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

My Starring Role in the Mourne Supremacy

A piece on an exhilarating weekend in the Mournes, first published in The Irish Times:

‘I’VE BEEN CLIMBING since I was six,” says Ian, our amiable instructor at Tollymore Mountain Centre, as my girlfriend takes her first, tentative steps on the climbing wall. “My dad rented a climbing frame for my birthday, I loved it and here I am 25 years later.”

Then he asks about my outdoor experience, and the conversation ends. A lone school trip to a local adventure centre – abiding memory: almost drowning in the Shannon when my canoe capsized – the odd game of five-a-side, the occasional jog . . . and that’s it. But, surely, if anything is going to make me rethink my sedentary ways, it’s an activity-filled weekend in the beautiful Mourne Mountains.

Less than two hours’ drive from Dublin, and only one from Belfast, the Mournes offer a spectacular combination of wild upland, rolling countryside and coast.

Dominated by the majestic Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, the area around the seaside town of Newcastle is renowned for its walks but also has excellent facilities for everything from horse-riding and canoeing to orienteering, bouldering and, as we are discovering, climbing.

First off, Ian teaches us the ropes. Literally. Initially, the complex climbing knots bamboozle me (and remind me why my first scout meeting was my last), but soon both Ealasaid and I are scaling the 10m indoor climbing wall with surprising ease.

Click here to read the rest of this feature on the wonderful Mournes.

Hotel Review, Fairmont in St Andrew's

Originally appeared in The Irish Times:
I realised the Fairmont was upmarket long before we arrived. What gave it away was not the price of a room, the fancy website or the hotel’s five stars but the automated e-mail booking confirmation: alongside rail and car hire, its getting-there options included helicopter charters from Edinburgh and Glasgow airports – although as these cost £1,400 (€1,575) and £1,680 (€1,890), respectively, my first helicopter ride would have to wait a bit longer.

Working off a more modest budget, we took the bus from Edinburgh instead – open return £9.50 (€10.75). It was no loss: the two-hour journey over the spectacular Forth Bridge and through Fife’s undulating countryside was very pleasant.

Having phoned ahead, we were met at the bus station by the Fairmont Transportation and Concierge Team, a free shuttle bus that runs hourly between the hotel and town.

The imposing, if not exactly attractive, Fairmont is 10km away. Built in 2000 on a sizable estate, this monumental hotel, part of a luxury chain, overlooks both picturesque St Andrews and the North Sea.

While the exterior’s three storeys reference everything from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to classic French chateaus without a clear sense of style or intention, inside is all about one thing: Scotland. From the kilt-wearing porter, the affable Davie, to the life-size portrait of King James I, dressed in tartan, hanging over the fireplace in the foyer – don’t see too many of them for your tourist euro – the Fairmont leaves you in no doubt which side of the border you are on.

“You’ll love your stay here,” Davie remarked as he led us through the revolving doors and towards the first-floor check-in desk.

Large hotels often feel daunting and impersonal, but not the Fairmont. The reception looks on to an open-plan ground floor, with brass banisters leading down to the main dining area and an airy lobby.

Check-in was courteous and efficient. Soon we were admiring the impressionistic coastal scenes on the taupe walls of our spacious soundproofed room. If ever there was a hotel room to live in, this was it: calming dark-wood furnishings, writing desk complete with headed notepaper and cream chaise longue, all complemented by standard features such as flat-screen television and wireless internet. Wooden hangars hung in the wardrobe, and the commodious bathroom was equipped with bath, walk-in shower, matching dressing-gown-and- slipper sets and, I was assured, more than acceptable toiletries. The room also had three telephones.

With a Mediterranean- influenced restaurant, Esperante, and two bars serving food, there was no shortage of meal-time options within the hotel. We were keen to explore St Andrews, however, so the concierge, who, like all the staff, was both helpful and good-humoured, booked us a table at a reasonably priced restaurant in the centre of town.

St Andrews has a quaint, chocolate-box feel: cobbled streets, ivy-covered houses, ecclesiastical ruins and, of course, its august university, which was founded in 1410. Although many of the original buildings have been replaced, we were able to stroll through the quads of two colleges: St Salvator’s and St Mary’s.

It was graduation time, and every bar in town seemed full to bursting with mortar boards and floor-length academic gowns. Admitting defeat in our quest for a quiet pint, we caught the final shuttle and were lying on our comfortable bed before 11pm. Any twinge of disappointment at our Friday evening’s curtailment quickly evaporated in a relaxing fug of Jonathan Ross and a pair of room-service gin and tonics.

At weekends breakfast does not finish until 11am – perfect for a lie-in. Breakfast was above average: a continental buffet well stocked with fruits, cereals, pastries, cold cuts and, although not cooked to order, good sausages, bacon and eggs.

Rather than investigate the hotel’s spa we took a gorgeous stroll in the unseasonably warm spring sunshine. Our walk took us along rugged sea cliffs and past the two 18-hole championship links courses, the Torrance (designed by the Scottish golfer Sam) and the Kittocks. Guests can play both courses at reduced rates (£45-£75/€52-€85, depending on the time of year); non-golfers can book a session with the club’s resident pro.

Very competitively priced, particularly for tourists paying in euro, the Fairmont proves that you don’t have to break the bank, or even be a golfer, to enjoy a relaxing break in the home of golf. Sitting on the bus back to Edinburgh, I wished every luxury hotel could be so friendly, unstuffy and accommodating – and couldn’t help wondering what a spin in a helicopter might be like.

Where St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, 00-44-1334-837000, www.fairmont.com/standrews.

What Five-star hotel overlooking St Andrews and the North Sea with two 18-hole championship golf courses.

