It's prejudiced to dismiss every loyalist as racist
Loyalists – don't you hate them? They're the pantomime villains that everybody loves to point at and despise, while experiencing an enjoyable sensation of high-minded superiority.
Look at them, the stumbling Neanderthals, wrapping themselves in Union Jacks and blocking the roads and singing sectarian songs outside chapels and whining about discrimination and yelling about their rights. Disgusting. Total waste of space. They're to blame, as well, for all those terrible racist attacks on foreign nationals: broken windows, threatening graffiti, teeth smashed out with golf clubs, you name it, they've done it.
And now they've gone and bullied a Nigerian man out of his rightfully-acquired Housing Executive home in east Belfast. Typical. Just typical.
They plastered the entire house with banners saying 'local houses 4 local people' and then sat outside sunning themselves in deckchairs – all cocky, you know, like they thought they owned the place – waiting for their victim, Michael Abiona to turn up. Nothing personal, they told him. We just don't want the likes of you here. It makes you sick, doesn't it? I mean, couldn't we somehow slice off the whole of loyalist east Belfast and dump it in the Irish Sea? Sure it would be no loss. People refer to loyalists like they're scum, like they're savages. The Ku Klux Klan, only with Union flags. If we got rid of that revolting bunch, all our problems would be over.
Nobody says any of this out loud in public, of course: they're too busy taking to Twitter to post sanctimonious, hand-wringing comments about the latest iniquities to emerge from east Belfast. (#I'mStandingWithMichael).
But lots of them are thinking it, and talking about it amongst each other. I've heard them. And these are people who consider themselves to be reasonable, compassionate, fair-minded and liberal citizens. People who care about the welfare of this country and its future prospects. People who give money to buskers and go on anti-racism marches and buy takeaway coffee for the homeless guy sitting on the street.
They aren't bad-hearted, you see. But they've got this nasty little blind-spot when it comes to loyalism. That's where they allow themselves the seductive delights of despising them. All of them. It's as though, somewhere along the line, loyalists have been stamped with the label "officially safe to hate".
But wait a minute. Condemning an entire community or ethnic group on the basis of the actions of a few people? Doesn't that, itself, sound a bit like ... racism?
It's time to get real. Racist attacks, wherever they happen, are entirely unacceptable. There can be no excuse whatsoever. And the treatment meted out to Michael Abiona was truly abhorrent. But there are plenty of people in loyalist communities who also find this behaviour abhorrent, and would never wish to associate themselves with it.
When I was involved, some years ago, in the campaign to prevent Nigerian woman Comfort Adefowoju and her children from being deported, much of the impetus came from her church congregation right in the middle of working-class east Belfast.
More recently, when the Sydenham home of Polish woman Anna Bloch was attacked, she was inundated with flowers and messages of support from local people.
And while nobody is denying that the majority of racist attacks have been in loyalist areas – which allows senior republicans to assume a lofty, holier-than-thou attitude, as though they'd never felt the animating force of hatred pulsing through their own veins – they do occur elsewhere too.
The Guardian's Ireland correspondent Henry McDonald recently reported on the case of a mixed-race couple who were subject to atrocious racist abuse in the nationalist lower Ormeau area of Belfast. Michael Lynch and his wife Rima, a Christian-Israeli Arab, endured years of intimidation, and their son was forced to move school because of bullying.
Ritual condemnation of racist behaviour – #NotInMyName – is the easy bit. All that achieves is a warm glow of inner virtue, the mutual assurance that 'we' – the humane, enlightened and progressive majority – are not like 'them'.
Writing off an entire community as work-shy and illiterate xenophobes and knuckle-draggers is even easier. What's far harder, but far more important, is to tackle the dire social housing shortage which fuels local discontent, and to actively challenge the perception that immigrants pose a threat.
Loyalists frequently don't make themselves lovable, but despising them as one homogeneous group is every bit as discriminatory as scrawling 'locals only' on a wall.