Susan McKay: Homophobia and racism chime with sectarianism

Part two of series on social issues highlights the rise of hate crimes in the divided society

West Belfast man Tim Brannigan. “People used to shout at black British soldiers, ‘go back to England you black bastard’, and then they’d turn to me and say, ‘No offence, Tim’.” Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press

West Belfast man Tim Brannigan. “People used to shout at black British soldiers, ‘go back to England you black bastard’, and then they’d turn to me and say, ‘No offence, Tim’.” Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press


Summer in Northern Ireland is always fraught with tension over marches and flags, and flare-ups of intolerance and bigotry of one kind or another, or a toxic mix of several, are common during a season when, for a variety of reasons, “the blood is up.”

Three recent crimes, one homophobic, one sectarian and one racist, all indicate dangerous levels of hatred and prejudice.

The young man was on his way out for the evening. It was still bright, a Sunday in August and the streets were almost empty. He left his house and walked across Alexandra Park in North Belfast towards the Antrim Road. Four youths approached him, blocking his way. They demanded to know his name, code for finding out if he was a Protestant or Catholic. The peaceline runs through the park, and he had, as it happens, crossed the peaceline from a Protestant area. But when he spoke, his assailants, who came from the Catholic side of the peaceline, found their sectarian intentions could be bolstered by another set of prejudices. Picking up from his voice and manner that the young man is gay, they unleashed a tirade of homophobic abuse. Then they ordered him to strip. They took his wallet and his phone and left him naked on the street. His friends say he is traumatised. He has left Belfast and moved to London. He does not wish to be named.

Like many Northern nationalists, Michelle Gildernew was on holiday in the Republic with her family during the weekend of the 12th of July. On the day before the “Glorious Twelfth” she got a call from a friend to say that there was an effigy of her on the Eleventh Night bonfire in Moygashel, near her home in Co Tyrone. There were signs up which read: “Sinn Fein scum hands off our culture - public hanging 10.30pm”.

The hanging duly took place to cheers and applause, though one man was badly injured after he got hit in the neck by a bolt which shot out from the elaborate gallows. Gildernew was horrified. “I have three small children and I have worked hard to make sure they don’t grow up with hatred and that they are non-sectarian,” she said. “I tried to keep this from them but of course once we got home they heard about it and got very angry and very upset.”

Republican bonfires are lit to commorate internment on the August 8th, a tradition recently revived by dissident republicans. Tim Brannigan had just picked up his iPad to take a photo of the paratroopers flag on top of the bonfire on wasteground behind his home in West Belfast when a rock came crashing through the bedroom window. He then heard the rest of the windows at the back of the house smashing.

“I realised there was a whole gang of them,” he says. “They were roaring and shouting, calling me nigger and black bastard and the bricks and stones just kept coming. They were shouting at me to get out, that they would get me out. It was horrendous. Absolute bedlam.” Brannigan called the PSNI and although several Land Rovers arrived with blue lights flashing within minutes, there was little they could do. Brannigan accepts their view that had they entered the field, which was full of young republicans from all over Belfast, the situation could have escalated into a riot. He has been abused before by “local hoods and drunks and kids that I give out to for using our garden as a way into the field.” But this, he said, was the most sustained, violent and relentless attack yet.

Ulster Unionist Alderman David Brown is a family friend of the young man humiliated on the street in North Belfast. “This just shows that we are still so far in the dark ages. This was a quiet lad just going about his life and these clowns have driven him away now,” he said. “This was extreme but the trouble is, being homophobic is quite the norm in working class North Belfast. It doesn’t help the way some of the politicians talk about homosexuals as if they were from another planet.” The DUP recently blocked an attempt to introduce gay marriage legislation and the Catholic Church also restated its opposition.

When Michelle Gildernew served as minister for agriculture, she succeeded in gaining the trust and support of unionist farmers. “It is just awful to see that another generation is being reared to be full of sectarianism,” she said. “As an MP I was there for everyone, and I did plenty of work for the people of Moygashel.” She is angry that the man to whom she lost her Westminster seat in May this year, Ulster Unionist Tom Elliot, did not condemn the incident. Elliott told local papers it “was not appropriate” and that he would not condone it. However, he added that it was “much less than murdering people in sectarian acts” which, he said, Sinn Fein had not condemned.

Tim Brannigan worries about West Belfast. “Those of us who lived through the conflict are now at the mercy of teenagers who seem to be out of control,” he says. “I don’t agree with those who write them off as scum, or those who imply that what is needed is for the baseball bats to be brought back. There is a certain complacency - we have a big wall of international murals on the Falls, but that doesn’t mean there is no racism. People used to shout at black British soldiers, ‘go back to England you black bastard’, and then they’d turn to me and say, ‘No offence, Tim.’ I look different. I carry a man bag, I high five the kids in the street and I don’t drink in local bars until I pass out. I get called nigger, and paedophile and queer.”