Rooms 209 over three storeys, plus two four-bedroom properties.

Best rates B&B from £99 (€112). Sunday spa package, including B&B, from £159 (€179) per room. Book early to save up to 30 per cent. We paid £119 (€135) for a night.

Restaurant and bars Restaurant, cocktail bar and traditional Scottish bar.

Amenities Spa and pool, free shuttle, walks, golf, valet parking and conference rooms.

Antony and the Johnsons, Waterfront Belfast

Review originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post:

‘The only time I’ve ever played here,” Antony Hegarty’s sonorous voice intoned from behind his grand piano, ‘‘a lady gave me a packet of magic Rolos and said they’d bring good fortune.”

Touted by Lou Reed since their early days, Antony and hi s band, the Johnsons, have never wanted for luck, but perhaps it was the ersatz confectionery that gave them that crucial final push – a couple of months after their 2005 gig in Belfast , they s cooped the Mercury Music Prize.

Fans of Hegarty’s stark, plaintive songs had to wait almost four years between the breakthrough record, I Am A Bird Now, and his third album, The Crying Light. Released earlier this year, it is a dark, moody opus often drenched in despondency. But when performed live, many of these same tracks exhibited an unexpectedly warm, even soulful character.

In his distinct, throaty singing voice – a curious hybrid of Boy George, Nina Simone and David Tibet – the cherubic Englishman delivered heartfelt songs of sadness, anomie and, as on I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy and For Today I Am A Boy, androgynity.

The Johnsons provided the perfect foil. Their guitar, drums, wind and string accompaniment – Rob Moose’s exquisite guitar tone was particularly impressive – complemented, but never drowned out, Hegarty’s magnificent falsetto vocals.

Mirroring the joyous sunshine outside, Hegarty quickly warmed to the generous crowd: bantering happily, introducing new songs with anecdotes, taking requests and – on The Crying Light – cutting the most animated figure behind a piano this side of Elton John, fingers clicking to the beat as his sizeable frame swayed in his makeshift brown robe.

An audience-assisted version of Dust and Water was followed by a majestic, uplifting Fistful of Love which, unlike other old favourites, was indulged, rather than truncated.

Two thoroughly deserved Standing ovations were book-ended by the fragile Cripple and the Starfish before an almost uplifting Hope There’s Someone brought the concert to a fitting close.

Soaringly beautiful, yet surprisingly grounded, Antony and the Johnsons clearly don’t need to rely on supernatural sweets any more.

For Anyone Doing A Viva…

A gruelling inquisition or a friendly chat – PhD candidates’ experiences of vivas can vary widely. Preparation is essential, writes Peter Geoghegan, but universities could do more to help, too. Originally appeared in Times Higher Education

I will never forget the day I submitted my PhD for examination. Having spent most of the previous night proofreading the final draft, I rose early that morning, excited by the prospect of moving on from four long and often frustrating years as a postgraduate.

I had envisaged being overcome by a mixture of joy and relief when the dissertation was finally handed over, but as I carried my PhD in loose leaves to the university’s bindery, it slowly dawned on me that submission was not the end of my postgraduate story. It was just the beginning of a new and particularly anxious chapter: the viva.

Click here to read full article

Oh, What A Lovely War! Review Sunday Business Post 11/04/09

Joan Littlewood once said Oh, What A Lovely War! ‘is not aconventional play and will not come to life if treated as such’. From the Perriot clown who chastises the audience taking their seats to the pre-recorded sing-song by Bruiser Production’s patron Duke Special, this revival of Littlewood’s savage evisceration of the first world war seldom plays it straight.

First produced by the legendary Theatre Workshop in 1963, the play blends militant politics and entertainment as a Pierrot troupe perform sketches and songs while images and newspaper clippings about the number of dead flash up on a screen behind them. In this recasting of the great war the real heroes are not the callous, negligent officer class but the aptly titled cannon fodder.

This is physical theatre at its finest. The nine-strong troupe convincingly shift between intentionally jingoistic caricatures of the great powers – effeminate France, anti-Semitic Russia, officious Germany – and ribald trench songs about everything from poison gas and bombs to homesickness and fear of death: ‘I don’t want a bayonet in my belly/I don’t want my bollocks shot away.’

Humour is used throughout to both send up and underline the absurdity of war. In an early scene a reticent gang of Pierrots in English army caps practice rifle manoeuvres with pink parasols and sticks. Admonishing their squeamishness, a stereotypically foul-mouthed, moustachioed drill sergeant growls at them: ‘You look at Jerry, imagine he’s doing something to your mother.’

Commandingly directed by Lisa May, the play evokes strong emotional responses without drifting into sentimentality. The potent mix of facts and photographs attests the scale of the horror, while dramatic moments like the exchange of gifts and songs across no man’s land at Christmas 1914 provide haunting, poignant reminders of the gulf between combatants and cause.

The performances are universally excellent. Although it seems somewhat churlish to single anyone out the acting and singing of Patrick J O’Reilly, Faolán Morgan and Niamh McGowan deserve special praise.

By turns bawdry and touching, the songs retain a vibrancy that belies their age, and live instruments, including accordion, flute and drums, believably recreate the sounds of war.

In keeping with Bruiser’s maxim of ‘minimum set for maximum effect’, David Craig’s spartan set is wholly fit for purpose. All furniture needs are served by four movable slabs, and Sean Paul O’Rawe’s unfussy lighting – simple chains of naked coloured bulbs – complements the drama’s shifting tone.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, the spectre of war still hangs over all. While it would be fascinating to see Oh, What A Lovely War! updated for such media saturated conflicts, this excellent production is a fitting tribute to those who went to their graves in the first world war, and a damning indictment of those who sent them there.