Ian Sansom – Stranger than Fiction

Ian Sansom is a true gent, and if you’ve never picked up one of his hilarious novels you should. This feature on Sansom and his latest novel, The Bad Book Affair, appeared in The Sunday Herald on Sunday 24 January.

A prominent Northern Irish politician involved in a sensational sex scandal. Accusations of dodgy dealings in the corridors of power. Restive natives in Ulster’s bible-belt. The closing chapters of the Robinson saga have not yet been written but already a book has been published about it. Or at least so it would seem to anyone picking up a copy of The Bad Book Affair, the new novel from Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom.

The fourth instalment in Sansom’s popular detective series The Mobile Library, The Bad Book Affair features a duplicitous unionist politician, marital infidelity, accusations of financial impropriety – and all set against the backdrop of growing instability in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and a looming election. Throw in a duffel-coat wearing, crime-solving Jewish librarian called Israel Armstrong and a four-wheeled library trundling along the north coast of Ireland and the result could almost pass as a tongue-in-cheek précis of the last few weeks in Northern Irish politics. In a literary career spanning more than a decade, Sansom has seen life imitate art often enough not to be surprised by The Bad Book Affair’s remarkable verisimilitude. ‘Am I surprised by the similarities? No, the amazing thing, for me, is that other people are surprised by it,’ the hirsute writer remarks, peering over his reading glasses.

‘Novels hold up a mirror to the real world. In any good work of fiction you will always get soundings and reflections from real life. What surprises me is that more people don’t pick up on these similarities more often.

‘If literary history teaches us one thing, it is that people are bad,’ he says, his glance momentarily resting on a banks of shelves overflowing with well-thumbed classics from literary heavyweights such as Roth, Faulkner and Bellow that occupies the back wall of his second floor office in the Seamus Heaney centre in Queen’s university, Belfast.

‘Obviously when it is people in public life it gives it an extra piquancy but we are all capable of lying, cheating, stealing. The ramifications of a politician’s actions are potentially more serious but the actual actions in themselves just reflect the truth of our sad, pathetic little lives.’

Such a pessimistic view of life seems entirely at odds with the witty, garrulous and light-hearted character in whose company two hours appears to pass in a mater of minutes. But Sansom, in an uncharacteristically serious moment, explains why he sees no such contradiction. ‘We are all flawed – that is the story of humanity. If you read the bible, on page one you’ve got this wonderful idyll, turn to page two and its over. Really it’s all downhill from there. Adam, Eve, Saul, Kane and Abel. They are all just giving us a way to understand ourselves, both the good and the bad,’ he says.

Citing scripture to support your opinions is all too common in Northern Ireland, quoting Flaubert, Gogol, Polonius and Goethe (as Sansom does freely) markedly less now. Having grown up in Southend-On-Sea, Sansom spent his undergraduate days at Cambridge and Oxford, where he wrote a PhD thesis on the poetry of WH Auden. Today, his accent, an unusual hybrid of muted estuary English and received pronunciation, retains telling traces of both home and alma mater.

Like Israel, The Mobile Library series’ ill-fated protagonist, Ian Sansom moved from London to Northern Ireland; although while his anti-hero crossed the Irish Sea alone, the author made the journey with his wife, a BBC journalist born in Belfast, and their young family. Sansom is understandably reluctant to identify himself too strongly with his bumbling character’s search for purpose along the Antrim coast, but he does admit sharing one significant trait with Israel – a deep-seated fondness for libraries.

‘I didn’t grow up in a bookish household so libraries were always where I gravitated towards,’ Sansom says, his speech quickening noticeably as he recalls the mobile library that routinely visited his primary school: ‘I thought it was a genuinely magical experience. It was almost like the circus was coming to town, there was so much to enjoy. I probably wanted to run away with the mobile library, too.’

In his younger days, Sansom even conducted romances among the aisles. ‘I first kissed my wife in Cambridge university library.’ Can he remember where exactly? I ask. Of course he can: ‘It was in the lift in the west wing. I was an old smoothie back then,’ he laughs before outlining his belief in the sexual allure of libraries. ‘They have a certain unmistakeable erotic charge to them. Libraries hum with possibility and change. You are coming into a place where possibilities become endless. Have you ever noticed in Hollywood blockbusters how many riddles get solved in libraries? It’s no coincidence.’

