An easy target for the hate mobs


NEWS FEATURES:The much-invoked mantra that ‘racism is the new sectarianism’ has been used to explain the latest attacks on immigrant families in Belfast, but it’s much more complicated than that, wqrites FIONOLA MEREDITHin Belfast

THE PICTURES of Romanian children, their pale, perplexed faces pressed against the windows of the bus taking them away after their south Belfast homes came under attack from racist youths, said it all. Once more, Northern Ireland was in disgrace, marked by yet another stain of shame on its international reputation.

But just how deeply engrained are racist attitudes in the North? Are the attacks on the Romanians – members of the ethnic Roma community – the actions of a small, unrepresentative minority of hateful thugs? Or do they point to an endemic prejudice, a widespread tacit endorsement of those who wield the bricks, bottles and stones?

Anecdotal evidence – in the form of calls and texts to local radio programmes, as well as comments on the internet – indicates that there are plenty of people who are prepared to justify the attacks, if not explicitly sanction them. For every message of support and encouragement for the beleaguered Roma, there seem to have been twice as many negative responses.

One message read, “They shouldn’t be in this country. They’re taking our homes and our jobs. They should be out, they don’t belong here”, while another described the attacks as “wrong and unacceptable”, but added: “Sometimes it’s the only way that some people can express themselves when they are powerless and disadvantaged by the political system.”

And it’s true that South Belfast in particular has form when it comes to instances of racist intimidation. In April, four Hungarian women fled their Donegall Road home, at first hiding under the kitchen table as a gang smashed their windows and forced its way in.

In the same month, following trouble at a World Cup qualifying match between Northern Ireland and Poland, 40 people were forced to leave the loyalist Village area because of intimidation. Nor is this a recent phenomenon, associated with an influx of migrant workers from EU accession states.

In 2003, when the long-established Chinese Welfare Association, based in the Donegall Pass area of the city, tried to build a community centre, there was an upsurge in violence, and loyalist paramilitaries were suspected of circulating leaflets warning of a “yellow invasion” that would “undermine the community’s Britishness”.

Surveys, too, appear to back up the bleak picture, consistently showing high levels of perceived prejudice towards migrant workers in the North. In fact, in one 2007 study, many respondents admitted to their own prejudice, with 31 per cent stating that they were “very” or “a little” prejudiced, rising to 41 per cent of 16 to 25 year olds.

So is it an open and shut case, a straightforward diagnosis easily assimilated by the global media, that Northern Ireland deserves a reputation as the race hate capital of Europe? Some commentators remain to be persuaded. “I have never been convinced that [racism] is that much worse here than anywhere else,” says Dr Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research in Belfast. “What I would say, though, is that people who practise racism have learned from practising sectarianism. If you don’t like people in some sections of the community, then it’s seen that force is the appropriate solution.”

And, as Jarman and others point out, Roma people have faced vicious discrimination in other parts of Europe, where persistent attacks have resulted in whole sections of the community being driven from their homes. Here in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, he says, the Roma – who, like all Romanians, are subject to restrictions on access to public services in the UK and Ireland – are “an easily picked upon group”.

THE PSNI HAS COMEunder severe criticism for the perceived tardiness of its response to the worsening situation with the Roma families. Alliance party Assembly member Anna Lo says that “had the police dealt properly and quickly with several nights of racist incidents, the problem would not have escalated”.

But Jarman believes that the high rates of reported hate crime incidents exist precisely because the police have been active in encouraging foreign residents to come forward if they are attacked: “It’s made to look worse because of the work the police are doing in trying to address it.”

Meanwhile, sociologist Chris Gilligan, writing in Spikedmagazine, questions the much-invoked mantra that “racism is the new sectarianism”. Despite the significant increase in the number of migrant workers coming to Northern Ireland since 2001, Gilligan notes that the change to the demographic has been largely trouble-free. He points out that “most immigrants have settled in without experiencing racial harassment . . . and the more immigrants there are the more likely this will be the case”.

But where racist attacks do occur, why do so many appear to emanate from the loyalist community? Commentator Eamonn McCann puts it bluntly: the stone-throwing youths “feel – and it’s a feeling they know is endorsed and welcomed by many nationalists – that Catholics are on the way up, Protestants on the way down”. Impoverished, resentful, and with a sense of nothing to lose, it seems that some are drawn to vent their frustrations on easy targets such as the Roma people.

Others believe that attributing blame to one side of the community is in itself counter-productive. Peter Bunting, assistant general secretary of ICTU, says: “This is not a time for pointing the finger at so-called ‘host’ communities. There is no evidence that these attacks are organised in any way, and the overwhelming majority of the diverse community of south Belfast are supportive of the Romanian families in their plight.”

Paula Bradshaw, director of the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, who works to support and empower young men in this run-down area, says that the community there feels it has been demonised. “Some young men have brought shame, but they are the children of the area,” she says. “People see the boy or the young man rather than the racist. These young men have been brought up on a diet of sectarian hatred, they lead an insecure existence, and hurt people will hurt people.”

The fascist overtones of the attacks – the chanting of Combat 18 slogans, the Nazi salutes, the claim that a leaflet quoting Hitler’s Mein Kampfwas put through the letterbox of a Romanian family – have led to fears that far-right ideology is gaining substantial ground among socially-alienated loyalist youths. Paddy Meehan, a member of Socialist Youth, and one of the organisers of the protest in defence of the Lisburn Road Roma, has received a warning from the police that his home in the area may come under firebomb attack. Meehan says his would-be attackers are “a small hardcore group of fascists who are scapegoating immigrant workers to build a base of support. It is important that local communities are mobilised to defeat these groups now while they are small and that is exactly what I and other local residents are now determined to do.”

But are the perpetrators really “fascist criminals” as Martin McGuinness described them? That implies a level of chilling coherence that appears absent from the brutish racist thuggery that occurred. Eamonn McCann thinks that in chanting fascist slogans, the youths “appear to have been invoking an established brand rather than acting at the instigation of an organisation, whether explicitly racist or associated with a loyalist paramilitary group”.

Paula Bradshaw claims that the literacy difficulties of the young men she works with – many of whom have the reading age of a seven or eight year old – means that terms like Mein Kampf“wouldn’t be in their vocabulary”.

DEREK HANWAY, THEdirector of Traveller support group An Munia Tober, who has been working to assist the Roma community, is concerned that the whole issue – although terribly distressing for the families involved – has been blown wildly out of proportion. “Everything gets so hyped in Northern Ireland,” he says. “There was no mass protest against the Roma moving into the area. And, as part of my academic research into the Roma community in Northern Ireland, I came face to face with over 30 Roma people and not one said they had experienced overt abuse. The issue could have been dealt with quickly and quietly, and that would have been in the best interest of the families.”

Hanway says that he is concerned that some protesters were using the vigil to further their own political agenda. One local woman who attended the protest, and was struck by one of the bottles flung by the youths, said she was uncomfortable with the tactics of some of the protesters. “There was sloganeering going on, people shouting ‘Nazi scum off our streets’. That wasn’t helpful, it could really exacerbate the problem. Those people weren’t thinking of the Romanians when they said that.”

As is so often the case in Northern Ireland, what at first appears to be a simple narrative turns out to be a much more tangled and complicated story.