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Report on the Rally Against Racism in Belfast

Andrew Johnson

28th January 2004

Around 2500 people attended a rally at Belfast City Hall on 27th January in protest at the recent well-publicised spate of racist attacks. On a basic human level, it was good to see a fairly large number of people standing in solidarity with the victims of these attacks. Whether it offered a clear strategy for defeating racism was another matter.

The rally had been called by the Anti-Racism Network, a coalition of the Socialist Workers Party and various NGOs, and sponsored by NIC-ICTU. As such it was clearly modelled on the anti-sectarian rallies of previous years. And as such great care was taken to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend anybody. In particular nothing could be said that loyalist paramilitaries could take exception to, which was awkward as organised loyalists have been carrying out the bulk of the attacks. Even loyalist frontmen David Ervine and Tommy Kirkham have said so, but this fact is apparently too hot for NIC-ICTU to handle.

The first thing that struck this observer on reaching the rally was a large banner hung from the City Hall railings bearing the legend “Loyalists Against Racism”. Nobody seemed to be taking exception to this banner or even commenting on its absurdity – in fact, the organisers seemed quite pleased about it. Equally absurd was the attendance of a significant number of leading loyalists, including much of the UDA leadership. Presumably they were there to show that they were opposed to racist attacks, just not opposed enough to stop their organisations carrying them out. The main point of the loyalist presence seemed to be to allow David Ervine, the human face of loyalism, to shed a tear and let everybody know how concerned he was.

As is now traditional on these ICTU rallies, most of the speeches were of the “all good people united against bad things” variety. Lord Mayor Martin Morgan told us that racism was very bad and we shouldn’t stand for it. The Rev Ken Newell talked about how we should open our hearts to ethnic minorities. Children’s Commissioner Nigel Williams and a representative of NIC-ICTU spoke in a similar vein. All excellent sentiments of course, and the crowd, which contained a very large number of politicians, clergy and union officials, heartily agreed about how bad racism was. There was much talk about confronting racist attitudes and hate speech – again, absolutely right – but surely racist jokes in the workplace, however reprehensible, are not the same as a brick through the window.

Two speeches stood out. Anna Lo of the Chinese Welfare Association delivered what was easily the best speech of the day, without any fuss or grandstanding. Anna quite simply gave a stark factual account of the abuse suffered by the Chinese community over the last ten years or more. She pointed out that racist attacks were not a new phenomenon which has suddenly appeared over the last few months. And she also argued that racism was not something foreign to Northern Ireland but was home-grown and had deep roots. She made it powerfully clear that racist violence was not something separate from sectarian violence but was intimately linked to it. This was a welcome breath of fresh air, in contrast to the fantasy being spread about that racist attacks in South Belfast are the work of English Nazis.

The final speech was from Eamonn McCann. As one would expect, this was a fiery and passionate speech, surviving even the breakdown of the PA to rouse a cold audience. The content was somewhat disappointing. Eamonn ranged far and wide in the targets of his polemic, only to miss the obvious ones. He drew attention to politicians and media figures stoking racism. He strongly condemned David Blunkett’s scapegoating of refugees. He got a cheer for a sharp dig at Robert Kilroy-Silk. To underline that “racism is not the property of just one side of the community”, he mentioned a recent racist attack in a Catholic area of Derry. All of this was absolutely correct and needed to be said. But of the people actually carrying out the bulk of the attacks – the UVF and UDA – not a word. If Eamonn intended to say that not ONLY the loyalist paramilitaries were to blame, fair enough. But to mention everybody except the loyalists looked a bit careless. After all, Robert Kilroy-Silk is not as dangerous in this situation as the UVF.

Engaging loyalism

In fact the whole event underlined the consistent NIC-ICTU strategy of “constructive engagement” with loyalism. This was apparent in the anti-violence rallies of the early 1990s, which had an extremely sharp anti-IRA tone, even though loyalists were carrying out the bulk of the killings, and large contingents of UDA men attended the rallies without hearing a word of condemnation of their killing campaign.

The same strategy came into play in the anti-violence rallies of two years ago following the loyalist murders of Danny McColgan and Gerard Lawlor. NIC-ICTU could not bring themselves to condemn the murderers because they believed they could achieve more by lobbying the loyalist paramilitaries and advising them to be less sectarian. Indeed the ICTU bureaucrats went directly from Gerard Lawlor’s funeral to meet the leadership of the organisation that killed him. So they fell back on their faithful old standby position of condemning ALL sectarianism and no specific sectarianism.

There was a similar air of unreality on the Rally Against Racism. Forget about English Nazis flying over here to attack Chinese on the Donegall Road, you would have thought the “racists” came from Mars. Like the Mysterons, they could not be named – which rather dents one’s faith in ICTU’s ability to come up with a strategy for fighting them. Or indeed the fighting ability of the Socialist Workers Party, which now seems to have adopted the NIC-ICTU tactic of lobbying loyalism. Eamonn McCann said that we need “the broadest possible front” to defeat racist violence – which sounds good – but a front broad enough to include the people doing it?

As the rally reached a close, the comrade standing next to me asked a good question. “Here are all these politicians who built their careers on sectarian division,” he said, “you can’t tell me these are the people who are going to defeat racism?” My mind kept going back to the “Loyalists Against Racism” banner. What would happen, I wondered, if there was a rally in Burnley against racist violence and the BNP turned up with a banner reading “Fascists Against Racism”? It would be no more ridiculous, but it would hardly pass without comment.


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