Sansom gives the impression of a writer born into his craft but he maintains that the transition from pursuing the bookshelves to appearing on them was not as seamless as his impressive cv suggests. ‘After I finished university I was writing and also doing lots of different jobs during the day. I would write a chapter in a couple of days and then forget about it and move on to something else. I was effectively binge writing.’

Like many prone to binging, it was only an encounter with a fellow sufferer that straightened him out. ‘I was working as a painter and decorator when I bumped into a novelist, a proper novelist. I asked him “how do you do it?” He just said to sit down and write 500 words a day everyday. Since then I’ve applied the rule of regularity.’ And, as the multiple copies of his various books and side projects gathered around his writing desk attests, Sansom has been a writer ever since.

The subtly bookish atmosphere at the Heaney centre, where Sansom lectures on Queen’s highly regarded creative writing program, seems to suit the author well. His office looks more like a traditional writer’s study; framed ordnance survey maps of Northern Ireland on the walls, an antique tea set in the corner. Life seems agreeably slow: we meet during term time, but there are precious few students about. Indeed, our conversation is only disturbed once, by a gentle knock on the door. It is Ciaran Carson, the esteemed Belfast poet and Sansom’s colleague at Queen’s, with a question about marking schemes.

Creative writing as an academic discipline has its critics, and Sansom admits to misgivings over his own suitability for such a course of study. ‘I’m not sure I would have enjoyed being a creative writing student.’ Nevertheless, he does ‘believe in teaching creative writing.’

‘You can teach people craft and technique, which is essential for a writer. But what you can’t do is to teach them to have ideas.’ Ideas are one thing Ian Sansom has never been short of, though precisely which ideas he decides to work on next has probably never interested so many. Neither Iris nor Peter Robinson are renowned for their interest in literature but both could be forgiven for taking an interest in the follow-up to The Bad Book Affair.

‘Everyone is asking ‘what are you writing about next?’, as if I have some remarkable insight into the future. If that was the case I’d probably write about the winning numbers for the national lottery. Or about salvation and redemption. Now that does seem rather topical.’

The Bad Book Affair is out on January 25 published by Fourth Estate.

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan

40 years of the British Army in Northern Ireland

Feature from latest Sunday Business Post

August 15, 1969. Even those with the most cursory of interests in Northern Irish history will recognise the date of the British Army’s first deployment in Belfast. But for almost 40 years no photographic record of the soldiers’ arrival on the city’s streets existed, until an octogenarian with a photo box wandered into a gallery in the northern capital recently.

bombayoneGerry Collins, now 86, was the first photographer on the scene after a weekend of sustained and orchestrated attacks by loyalist mobs left most of Bombay Street, off the Falls road in west Belfast, ablaze. A keen lens man, he had brought his camera with him as he went to check on his elderly aunt in the area that fateful Sunday morning.

The pictures he took of wide-eyed, young soldiers cautiously walking down burned-out, rubble-strewn streets could have made Collins famous, but instead they lay filed away in his attic as the Troubles raged. Only a chance encounter with the social documentary-style photographs of Frankie Quinn, proprietor of the Red Barn Galley in Belfast city centre, persuaded the long-retired photographer to dust off his old Ilford prints.

‘Gerry came into the gallery,’ recalled Quinn, whose own work on the peace walls that divide Belfast won many plaudits. ‘He said he knew about my work, and that he had photographs that had never been seen before. I thought nothing of it until he came back a few days later, and brought with him these amazing photographs.’

Families loading belongings onto milk trucks, a priest from nearby Clonard Monastery addressing an anxious crowd, a man and boy surveying the rubble of what was once their house – the photos, collected in an exhibition entitled ‘Taken From The Ashes’, reveal the painful, intimate stories behind the Bombay Street riots.

bombaytwo‘This is the only record of that morning.’ Quinn explained, standing beside the old street sign for Bombay Street mounted alongside Collins’ stunning black and white images on the gallery’s whitewashed walls. ‘When he arrived on the street there were no other photographers there. He says he remembered one other guy coming in on the back of a British Army Landrover, jumping off, taking a picture and the jumping back into the jeep and away,’

Speaking about the images 40 years on, Collins said: ‘The firemen are still there dousing the fires, there are people moving their furniture, there are nuns giving people tea. The images were alive. You didn’t have to look for the pictures, they were just there in front of you, asking to be taken.’

