No excuses for race hate
The Belfast Telegraph revealed this week that there are now two racist attacks every day on average in Northern Ireland. Fionola Meredith says it's important we don't turn a blind eye to this savagery
January 2004. A Chinese man is sitting in his home in south Belfast watching television alongside his heavily pregnant wife when an intruder bursts in and smashes a brick into the man's face. March 2014. Same city, same part of town. A Chinese man is the victim of a ferocious attack, entirely unprovoked, in which his jaw is shattered.
Two brutal assaults, 10 years apart. During the intervening decade, how many similar attacks have there been on people living here, ordinary people who dare to have different coloured skin from their neighbours, or to be born in a different country?
Hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds of innocent people beaten and bloodied and driven from their homes. Scared to walk along their own street. Desperate for somewhere to belong, but terrified to live in a neighbourhood where somebody has scrawled 'locals only' on a boarded-up house, and their windows get broken every week.
And still these depraved attacks keep happening. What's worse, the pace has picked up. Now there are two racist attacks every single day in Northern Ireland, with the vast majority of them taking place in Belfast.
Figures obtained by this newspaper show that this is a rise of 43%: in the first three months of 2013 there were 103 race crimes, but this year in the same period there were 156. What makes it even more disturbing is that equality campaigners believe that up to 80% of attacks go unreported.
We rarely hear the voices of the victims of this savagery. Few, perhaps fearful of a second blow, feel comfortable speaking out about their ordeal. Witnesses and neighbours won't say anything either in case the thugs decide to give them a taste of the same bitter medicine. Except for a brave handful of people who do speak publicly, we don't hear the stories, we don't see the faces, we don't hear the voices.
So it's easy to forget about the attacks and the people involved; easier to file them away in your head under the label 'terrible, but not my business'. Another day, another racist attack, and pass the marmalade, would you?
Yet a determined campaign of ethnic cleansing appears to be happening right under our noses, particularly, it seems, in working-class loyalist communities, and the police say that the UVF is involved. We should recognise the symptoms of such intimidatory tactics given the history of this place, and the terrible potential consequences. For how much longer are we going to look the other way?
What would be hilarious, if it wasn't so tragic and repugnant, is the indefatigable sense of superiority and entitlement that those who express racist sentiments hold about themselves. These dumb thugs evidently think themselves better people, part of a master race, naturally elevated – simply by virtue of being born on Northern Irish soil – above someone from Poland or Romania or Uganda.
Look at the chorus of illiterate and abusive jeers on social media targeted at Anna Lo (right) when she suggested that paramilitary flags and murals be taken down on the route of the Giro d'Italia. By what logic do these ignorant Neanderthals regard themselves as the high point of civilisation?
Recently, PUP councillor John Kyle attempted to explore some of the reasons behind the frustrations in loyalist communities which, he says, are "already under severe stress". He lists the shortage of social housing, the inadequacy of private rental accommodation, the 24% unemployment rate among young Protestant men, the dire educational outcomes for poorer Protestant boys, which leave many of them functionally illiterate and innumerate.
"And yet it is those who have least who are expected to cope with the difficulties of integrating incoming foreign nationals," says Kyle, adding that "the challenges of relating to new neighbours with limited English, alien cultural practices, and who are competing for limited common resources would test the best of us."
And yet, he points out, "in large measure these very communities are doing an excellent job of assimilating huge numbers of incomers... rather than condemn loyalist communities for being racist we should be praising them for their remarkable capacity to welcome and accept 'foreigners'."
There's some truth in what John Kyle is saying. When I visited Anna Bloch, a young Polish woman living in east Belfast, after her home came under attack I was heartened to see that her living room was packed full of flowers sent by sympathetic neighbours and friends. Condemning a whole community as somehow constitutionally racist is itself an inherently racist manoeuvre.
But although Kyle makes it clear that he believes racism to be entirely wrong, the risk with providing reasons or explanations for resentment against foreign nationals is that they can be interpreted as justification for that resentment. And that's a dangerous road to start down.
Let's agree on this: there is never any excuse for smashing an innocent man's face with a brick. We may be officially at peace, but sectarianism has found a new outlet in race hatred: it's the same foul old stream, just flowing in a different direction now.
Read Fionola Meredith in the Belfast Telegraph every Friday