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Racist attacks increase in the north

15th November 2004

JM Thorn

Racist attacks across the north are increasing. According to police figures more than five racist attacks take place in Belfast every week. Between April and September this year the number of attacks recorded in north Belfast compared with the previous year. Over this 183-day period there were 129 so-called hate crimes recorded throughout the city. Although Belfast has the highest incidence of racial attacks, they have also occurred in Craigavon, Dungannon and Ballymena. The most recent incident involved an attack on a Polish man in Portadown.

Many of these attacks have been directed against migrant workers. These people include eastern Europeans and Portuguese as well as Filipinos. On Tuesday 9 November the homes of Filipino nurses living in north Belfast were attacked. Graffiti calling for “Chinks Out” was daubed on doors and cars. Swastikas and other right-wing slogans were also sprayed. While this was a particularly shocking incident and received much media attention many attacks go unreported. Davy Carlin of the Anti-Racism Network (ARN) has claimed that the reported attacks “are just the tip of the iceberg.” He also expressed concern that they were “becoming more violent and spreading to places with no history of racist violence." As well as migrant workers the long-established Chinese and Indian communities continue to be a target. Alongside violent attacks, there have also been reports of discrimination. On Saturday 30 October the Irish News ran a front-page report that landlords were vetting tenants on the basis of race. According to this report, advertisements in estate agents were actively discouraging ethnic minorities from renting certain properties. Details of properties for rent were accompanied by warnings such as “no Chinese” and “Not suitable for people of ethnic backgrounds”.


On the same day as these reports appeared, a demonstration against racism took place in Belfast. Organised by the Anti-Racism Network and the Chinese Welfare Association, it had as its theme “No Excuses for Racism”. Around 1,500 people marched from the Arts College to Belfast City Hall, where they heard speeches from representatives of the Chinese, Latin American and Muslim communities. While these representatives were from different groups, there were two common themes that ran through their speeches. The first was an appreciation of the support that ordinary people were showing for the victims of racism, and the second was a frustration with the agencies of the sate, particularly the police, to stop racist attacks. This was point was made strongly by Davy Carlin of the Anti-Racism Network who condemned the response of the police and statutory agencies, such as the Housing Executive, to racist attacks. The statistic of a three per cent prosecution rate for racially motivated crimes says it all.

While the demonstration was a positive event, particularly the number of young people who took part and the support it received from the trade union movement, it had some limitations. The most obvious of these was the absence of people from ethnic minority communities. While there were speakers on the platform there were very few in the crowd. The organisers, clearly sensitive to this, claimed it was because they were scared to be seen publicly opposing racism. This may be partly true, but it also shows a lack of confidence in the anti racism movement to make a difference, and a lack of political development within the ethnic minority communities themselves.

There is also a problem with the very generalised way in which racism is being tackled. The ARN goes out of its way to emphasise that racism in the north is across the board and is in all communities. However, this attempt to create a spurious balance really distorts what is going on. While it is true that racist attitudes are prevalent in all communities, the vast majority of racist attacks are being carried out in Protestant areas, and many of these are being organised by loyalist paramilitaries. Although this is well documented, the ARN shies away form stating it out of fear that it will be accused of being biased against one community. The consequence of this is that it actually accommodates to racism. This was seen in the political endorsements for the demonstration, including the Unionist Party, the DUP and PUP. Both the unionist parties have been involved in whipping up racist sentiment in Protestant areas, the most recent example being their opposition to a proposed Chinese Community Centre in the Donegall Pass area. Even worse, the PUP, mouthpiece for the UVF, has been making excuses for that organisation’s involvement in racist attacks. A movement that was serious about combating racism would not seek the endorsement of such parties.

The ARN needs to advance beyond appeals to the state. It is useful to expose the ineffectiveness of the police and other bodies in tackling racism, but it is wrong to raise expectations that the nature of these institutions will change. The state didn’t stop sectarian attacks; indeed it has been complicit in many, so why would it stop racist attacks? This also ignores the racism that is embedded within state itself, from the unequal treatment of migrant workers to the jailing of asylum seekers. While the development of an anti-racist movement in the north must be welcomed, if it is to be effective it must break out of these stifling political conventions.



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