And that’s exactly what Collins did. While countless colour shots of the area were taken in the days and weeks following the riots, his pictures shed a new, more humane light on the events of that traumatic weekend. Between the men skilfully manoeuvring a bed frame out of a second storey window and the harsh-faced women in beehive haircuts sitting intransigent in front of the makeshift barricades, a quiet, stoical suffering can be observed in almost every shot.

In one particularly memorable image tin-hatted members of the Queen’s Own Regiment, rifles half-cocked, wander the narrow red-brick terraces of Bombay Street, Clonard Gardens and Kashmir Street, quizzical looks etched on their faces. Elsewhere, photographs of soldiers sleeping on the ground and sipping tea with locals serve as poignant reminders of the warm welcome the army initially received in Republican areas across the north.

‘Originally the arrival of the troops was very well received by the Catholic population on the grounds that it was a sign that Westminster was willing to intervene,’ said Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University Belfast. ‘The reception they got on the streets was very favourable.’

Such was their popularity that the inchoate Provisional IRA explicitly did not target soldiers in the early years of the Troubles. But this was soon to change. ‘The initial honeymoon period was followed by a rough period in which the army killed a lot of civilians and that turned opinion against them,’ remarked prof Guelke.

In February 1971, the first British Army lost its first soldier in what became known as Operation Banner. The following year it suffered over 100 fatalities. ‘Army casualties in this period were very high. From 1976 on the army took a back seat in Northern Ireland,’ continued prof Guelke.

All told the army lost 765 servicemen in Northern Ireland since 1969, including two Sappers killed by the Real IRA in Antrim in February.

While the legacy of the British Army in the north streets still contentious, were it not for the soldiers’ arrival the loss of life on Bombay Street, August 15, 1969 would certainly have been much greater.

Frankie Quinn agreed. ‘If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the British Army there’s no doubt it would have been a massacre. There would have been a lot more destruction and a lot more death, no doubt about it.’ As it was on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20.

In the immediate aftermath most residents left the area, many never to return. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that – in fact, the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast have increased from 26 to 80 since 1994.

For more info on the Red Barn Gallery, Bombay Street from the Ashes and Frankie Quinn’s amazing photography check out www.rbgbelfast.com

David Simon: Journalism's Loss, Television's Gain

Interview with the multi-talented Wire writer from this month’s issue of the Scottish mag The Skinny.

America does not have, and never has had, a fair system – or so says David Simon, daylight illuminating his swanky hotel room: “So much of what ails the US is systemic. It has been engrained from the very beginning, from the constitution.”

david simonLike many of The Wire’s central characters, Simon never shies away from life’s less palatable side. It was this commitment to veracity that made his critically acclaimed series a dazzling, almost Dostoyevskian tale of law and disorder on the streets of his native Baltimore, one of the most compelling dramas in television history. That a show about police and thieves in a relatively peripheral American city has garnered a significant cult following on this side of the Atlantic is testament to the realism of Simon’s writing, much of it based on personal experience.

On graduating from the University of Maryland, where he edited the college’s daily paper, Simon became a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering the crime beat with almost religious zeal for over a decade. While still a reporter, he spent an entire year with the police department’s murders unit. The result was Simon’s first book, Homicide, published in 1991. Two years later he took a second sabbatical to research The Corner, a forensic dissection of one year in the inner city, written in collaboration with former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns and told through the prism of a single street corner, and the addicts and dealers struggling to survive on it.

Simon is currently promoting The Corner’s release in the UK and Ireland – some twelve years after it first appeared in the States. “Homicide didn’t sell well at all over here. Then when it came to The Corner I just couldn’t get it published.” It is hard to understand why it wanted for a backer. The book is a remarkably in-depth account of the lives of rich, complex characters such as Gary McCullough, a once prosperous businessman lost to heroin addiction, and his son DeAndre, a dealer who starts taking drugs himself. It’s almost academic in its rigour and attention to detail but written with a novelist’s eye for scene and characterisation. “I was interested in telling a story, in narrative as a journalistic tool,” Simon explains.