Brannigan is the author of a memoir entitled, “Where Are You Really from?” “People in Belfast ask me where I’m from and I say the Falls Road. They say, “But where are you really from? It is a challenge. It means that not only do they not believe me, but it is demonstrably untrue - because I’m black. Even though I am a former IRA prisoner and I’ve lived here all my life. Eventually I say that my Da was from West Africa and they say, ‘Ok.’ The white point of view is restored as the right one. The rest of us are the others, the outsiders.”

MOYGASHEL: ‘It is not racist to protect your community’

Moygashel used to be a mill village but the linen mill has long since closed. Its housing estate is festooned with union jacks, Ulster flags, Israeli flags, UDR flags and many others. There is an elaborate orange arch and banners commemorating everything from the Somme to Drumcree. Among them, next to one featuring the Queen, and under the words “lest we forget” there is a huge photo of Wesley Somerville with the date of his birth, 1943 and his death, 1975. Underneath, it says the banner was sponsored by a local cultural group. Somerville, who was from Moygashel, was a member of the notorious Glenanne gang. He died when the bomb he was planting in the Miami Showband’s van blew up prematurely. Another gang member died in the atrocity along with three members of the band. The 40th anniversary was marked this summer with moving ceremonies.

Asked about the banner and about the burning of the Gildernew effigy, local people respond with the practised evasion of a community dominated by paramilitaries. They have no opinion about the banner. A young woman says she had no problem bringing her children to the bonfire and watching the hanging and burning of the effigy. “It is just our culture,” she says. “I grew up here so I am used to it.” A man says they have to defend their identity. No one expresses any concern either about posters that say: “It is not racist to protect your community”. This relates to the refusal of some local landlords to rent their houses to non-nationals. Nearby Dungannon has a significant population of Timorese and Brazilians who work in the chicken factory.

In Derry, the bonfires built by young republicans were also determined to declare a basic set of strong political messages. As well as British flags, there were placards which read, “No bloodstained poppies” and “Sinn Fein - MI5, and PSNI-RUC.” Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey was incensed and demanded that Sinn Fein call for the their removal. “It is done to insult the memory of British service personnel,” he says. “There has been an attempt over the years to demonise the poppy and it is particularly in your eye because this is the centenary of the first World War, when many Irish men, Protestant and Catholic, went off and didn’t return.” He does not differentiate between the Provisional IRA, the Real IRA and others. “However, in Londonderry there is a strong dissident element and they are directing the youngsters. They are attacking unionists and also Sinn Fein. It is a push for supremacy.”

Gary Donnelly, a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee was elected to the city council on the first count last year. He says he has no problem with being called a dissident republican, and defends the symbolic burning of the poppies. “The bonfires here weren’t sectarian - they were anti-British,” he says. In December last, he refused to condemn a bomb attack on the PSNI in December after which there were riots and the arrest of several young people, among them a 13 year old child. Some local people have protested that very young children were getting drunk at the bonfires this summer. “There is a culture of underage drinking here,” he says. “The likes of the young people that go to the bonfires have been abandoned by society and by the Stormont parties. I know because I spend time at the bonfires talking with them, eating sausages cooked on upturned supermarket trollies with them. The money that comes into this city goes to community groups that are Sinn Fein dynasties.” He continues to call the police the RUC. Although he called on Sinn Fein to condemn what he calls “heavy handed policing”, he says condemnation is pointless. “I myself was burned in effigy on a loyalist bonfire in Bushmills, ” he says. “It isn’t sectarian. It’s because of my politics. Par for the course. I’m not saying it isn’t distasteful, but it has always been like that.” [ENDS]


The North’s hate crime law is expected to be tested this month [September] in relation to bonfires, in a case involving a loyalist bonfire in Antrim last summer at which homophobia, racism and sectarianism were all on display. Rainbow flags were burned along with tricolours, on which the message was painted: “Keep Antrim Tidy - wee ‘r’ not racist just don’t like cotton picking niggers or taigs!” Keep Antrim Tidy is code for KAT - kill all taigs. A hanged effigy of Gerry Adams was also burned. One man is to be charged with incitement to hatred. Prosecutions are being considered in relation to some of this summer’s fires.

The legislation was introduced in 2004, and allows for longer sentences for crimes found to have been motivated by hatred. Announcing it, the then Secretary of State for NI, Paul Murphy said: “These proposals send out the message that sectarianism and racism have no place in our community, and are an important step in establishing a safer and more tolerant society in Northern Ireland, which I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will warmly welcome.”

Police statistics from May 2014 show that in 2013/14, the PSNI recorded 1,284 sectarian incidents, 982 racist incidents, 280 homophobic incidents, 107 disability incidents, 24 faith/religion incidents and 23 transphobic incidents.

The crime outcome rate was 17.3% for homophobic crimes, 17.2% for racist crimes and 15.4% for sectarian crimes, all of which were decreases on the comparable rate for the previous year. It is easy to perceive hatred - harder to prove it in court. [ENDS]