'We need to act now or racism will get worse'
Racist attacks are an almost daily occurrence for Northern Ireland's 30,000 Poles. But one retired Newry businessman is determined to change all that. Honorary Polish consul Jerome Mullen talks to Ivan Little
The billboard outside the church on the Giro d'Italia route in east Belfast cut right to the chase in a week of disturbingly contradictory headlines about racing and racism.
'God loves all races', proclaimed the poster outside Stormont Presbyterian Church, but it was clear that not everyone in the east of the city shared the sentiment.
For, as some residents prepared to welcome visiting cyclists from 30 different countries, others attacked Polish people who call the city their home.
Houses have been attacked and individuals have been stabbed, or beaten with golf clubs, while one Romanian man had faeces thrown at him as he rode his bike through the area.
Retired businessman Jerome Mullen, who's the honorary Polish consul in Northern Ireland, has heard all the angry condemnation and earnest promises of support from most – but not all – of the political parties here.
But he believes it's time for action rather than just words to get to grips with the renewed surge in hate crimes against the beleaguered Polish community.
Mr Mullen, a 71-year-old past-president of Newry Chamber of Commerce, has spent the last week dealing with the fall-out of three east Belfast attacks on homes in Roslyn Street and a fourth Polish house in Templemore Avenue within sight of the Giro route.
And the Co Cavan-born entrepreneur admits he didn't know what he was letting himself in for when he took the consul's role in 2008.
Mr Mullen, who 40 years ago set up an organisation to help itinerants in Newry, says he felt an instant empathy with the plight of the Poles, because he'd had once been an emigrant worker in England.
He says: "The Poles' problems were far greater than mine, admittedly. Here were people coming to Northern Ireland poverty-stricken and trying to cope with a new country, culture and language."
The consul's workload has expanded out of all recognition, thanks to the onset of racist attacks on the Poles.
"At the beginning, it was all about documentation over passports and so on. And the Poles were also losing their jobs at an alarming rate and I had to bring a number of cases to the Equality Commission.
"Workers were blatantly discriminated against and were treated in an appalling fashion by a small number of employers, who were exploiting them to the hilt."
Mr Mullen still shudders as he remembers how he came across one young Polish man who was kept as a virtual slave by a businessman who refused to pay him for a full year.
The problems were in sharp contrast to 2004, when the Poles arrived in Northern Ireland brimming with optimism after the accession of their country to the European Union.
Estimates of the number of Poles living here since the dismantling of the EU borders have ranged between 25,000 and 35,000, and it's understood the current figure lies somewhere in the middle with a third of them in Belfast.
The Polish population is twice as big as the next ethnic minority and most of them settled in east Belfast, because houses there were more readily available than anywhere else.
"By and large, they have lived quietly and peacefully," says Mr Mullen.
But, in 2009, Polish football fans went on the rampage before a game against Northern Ireland in Belfast.
Most of the troublemakers had come from Poland, or from England, but it was their fellow countrymen who lived here who paid a price for the thuggish behaviour as retribution was meted out by local people.
"We got over that with a lot of hard work," says Mullen. "We set up the Unite Against Hate campaign in the aftermath of the match and it was highly successful, but after three years the funding dried up."
The nightmare of racism has come back to haunt the Poles, however, and Mr Mullen believes the downtown in the economy has played a major part.
"It was all right in the boom times. But, as the recession started to bite, there was a 'They're coming to take our jobs' resentment. That was, of course, untrue, because the Poles were doing jobs that the rest of the people here wouldn't take on."
Figures released by the PSNI this week revealed that racist attacks are up 30% on last year and a Belfast Telegraph survey showed that at least two hate crimes are reported to police every day.
But it's thought that 80% of the violence isn't reported and one community worker says many Poles are too afraid to say anything to anyone.
The police have blamed the UVF for many of the attacks and Mr Mullen met the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, Billy Hutchinson, last week, but he didn't agree with the PSNI analysis.
"He told me he condemned all hate crime, but he believed that some of the attacks were down to local arguments between neighbours, rather than racism," says Mr Mullen, who says he's been more encouraged by talks this week with PUP representatives in east Belfast.