Irnoically, Homicide and The Corner spelled the end of his career as a reporter. “I imagined that I would write books and work for the paper. I imagined one thing informing the other, not writing myself off the paper. But by the time I came back from doing The Corner bad things were happening. The paper had been taken over and the things I valued as a newspaper man the newspaper stopped valuing. So I knew my time there was over.” What he calls the ‘prize culture’, clearly still aggrieves him. Discussing The Baltimore Sun’s decline Simon sits bolt upright, looking less than relaxed for the first time: “These guys came in from another city. They were going to be in Baltimore for three, four, maybe five years. They were going to try and win a couple of prizes and then get to a better newspaper. It was all a pyramid of ambition but it totally lost the community. If you really love journalism that’s pretty disappointing.” he says.

But journalism’s loss was television’s gain, as Simon could draw on his extensive research to create The Wire’s intricate, absorbing world. “The power of The Wire is that you get to tell a story with a proper beginning, middle and end. But while The Wire is drama it is also rooted in a journalist’s impulse,” he says of the relationship between the two. “The writers working on [The Wire] were more interested in issues than in sustaining a television drama.” Certainly Simon has never shied away from the day’s big political issues. His last HBO series Generation Kill was based on a Rolling Stone journalist’s account of being embedded with the US marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq; currently he is working on a television show about a group of musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans entitled Treme.

The Wire and The Corner both make compelling cases for drug legalisation, a cause Simon firmly supports. “The war on drugs has been a total failure,” he replies without hesitation when asked about US narcotics policy. “But there are some positive changes happening now. The new drugs czar appointed by Obama [Gil Kerlikowske] has just come out and said we need to lose the title war – well that’s the first intelligent thing that’s been said about drugs in more than 30 years.”

Praise for politicians coming from David Simon is rare. So is the 44th President of America just another deceitful public representative? “No, Obama is a great man who I’ve a lot of respect for. But all he will do is slow down things getting worse,” he laughs. And although he admits to volunteering for the Democrats in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign, knocking on doors for Barack has not made him an optimist: “The great man theory of history says you elect the right guy and all the systemic forces arrayed against progress somehow fold their cards. Well, that doesn’t happen.”

Nothing, it seems, surprises Simon – except, perhaps, the sudden interest in his books and their rather stark message. “It’s really funny. When I was an expert and I did all the reporting no-one took any notice. But when I’m not an expert and the books’ material is over 15 years old, people are sitting up and paying attention.” The world is certainly listening to David Simon now – when it comes to laying bare the uncomfortable reality of modern America, he remains the authority.

Read more from the Skinny at www.theskinny.co.uk

Orangefest aims to bridge the gap

Feature on the Orange Order’s attempts to turn 12th of July weekend into an Orangefest appeared in The Sunday Business Post.

orangefestMore than 100,000 people will gather in downtown Belfast tomorrow to watch the annual Twelfth of July celebrations. The customary flute bands, Lambeg drums and Orange standards will all be there, but so will local businesses as, for the first time, city centre traders open on the day.

Many of the city’s largest retailers and shopping centres will open their doors between 12.30pm and 4.30pm, after the parade leaves the town. The new initiative is part of a pilot scheme jointly coordinated by business leaders and representatives from the Orange Order.

It is the latest development in the ambitious rebranding of the controversial date as Orangefest, an inclusive, family-oriented event featuring on-street entertainment, circus acts and the traditional marching bands.

Now in its third year, Orangefest aims to create a festive atmosphere around one of the most contentious and divisive days in the Northern political calendar. But the age-old custom of retailers shutting their doors for the day did not help the organisers in the first two years.

‘‘Town was just completely dead once the parade passed,” said Billy Mawhinney, the festival development officer. ‘‘All the shops were boarded up and blocked. For tourists coming over, they couldn’t get a drink, something to eat or even a cup of tea.”

Funded by the Department for Social Development, Mawhinney’s post was created in 2006 – though not without controversy. Nationalists decried Orangefest as a sop to disgruntled unionists, while there was opposition from conservative factions within the Orange Order itself.

