottles and shouting neo-Nazi slogans threatened their homes last week. The Romanians – members of the ethnic Roma community – had come in search of a new life but now most are leaving, scarred by a society still not at peace with itself.

In the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday’s attacks Naomi Long, the lord mayor, spoke of a “stain of shame over Belfast”. It is to their credit that politicians and churches united so quickly to provide emergency accommodation for the displaced. After a night in City Church the beleaguered Roma were moved to the Ozone leisure centre where their visitors included deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and the local UDA brigadier, Jackie McDonald.

Unfortunately the reaction of wider society was rather more ambivalent: on local radio shows calls and texts in support of the Roma were equalled, if not outnumbered, by those decrying Northern Ireland’s new migrants. However, on Saturday more than 500 people did attend a public rally in Belfast against the racist attacks in the south of the city.

The crowd outside city hall were told by Anna Lo, MLA for South Belfast, that the Roma were seriously considering leaving Northern Ireland: “They have no jobs, no homes, no money. They feel they may as well go home.” Many already have. Yesterday [23/6] social development minister Margaret Ritchie announced that 25 of the 115 people affected have left, with a further 75 determined to leave as soon as they can. Stormont is using emergency legislation to pay for their flights home after the Romanian consul last week dismissed calls to foot the bill.

The Roma are not alone in wanting out. A number of Eastern European families have fled the predominantly loyalist village of Moygashel, Co Tyrone following a spate of racist incidents over the weekend. Just hours after Saturday’s anti-racist protest in Belfast, three homes, one belonging to a Lithuanian family and the other twooccupied by Polish nationals, were attacked with windows broken and cars smashed. Notes left at the scene issued a grim warning: “Foreign nationals not welcome in Moygashel — one week to move”.

Such scenes are redolent of the Troubles, not the new, welcoming Northern Ireland whose image has been so carefully cultivated over the last decade. Billions have been pumped into Belfast – transforming the city centre from a eerie, empty shell into a bustling, modern, multicultural hub – but steel and concrete, no matter how shiny and attractive, cannot paper over the fact that this is a society where difference is a problem not an asset.

Most Northern Irish towns and cities remain segregated along sectarian lines. The flags, murals and painted kerbstones are not there simply to entice tourists into run-down, working-class neighbourhoods they would ordinarily never dream of entering: they are markers of territory, unambiguous declarations of who belongs – and who does not.

The war may be over – a fact acknowledged by last week’s loyalist decommissioning – but sectarianism is alive and well, especially among the young. An academic study carried out in 2007 found that 41% of 16- to 25- year olds described themselves as prejudiced, compared with 31% of the population as a whole. Dissident republicans prey on this constituency, successfully inciting nationalists youths to attack the recent Tour of the North parade in north Belfast. Elsewhere, last month’s brutal murder of Catholic Kevin McDaid by a rampaging mob of Rangers fans in Coleraine attests to the endurance of deep-seated sectarian tensions.

Dismissing these pernicious incidents as the product of a warped minority ignores the structural role sectarianism plays. The Good Friday agreement, the peace accord which ostensibly brought to a close thirty years of violence, formally enshrined the crave-up between nationalists and unionists. All members of the Stormont assembly must declare their tribal allegiance and all bills require at least 40% support from the minority bloc. The result? An executive hamstrung by vetoes and bi-partisan gridlock, where the non-sectarian designation ‘other’ is rendered as useless as it is unlikely.

It has not been all negative. In less than a decade Belfast has gone from being the UK’s murder capital to one of its safest cities, and new migration has brought to the city a much needed cosmopolitan air. The response to last week’s attacks on the Roma was generally positive; even the police, initially slow to act, stepped up their efforts, leading to three people being charged in connection with the incidents.

Arguably the biggest obstacle to progressive change in Northern Ireland are the DUP. Stormont’s dominant party has more than its fair share of climate change sceptics, creationists, and homophobes, and while it pays lip service to values like diversity and equality its level of commitment is debatable: in January of this year DUP minister Sammy Wilson publicly stated that British workers should be privileged above migrants in the Northern Irish job market.

Wilson’s ill-judged promulgation betrays an ignorance about the situation facing migrant workers, who are often underpaid, isolated and vulnerable to attack.

Last year over 700 racially motivated crimes were recorded. Tackling racism is vital but requires more than just education and wishful thinking. As long as tribal division and mutually assured destruction remain the sine qua non of Northern Irish politics, the potential for such incidents will always be there. Good Friday was a crucial first step but in a multicultural world the system it bequeathed is no longer fit for purpose.