Northern Ireland: the capital of ‘race hate’?

The attacks on Romanian migrants are shocking, but they are not evidence of any widespread virulent racism.

Belfast is in the media spotlight again – this time for attacks on Romanian migrant workers rather than for sectarian violence or fringe paramilitary activity.

There is still no full, reliable account of what happened in south Belfast. What we do know is that the homes of families from Romania were attacked by local youths at the weekend. Some of their windows were smashed and the families were threatened and taunted with racist abuse and Nazi slogans.

On Monday this week, local people organised a demonstration opposing the attacks and in support of the Romanian families; this demo was also attacked by youths throwing bottles and shouting racist abuse. On Tuesday evening the Romanian families – 115 men, women and children in total – were evacuated from their homes and spent the night in a local church hall. On Wednesday they were taken to a local leisure centre.

Many questions remain. Who is responsible for the attacks? (There have been uncorroborated reports that some Romanians were threatened at gunpoint, which, if true, suggests loyalist paramilitary involvement; however, local loyalists strenuously deny any role.) Have Romanians been singled out, or have people from other backgrounds living in the same area also been attacked? Were the police too slow in responding to the Romanians’ complaints of intimidation?

While waiting for more details to emerge, it is worth commenting on one theme that has resurfaced in response to the attacks. In recent years, the idea that racism is replacing sectarianism in Northern Ireland has become widespread. Across the political spectrum and throughout the media, it is frequently said that ‘racism is the new sectarianism’.

So on Wednesday, Democratic Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson, in his stand-in role as First Minister in the Stormont Assembly, told reporters that ‘we need to make it very clear that just as sectarianism has been responsible for violence in the past, and we want to leave that behind, we have to be equally clear that racism cannot become the new sectarianism’. Slugger O’Toole, Northern Ireland’s most respected current affairs blog, captioned its comment on the incidents in south Belfast: ‘When sectarianism mutates into open racism…’.

Northern Ireland’s anti-racist activists put forward similar arguments, claiming that the British National Party (BNP) and Combat 18 are winning support among young loyalists who would previously have devoted their energies to sectarian attacks. How true is it that racism is rising in Northern Ireland, and is taking over from where sectarianism left off?

Rise in racism

It is true that, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there has been an increase in the number of racist incidents recorded by the police – but before denouncing Northern Ireland as a cesspit of racism, it pays to look at all of the figures in full.

In 1998-99, the first year that figures were recorded, there were 93 racist incidents; five years later, in 2003-04, this had risen almost fivefold to 453. Last year there were 990 recorded incidents.

These figures are shocking; one racist incident is one too many. Reporters and commentators have combined these figures with human-interest stories of ethnic minorities and migrant workers suffering intimidation in order to portray Northern Ireland as the ‘race hate capital of Europe’. 

Northern Ireland has undergone remarkable changes since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement more than 10 years ago. It has shifted from being a country of net outward migration to a country of net inward migration. Since 2001, and particularly since European Union enlargement in 2004, there has been a significant increase in the number of migrant workers coming to Northern Ireland.  The largest movement has been from Poland, but large numbers of migrant workers have also come from the Philippines (mostly to work as nurses in the National Health Service) and from India. This has been quite dramatic for a part of the world where for so long a vast majority of people were white and English-speaking. Yet despite media claims, this change in Northern Ireland has been relatively trouble-free.

When the number of recorded racist incidents is set against the even more dramatic rise in immigration from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it tells a different story than that promoted in the media. There has been an increase in minority immigrants in Northern Ireland from 534 in 2000-01 to 12,255 in 2005-06. My graph below plots the two sets of figures: for recorded racist incidents (blue line) and for number of immigrants (pink line). It shows that the absolute number of racial incidents has increased year on year, as indicated by the rising blue line; but it also shows that the number of racist incidents relative to the number of new immigrants has actually decreased. In other words, an immigrant was far less likely to be on the receiving end of a racist incident in 2005-06 than he was in 2000-01, even though there were more incidents in 2005-06.


racial incidents and immigrant population, Northern Ireland

The ‘rise of racism’ argument effectively says that there is more racism in Northern Ireland because there are more immigrants. This is similar to the old racist argument that there was no problem with racism in Britain until black people came here. Yet the graph I have produced suggests that most immigrants to Northern Ireland have settled in without experiencing racial harassment, and that the more immigrants there are the more likely this will be the case.

Race hate

The media focus has been, not on understanding changing social processes in Northern Ireland, but on the pain, fear and anguish of the victims and the hate of the perpetrators. Thus it is claimed that, just as many in Northern Ireland were consumed by irrational sectarianism during the years of conflict, now they are consumed by irrational racism. People’s deeply ingrained need to hate something or someone has simply moved on to a new target, we’re told.