The event has also struggled to shake off the parade’s associations with sectarian violence and recreational rioting at interface areas, particularly in Belfast and Derry.
It is also hard to get away from the fact that it was traditionally a day when people from those cities left the North to go across the border. Now, the organisers are trying to get tourists to visit for the day.

Sitting in his office, a spacious wood-panelled room adorned with sabres and Union Jacks in an Orange Lodge on Belfast’s Shankill Road, Mawhinney acknowledged these points. But he was hopeful that Orangefest could broaden the Twelfth’s appeal beyond the North’s unionist population – and tap into the event’s unrealised economic potential.

‘‘We are convinced that the Twelfth can be a great economic driver, and that tourists are coming,” he said.

Andrew Irvine, head of the publicprivate partnership company Belfast City Centre Management, agrees. Since the turn of the year, Irvine has been working with Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Belfast City Council and the Orangefest organising committee to develop a dedicated business strategy around the day.

The Twelfth is a two-day public holiday in the North, and businesses have long pushed for Sunday trading to be extended to cover it – a particularly pressing concern, given the current economic climate.

‘‘From the retailers’ point of view, it makes perfect sense,” Irvine said of Monday’s half-day opening. ‘‘We are feeling the downturn, and it’s really important to keep shops open as much as possible.

‘‘What we are doing is making sure people have the opportunity to enjoy themselves and spend a few pound before they go away – it’s a no-brainer, really.”
A stg£23,000 grant from the European Union’s Peace III fund is being used by Belfast City Centre Management for a range of including hiring dedicated street cleaners to follow the parade, ensuring that shops will open on time.

For the first time, Orangefest has a small marketing budget, and the notoriously publicity-shy Orange Order has launched a major PR offensive, with colourful banners erected across the city centre and promotional material distributed to homes and businesses.

City centre retailers have broadly supported the new Twelfth opening hours. James Rider, manager of HMV in Belfast’s Donegall Arcade, said that the impact could be comparable with St Patrick’s Day in the chain’s southern stores.

‘‘It’s a fantastic opportunity, and we are expecting to get a lot of footfall into the store,” he said. ‘‘It’s basically a festival, so it should be a great day for us to sell.”

Rider said traders would benefit most if opening hours were extended to cover the times when the marchers were in the city, but the PSNI felt was still not viable. However, he welcomed the ‘‘normalisation of trading in the city centre’’.

‘‘This represents the reestablishment of a traditional holiday period, with lots of people coming into the city to enjoy the festivities,” he said. Whether or not tourists are actually travelling to Orangefest remains questionable.

According to Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, one of the event’s partners, the traditional dip in visitor numbers experienced in July – largely due to fears around personal safety during the marching season – has been reversed in the last five years.

In fact, Belfast’s hotel market records bed-night occupancies in excess of 80 per cent in the middle of July. However, a spokesman for the bureau said it remained too early to tell if tourists were coming to see the new Twelfth.

Irvine disagreed. ‘‘The Twelfth is the largest visitor number event in the calendar by a long shot,” he said. Last year, 7.1 million people visited Belfast, up from just half a million a decade ago. The organisers of Orangefest are keen to tap into this rapidly-expanding tourist market.

‘‘If people are here, wherever they are, we want them to come see it,” said Mawhinney. ‘‘We think we have a tourist product to be proud of.”

Since 2007, Orangefest has been working with Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), and a spokesman for NITB highlighted of the importance of ‘‘developing the positive aspects of this event’’. Members of the Grand Orange Lodge have even participated in welcome host training, with two achieving NITB-registered trainer status.

The Twelfth of July is still a fraught time for many across the North, but realising the full economic potential for the event could have real benefits for all, according to the organisers.

‘‘This is just the start of the journey,” said Irvine. ‘‘We are not going to transform the Twelfth overnight, and there is still some resistance to the changes, but in the long run, there is tremendous scope to make this work for everyone.”

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.

