Racist intimidation in Belfast
19 June 2009
The scenes that headlined the TV news this week, of families fleeing their homes to escape racial violence, are reminiscent of Bosnia during the war in the 1990’s. But this is not archive footage from the Balkans. It is actually a record of what is happening in Belfast right now.
A series of attacks on Roma families living in the Lisburn Rd area of south Belfast has resulted in over a hundred of them fleeing their homes. The attacks began last Wednesday, apparently without any motivation apart from racism, and continued in the following days. A car was damaged, windows were broken, one child in a cot had a lucky escape when a large stone or rock landed close to her head, and doors were pushed in. It has been reported some of those involved in the attacks made reference to the British racist group, Combat 18. There were also local reports of extracts from Hitler’s Mein Kampf being pushed through the letterboxes of those targeted. Anna Lo, the MLA for the area, claimed that in one incident “a man waving a gun over his head, telling them to get out or they are going to be shot”. All this culminated on Tuesday night when the Roma families tried to take refuge in a single house. But with dozens of people left on the pavement they were forced to evacuate to a nearby church hall. The next morning they were taken to a council leisure centre and then onto emergency accommodation where they have been told they can stay for a week.
Though a relatively small group, compared with other ethnic minorities in the north, the Roma people have been a visible feature of Belfast city life in the past two years. Many of them sell the Belfast Telegraph on the streets. Others are involved in car washing, some sell the Big Issues, others simply beg. Their obviously foreign appearance and existence on the margins of society has inevitably engendered some racist sentiment within the local population, but the recent attacks mark a significant escalation.
The organised nature of the attacks, and the proximity of the victims’ houses to loyalist areas such as Sandy Row and the Village, points to the involvement of loyalists. It is safe to assume that people in and around loyalism are behind the attacks. While UDA has denied involvement, the attackers would have needed the support (or at the very least tolerance) of loyalist organisations, to carry out such a sustained campaign. The stories about the BNP and Combat 18 involvement have no credibility – they have no organised presence on the ground. There are elements within loyalism who may sympathise with them, but loyalists are not directed by British neo-Nazis. Hostility towards people, whether they be Catholics or immigrants, who are viewed to be “encroaching” into Protestant areas has always been part and parcel of loyalism. With the increase in immigration into the north, the racist element within loyalism has become more evident.
There has also been a recent history of loyalist involvement in racist violence in south Belfast. In the winter of 2003, Chinese homes in the Donegall Road area of south Belfast suffered a sustained series of attacks. This episode, which included the circulation of a leaflet to schools and homes warning of the dangers of “the yellow peril”, was linked to UVF extortion racket against local Chinese businesses. In recent years, racist incidents and protests against “drug-dealing” eastern Europeans have not been uncommon in the Village. Hostility towards immigrants was ratcheted up further this year following fighting between local gangs and Polish hooligans before and after a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Poland. Many Poles were forced to leave the area in the wake of these disturbances. The PSNI recorded a two-fold increase in racist incidents between 2003 and 2007, with south Belfast recording the worst reported levels (over 125 racist incidents in 2006-2007 alone). Given this background the attack on the Roma families is all too predictable
That predictability makes the response of the police even more lamentable. Despite homes coming under attack over a five-day period and an anti-racist demo called in response coming under attack from missile throng loyalists, police offered no protection to these people. Instead the incidents were allowed to escalate. It is reported that the families had made a number of 999 calls when attacked and some weren’t responded to or that it took two hours and more for police to respond. The PSNI only committed resources when helping with the evacuation of the Roma. In effect the police were facilitating the objectives of the racist attackers. The Chief Constable made a number of excuses for his officers’ poor performance, claiming that rather than it being a clear-cut case of victims and victimiser, they faced a “complicated picture”. The police also downplayed the role played by loyalists, claiming that the violence had not been orchestrated. Local commander Superintendent Chris Noble claimed it was “very small number of people who are doing these crimes spontaneously”. He desrcibed the attacks as a societal problem, placing the responsibility for team unto the community.
In many ways the police role in these racial incidents is similar to that which they played in the recent sectarian murder in Coleraine. The common denominator is the accommodation of loyalists and the acceptance that society should be divided along sectarian/racial lines. In many ways this is the common denominator underpinning the whole peace process. Those, such as the trade union movement, who claim that racist and sectarian attacks run counter to the political settlement, are wrong. By making community identity the reference point for very aspect of society it actually legitimises such attitudes and actions.