Northern Ireland — where we may not be so hot in community relations, but are world leaders in making a crisis out of a drama. This week’s locally produced headline for global consumption and revulsion ... Romanian families (including new born baby) seek sanctuary in church after being forced from their homes by racist thugs.
Accompanying the story — pictures of small, bewildered children, young women in tears, families carting all their belongings hastily bundled up in bed sheets
No wonder such images have made headlines around the world. They are mildly reminiscent of scenes from the Balkan War.
Following attacks on houses in the Lisburn Road area of Belfast, over 100 Roma people gathered together in two of the houses. Local residents rallied to their support. The families said they didn’t want to stay in their homes and so were relocated to a nearby church hall.
By now the pictures emerging were like something from the sports stadium in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Next day — on to the Ozone (a tennis training facility) where the families were given a bed for the night. Support agencies and again local people — including schoolchildren — flocked to help with food, bedding and gifts.
Finally, it was on to temporary rehousing in the Holyland. (For the benefit of internet readers, an area of Belfast infamous for its rampaging students.)
In the meantime, subplots of the same story have included allegations that some of the ‘refugees’ have been hyping claims in order to secure new accommodation, an ongoing holier-than-thou debate about who is less racist than whom within our community, talk of involvement of sinister fascist outfits and Jackie McDonald, Brigadier (self-appointed, South Belfast) showing up at the Ozone to assure everyone that while the UDA may do sectarianism it doesn’t do racism.
In all then, a familiar mix in Northern Ireland. A story of despicable violence, bigotry, maggotry, point scoring and politicking.
But also (much less noted) a story of so very many good people doing their damnedest to try and help others. The neighbours outraged at the attacks. The cleric and his team in the church hall. The Ozone staff and the aid agencies. The school kids and their teachers from the Shore Road who arrived laden with sweets and drinks
Which of these two sides of the coin is the real Northern Ireland? The yobs or the good people?
At a time of media hype and general chest-beating hysteria it may be unfashionable to say it, but my money is still on the good people. According to one police chief, we should all feel ashamed that such attacks are happening. But actually, no, we shouldn’t, officer. The vast majority of people have had nothing to do with such attacks and are totally opposed to them and the racism that fuels them.
What is a cause for shame, however, is that what should have been a containable situation was allowed to spiral out of control so swiftly.
And for that the PSNI have to take a very large portion of the blame. Where were they in the immediate aftermath of those first attacks? During the trouble at the protest march (initially no police in attendance) a number of youths were chased by marchers. There is no evidence to say that these were the same youths who had attacked the homes. But watching footage of their fleeing heels on the teatime news they did not look like a slickly organised combat unit. They looked like a bunch of wee toe-rags.
That’s what we’re dealing with here. Disaffected yoof terrorising vulnerable families. And getting away with it. If the PSNI had moved more swiftly the entire miserable saga should have been nipped in the bud.
As it is the crisis — and the claims — expand daily. There is talk of Mein Kampf being pushed through doorways. Even men with guns turning up on doorsteps. How much of this is true? Do the cops even know? Perhaps Sir Hugh could give us (and the wider world) a clear picture of just what really did happen. And more importantly, why it was allowed to.