Racist attacks on Roma are latest low in North’s intolerant history

ANALYSIS: Can recent violence towards immigrants in Belfast be linked to the BNP’s success in European elections, writes PETER GEOGHEGAN. (The Irish Times 18/06/09)

WITH ITS new, purpose-built Chinese centre, popular Asian supermarket and plethora of speciality shops, the Ormeau Road is Belfast’s most visibly diverse and multi-ethnic neighbourhood.

roma1On sunny days, nearby Ormeau Park resonates with a myriad of accents and languages, but yesterday summer revellers were nowhere to be seen. Instead, as the rain poured down, the air was filled with the sound of children crying and car boots slamming as the O-Zone leisure complex became impromptu home to more than 100 beleaguered Romanians, members of that country’s Roma minority. These are the latest victims of racist violence in Belfast, living proof that while Northern Ireland may be “post-conflict” it is not yet post-intolerance.

Before being forced to flee their homes, the Romanians, some 20 families in all, had lived in the affluent (and reasonably mixed) Lisburn Road area of south Belfast. It was here that police received their first report of an attack on one of their properties last Thursday, with further racist incidents the following night making local news bulletins.

Sympathetic residents responded by organising an anti-racist rally on Monday night, but this show of solidarity was met by local youths throwing bottles and chanting slogans in support of the British far-right group Combat 18. Less than 24 hours later, the Romanian families were sheltering in a church hall near Queen’s University, having spent the previous night all huddled together in one house, genuinely fearful for their lives.

Shocking as these events are – and even British prime minister Gordon Brown has weighed in with condemnation – where pernicious racism is concerned, Belfast has a record.

In the winter of 2003, Chinese homes in the Loyalist Donegall Road area of south Belfast suffered a sustained series of attacks. This grizzly episode, which included the circulation of a leaflet to schools and homes warning of the dangers of “the yellow peril”, led to many leaving their homes and to the BBC bestowing on Belfast the unwanted sobriquet of “race hate capital of Europe”.

Far from being isolated incidents, these attacks set the tone for a sustained rise in racist violence. The PSNI recorded a two-fold increase in manifestations of racism between 2003 and 2007, with south Belfast recording the worst reported levels in Northern Ireland (over 125 racist incidents in 2006-2007 alone). Although figures for racist violence have continued to climb, in the last two years the increase has been markedly less steep. The issue of racism has, until now, been out of both the local and national press for some time.

The lack of any substantial far-right presence has been held up as proof that, far from being the most racist city in Europe, Belfast is now an accepting, welcoming place for migrants. Events of the last few days have shattered this myth. Only a few weeks after the success of the British National Party (BNP) in the European elections, youths on Belfast streets are shouting fascist slogans and attacking immigrants.

Coincidence? Seems unlikely.

In targeting the Roma, these latest attacks have also hit at an easily identifiable and particularly vulnerable group in Northern Irish society, and one which is currently suffering increased persecution throughout Europe.

While there is no evidence of the involvement of neo-Nazi groups such as the National Front or Combat 18 in the latest attacks, that pages from Mein Kampf preceded the bottles through the Roma homes suggests that far-right ideology is gaining a foothold in the minds of disaffected white youth.

Links between the far right and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have often been overstated, and the veracity of denials of involvement issued by both the UVF and UDA have been widely accepted. Nevertheless, Jackie McDonald, de facto head of the UDA, was refused entry to the O-Zone complex yesterday and was forced to issue his condemnation from the rain-sodden car park.

McDonald would have been better speaking directly to the perpetrators of the attacks, youths from the nearby Village area, a run-down network of loyalist terraces where unemployment is high, union flags limp from lampposts and faded red, white and blue paint adorns every kerbstone. With an abundance of rental accommodation (a byproduct of the Northern Ireland Office rolling out Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy in the 1980s), the Village has been very popular with new migrants coming to Belfast, particularly those from eastern Europe.

In recent years, racist incidents and protests against “drug-dealing” eastern Europeans have not been uncommon in the Village. However, tensions ratcheted up further earlier this year following bloody exchanges between local gangs and Polish hooligans before and after a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Poland.

In the wake of this violence, many Poles were forced to leave the area.

That youths from such areas are turning on a nearby Roma population is both shameful and all too predictable in a society where violence still plays a major role in some sections.

If there are nuggets of comfort to be taken, it is the unanimous condemnation that has quickly followed and the decision by Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie to rehouse the displaced Roma.

Many have said they would rather return home, an understandable reaction under the circumstances