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