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Education is antidote to racist toxin

By Henry McDonald

Published 19/06/2015

The rented homes of Polish families on Roslyn Street, east Belfast, daubed with graffiti
The rented homes of Polish families on Roslyn Street, east Belfast, daubed with graffiti
Asta Samaliute and her partner Ben Grigisas inside Asta’s Glam Factory on Castlereagh Street in east Belfast after a racist arson attack

With hate incidents running at a rate of three a day, the need for a joined-up anti-racism strategy has never been greater. With Stormont once again found wanting, an innovative project in Lisburn could hold the answer.

There are two powerful ways to combat racism and xenophobia in advanced, modern societies: education and ridicule. Rather than a self-righteous, self-indulgent "no free speech for fascists" violent response on the streets, or using the courts to pursue the ignorant and the cynical whose base racist feelings are deemed thought-crimes, the best approach is to educate and also to satirise.

At present Northern Ireland badly needs both these weapons in the battle against racist behaviour in our cities and towns. Because, as the Belfast Telegraph reported this week, the recorded level of racist incidents (ranging from verbal insults to vandalism to assault) over a period of one year is running at more than 1,000.

Such a statistic is an utterly shocking indictment of this society and, in particular, the long-awaited and delayed anti-racism strategy rolled out 12 months ago by the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

In honestly confronting the problem we need to face one salient social fact: the majority of these incidents - though certainly not all - are taking place in loyalist, working-class districts. They are particularly prevalent in east and parts of south Belfast, where the population of the indigenous community is in decline and where certain loyalist paramilitary groups have a strong presence.

This means that any meaningful bid to counter racism has to involve the political and social leadership of those communities, but especially the two main unionist parties.

The picture, of course, is always more complex than it seems at first glance. This writer used the word "certain" when referring to loyalist paramilitaries and their connection in some instances to this appalling spike in race-hate crime.

In east Belfast it is certain that members of the Ulster Volunteer Force's "battalion" have been involved in intimidation and attacks on the homes and businesses of foreign migrants.

They are not exclusively to blame for all acts of racism in these districts, but at the very least they have done nothing to prevent them and, at the very worst, have been orchestrating some of the more blatant attacks.

And yet, in another part of Co Antrim, ex-prisoners and former activists from another loyalist paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Defence Association, have been doing quite the opposite. This is where education comes into play in terms of combating racist behaviour and attitudes.

On Lisburn's Old Warren estate, for instance, a community programme known as The Welcome Project has been successful in integrating immigrants from all over the world into that area.

Ex-UDA members who founded the community group after the ceasefires and the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement have created structures to absorb the foreign migrants and set down practical ways for them to work alongside individuals and families from the indigenous Ulster loyalist background for mutual benefit.

The project has also run education courses for local young people on the role former migrants and refugees to the UK played in perilous times. So, for instance, the programme on Old Warren included history classes on how the predecessors of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants came to Britain during the Second World War and played a vital part in the effort to defeat Hitler.

The education programme included a focus on the Polish and Czech pilots in the RAF, who suffered horrendous losses in the Battle of Britain while claiming a high strike-rate shooting down Luffwaffe planes during that most dangerous period of modern British history.

Ditto on the role of the Polish Home Army and the thousands of Poles fighting alongside Irishmen, north and south, in British regiments. In addition, the project includes workers from Eastern Europe who help out both immigrants and locals with social problems, such as housing benefit, welfare payments and the search for employment.

All in all, this innovative project not only works for the well-being of everyone on the estate, but also demonstrates to the indigenous loyalist population the positive contribution the new communities are making to areas like this.

The innovative project has received praise from all political persuasions, including many former republican and republican socialist ex-prisoners, who have come to study what is going on in Old Warren.

Ironically, the project is under threat due to budgetary cuts and unless there is an 11th hour U-turn, the Old Warren experiment (call it template, if you want, for practical anti-racist action) will close down.

Whatever its fate, it does provide a road-map for those areas across Northern Ireland where the racist virus seems to be replicating and mutating. Education and pragmatic programmes appear to be an effective antidote to the racist toxin.

Regarding overall public discourse, there is no point either trying to censor those that express, or exploit, racist tendencies, or adopt the tactic of the far-left and demand that fascists are simply driven off the streets.

You cannot, as one famous republican icon once said, put a rope around an idea - even an idea so repulsive and anti-human as racism.

For a start, in Northern Ireland, the openly racist, neo-Nazi white supremacist political parties/fronts are minuscule, especially compared to their counterparts in Europe such as the French Front National, or the Vlams Blok in Belgium (or, indeed, the open anti-Semites of Hungary).

Most racism here is "non-political", social in context and skulks behind the darkness when it comes to attacks on its victims.

This form of covert racism has to be fought against in the battle of ideas and in the struggle for public common sense, and this is where satire and ridicule become the anti-racists' most potent weapons.

When the first post-ceasefire, post-Agreement surge of racism erupted in the late-1990s, the much-missed and lamented satirical online magazine Portadown News brilliantly satirised it.

After a wave of attacks on Chinese fast-food outlets in the south of the city, Portadown News "reported" the beginning of a famine in the area as the local populace had nothing to eat now that their takeaways were closing down.

It reminded this writer of a true-life encounter he had with two heroin addicts in Dublin during the Celtic Tiger years.

The two gentlemen were burning heroin on a bin ready to "chase the dragon" on tin foil outside a large convenience store in the Smithfield district of the north inner city.

Inside, the entire staff were young legal Chinese immigrants filling the jobs' gap in retail at a time of full-time employment.

The two drug addicts sat outside bemoaning the fact that in the store these young people were working hard, doing long shifts, paying their taxes, sending a little money home. "Too many bleedin' foreigners in this country," one of the druggies protested, before taking his first draw of the "dragon" and turning a lighter shade of pale.

There are bound to be plenty of people in Northern Ireland who come across similar street-racist doublethink from those that play no positive role in this society either.

Such are the targets of necessary ridicule and satire.

Belfast Telegraph

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