This patronising view is part of a broader shift that has promoted a depoliticised view of sectarian conflict and tensions in Northern Ireland. The peace process, instituted in the early 1990s and formalised with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, has represented a shift from understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland as being primarily political – concerning issues such as national self-determination, civil rights and freedom from state repression – to understanding it as primarily cultural and psychological, concerning community relations, sectarian mindsets, and the need to recognise and respect identities.

This shift is mirrored in the changing understanding of racism in Britain, which has moved from focusing on structural inequalities, such as immigration controls, to focusing on the problem of racist thugs and general racist attitudes. In this view, state institutions are part of the solution while the most marginalised sections of the indigenous British population – the white ‘chav’ working classes in Britain and young loyalists in Northern Ireland – are the problem, which needs to be controlled.

The focus on thugs allows state bodies to pose as the anti-racists today. There have been some criticisms of the police’s handling of the situation in south Belfast; they have been accused of not responding quickly enough, which may well be true. Yet no one has questioned the police’s role in the evacuation of the Romanians. A number of local anti-racists have, quite rightly, pointed out that if the Romanians leave Northern Ireland as a result of the attacks (an option which seems increasingly likely since their evacuation), then this will send a message to racists that their intimidation works. The police, however, seem to view the whole incident in the managerial terms of ‘community safety’ and as a useful PR exercise, ensuring that there were numerous cameraman ready to capture scenes of the evacuation and interview the Romanians when they were in police safety. As Superintendent Chris Noble put it:

‘It’s got to come from a perspective of all the agencies pulling together to address this [problem]. It’s around prevention, it’s around reassurance, it’s around enforcement, where enforcement is needed, and it’s also about bringing in the community themselves. Let’s be honest. There’s people out there who know who was involved in the initial attacks… there is a contract here in terms of community safety, between police, the agencies and the community.’

The police are far more concerned with developing community-police relations and presenting a shiny new media image than with confronting racist actions.

State racism

Another problem with the focus on thugs’ race hate is that it overlooks the role of state policies and institutions in contributing to the problems in the first place. No one has stopped to ask why so many families were crammed into such limited accommodation in the first place. A large number of the 115 Romanians lived in just three houses in the local area. One of the reasons why there is so much overcrowding in Romanian immigrant communities is because the UK has placed restrictions on migrants from Romania (and Bulgaria), limiting their ability to stay and work legitimately in Britain in comparison with other Eastern European migrants, such as Poles. In addition, Northern Ireland has been hit by the recession, unemployment is rising, and jobs are increasingly difficult to come by, all of which means that many of the Romanians affected by the attacks had already been reduced to begging on the streets because they are not eligible for benefits.

While the evacuation of 115 Romanians has grabbed the headlines, the racial profiling of people at the airports and ferry terminals in Northern Ireland barely makes the news. How about this for an example of so-called race hate? In the summer of 2005 a Zimbabwean called Frank Kakopa came to Northern Ireland with his wife and children to visit the Giants Causeway. Before he had even left Belfast City Airport he was grabbed by some men who harassed him for several hours, packed him into the back of a van, took him to a remote location, strip-searched him and held him in captivity for two days. The men were working for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the UK Border Agency; Kakopa was held as a suspected illegal immigrant, despite having all the correct travel documents.

It appears that the police and immigration authorities thought that his black skin and Zimbabwean accent were more authentic proof of his real status than his UK driver’s licence, a recent pay slip, or his UK national insurance number. Countless other ethnic-minority visitors to Northern Ireland have been stopped, arrested, imprisoned and deported. A report by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission found that in the three months between April 2007 and June 2007, immigration officers stopped a total of 202 people for further enquiries at airports and ferry terminals. The majority of these 202 were not white. The Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) and the police still continue to detain and then deport non-whites at airports and ferry terminals in Northern Ireland.

Hopefully there will be a positive outcome for the Romanians who have been attacked. In the meantime, we should avoid making hysterical claims about Northern Ireland being the ‘race hate capital of Europe’ and instead examine how the interplay of tough immigration controls, the British state’s treatment of Romania as a second-class European country and dilapidated housing has contributed to a climate where a very small minority of people take action against migrant workers.

Chris Gilligan is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of Scotland, he blogs at: http://chrisgilligan.blogspot.com

Previously on spiked Mick Hume criticised the contemporary ‘you can’t say that’ culture. Kevin Rooney looked at Sinn Fein’s new-found emphasis on identity. He also looked at Belfast: a tale of two cities. Elsewhere, Mick Hume reckoned that when all else fails for the political class, they bash the BNP. In 2003, he attacked the phoney moral crusade against racism. Or read more at spiked issue Race.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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