They told him they wanted to open up dialogue between Poles and indigenous people to ease tensions over rumours and myths about employment, education and housing.
The consul is critical of the response from the main unionist parties. "There is no real leadership coming from them."
Only two days ago, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused First Minister Peter Robinson of "cowardice" for not speaking out against the east Belfast violence – a claim denied by the DUP.
On Thursday, Mr Mullen pressed Sinn Fein's junior minister, Jennifer McCann, to support and help fund a new campaign to help drive out the racists and encourage the Poles to stay.
Most of the attacks against the Poles – but not all of them – have been carried out in loyalist areas. And Mr Mullen believes there is an underlying sectarian motive, as well as a more obvious racist one.
"The line between racism and sectarianism is a very thin one." he says.
"There is a perception that the Poles are Catholics, but if a quarter of them are practising that would be the height of it."
One man who knows east Belfast well says: "The recent attacks weren't sanctioned by the UVF. They were carried out by yobs associated with the organisation.
"The thugs who attacked the Poles want to vent their hatred on someone and, if they can't get to a Catholic in Short Strand, they will pick on the ethnic communities who live near them."
The police have rejected claims from Sinn Fein that they are letting the racists unleash their venom with impunity.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr says a dedicated team of detectives which has been set up to investigate the hate crimes will make arrests over the next few weeks and months. Mr Mullen, who has established his own hardship fund to help Poles in distress, hopes he's right.
The consul has a huge admiration for the Poles, comparing them to the Irish in temperament, outlook and ethos.
"Like us they're a jovial, fun-loving people who work hard," he says.
"Employers don't have to look for them in the mornings. If they have to be there at 8am they will be there at 8am. And they won't be taking sick days. Yes, many of them do enjoy a drink, but it rarely affects their work."
Mr Mullen and ACC Kerr share a belief that Poles should be valued more for what they have done here.
The consul says: "Few of them come to scrounge off the system. Some of them will claim benefits to which they are entitled, but most of them only want to work."
Which is why the Poles are in such big demand from employers here, he says.
"There are some companies here who are totally dependent on Polish workers. If they didn't have them and their skills, they would be in trouble."
One Belfast businessman has been so impressed by the contribution of his Polish workers that he is contemplating setting up a satellite company in Poland.
Not everyone shares that positivity. In east Belfast last month, posters appeared around the area, claiming that outsiders, including Poles, were taking jobs at the expense of skilled local workers. Mr Mullen says he doesn't know if there's a link between the posters and the violence exacted upon the Polish community.
One Pole who doesn't want to be identified says he believes he wasn't singled out for attack because of his work, or his religion, but because of a baser motivation.
"They found out that I had bought the house I'd been renting. I think they reckoned I had money and they didn't like the fact that a Pole was doing well. A group of men came into the house and beat me up. My car was also attacked."
The man subsequently fled the house and moved to another part of Belfast.
Jerome Mullen says he encourages everyone who is attacked to go to the PSNI.
"However, this is a community problem. People on the streets know who is behind the violence."
Mr Mullen knows that the Poles aren't all saints and he has established a protocol with the PSNI for contacting him if and when they break the law.
He says: "I don't get involved with the actual arrests. The law will take its course, but I ensure they have legal representation, if they want it."
He says most Poles hanker after a return to their homeland. Eventually.
"Many of them say they will stay here for 10 years. Some may go back sooner, but others whose children are going through the education system stick it out longer, because they are happy and settled here.
"There are parts of Northern Ireland where there are no racist attacks at all."
Mr Mullen says the average wage in Poland is around €400 (£327) a month and the workers here are making a lot more than that.
"But people sometimes forget they have to live here and pay our higher rents and higher grocery bills and being so far from home can increase the pressure on them, too."
At least six Poles have taken their own lives recently and a number of factors have been cited, including depression, gambling, alcohol problems and difficulties at work.
The Polish consul fears there could be more attacks on his people and wants politicians to do more and do it quickly.
He says: "I want the Executive to come to a decision about their strategy on hate crime. We need pro-active measures to deal with it. They can't sit back, because, if they do, this racist nightmare will just get worse."