Racism a legacy of Troubles in Northern Ireland
Hate attacks across Belfast are not an aberration. They are the legacy of the still-unresolved sectarian faultlines of our past, writes Richard Montague
The recent spate of racist hate crimes across Belfast is a telling feature of a deeply divided society. This pernicious legacy of conflict has fostered prejudices towards people perceived as "different" from "us".
How many times must we suffer hearing the same old half-baked assertion: "But they're taking our jobs." While we may challenge such prejudiced myths when they arise in everyday settings, in the run-up to yesterday's elections political parties like Ukip exploited wider socio-economic tensions in Northern Ireland.
In its recent election campaign leaflet Ukip claims: '26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose job are they after?'
The text is illustrated by an austere pointed finger.
In the context of such anti-immigration scaremongering, racist sentiments become "legitimised". In this vein, a large portion of racist hate crimes occurs in areas of multiple derivation in Belfast, where people have not felt the economic benefits of the peace process.
In turn frustrations are taken out on economic migrants, namely people of Polish and other eastern European origin. Political language during election time, then, may serve to exacerbate tension fermenting within communities and form the backdrop to racist or sectarian hate crimes.
And it isn't just jobs "they" are after: it's our houses, too, apparently. This was characterised in a recent report on east Belfast showing a boarded-up window daubed with racist graffiti proclaiming 'Locals only'.
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In response to such on-going hostilities within particular neighbourhoods in Belfast, PUP councillor John Kyle (right) has suggested: "Rather than condemn loyalist communities for being racist, we should be praising them for their remarkable capacity to welcome and accept foreigners."
But people shouldn't require a pat on the back for not being racist; tolerance and inclusion are surely the marker of any civilised, democratic society. Instead ethnic newcomers in Northern Ireland seem to be expected to "fit in" to the dominant sectarian blocs of "Catholic" and "Protestant" areas.
Last month a local news broadcast on the rise of racism in Northern Ireland asked the awkward question: "Are ethnic minorities doing enough to 'fit in'?" This is an alarming point to raise given the volume of racist hatred evidenced in the city lately.
Now, fortunately, I have never been the victim of hate crime – although I imagine it must be very difficult to go for a pint among the same people who were bricking your windows or burning your car only the night before.
Expecting minorities to "fit in" to a divided city, whereby certain communities have spawned perpetrators riven with unrelenting prejudices, is a tall ask. The "they-should-make-more-effort-to-fit-in" argument is tantamount to blaming the victim for racism.
The latest surge of racist violence in Belfast is arguably a reproduction of sectarian hostilities levelled at ethnic minority groups. This was notably evidenced in the burning of Polish national flags on bonfires during the Twelfth of July celebrations in 2012.
It was also evident in the sickening level of online racist abuse against Anna Lo for suggesting that paramilitary murals and flags should be removed during the Giro d'Italia.
The same mindset that attacked Anna Lo (far right) is almost inseparable from the type of mindset that organised a bag of excrement to be thrown over a Romanian cyclist in east Belfast recently: both stink.
The uncomfortable truth here is that the vast amount of racist hate crimes in Belfast tend to occur in loyalist areas. We should be careful, however, about descending into a silly, sectarianised blame-game of "loyalists-are-more-racist-than-republicans".
Nevertheless, it might be helpful if we had an open and honest discussion about why these attacks are happening within particular communities. Perhaps we need to know the exact nature of the beast before we can tame it?
Hate crimes are multi-dimensional and occur within a given social and/or political context: it isn't a one-shoe-fits-everyone approach when countering its expressions.
Hate crime legislation emerged in 2004 to sanction racism and sectarianism in Northern Ireland. However, the criminal justice system is experiencing difficulties utilising this legislation to successfully prosecute offenders. This is evidenced in the disproportionately small number of convictions.
In fact, according to a 2013 Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities study, of the 13,655 hate-motivated offences reported to the PSNI between 2008 and 2012, only 12 cases were successfully prosecuted using the legislation. In response to the latest series of racially motivated crimes the police have made just three arrests so far.
Where the criminal justice system is struggling to address hate crimes, my research focused on the efforts of the community and voluntary sector in challenging this deleterious social ill.
Belfast community workers mainly tackle hate crime through educational, restorative justice and cross-community approaches. While community groups could be better supported, their efforts to challenge hate crime are piecemeal and short-lived, because attempts to address these issues from the bottom up are continually frustrated by division and political rivalry from the top down.
Indeed, after almost 10 years in the making, a racial equality strategy has yet to be delivered by local government, let alone any "shared future" strategies to combat sectarianism and deal with a legacy of our past. Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr earlier in the year commented that racist crimes within certain areas of the city have "the unpleasant taste of a bit of ethnic cleansing about them".
In this view hate crime perpetrators appear to be marking exclusive boundaries of belonging by "defending" neighbourhoods against the unwelcomed outsider.
This notion of defending communal identity is, of course, nothing new in Northern Ireland, since it was the apparent raison d'etre of loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles.
This is not to suggest that hate crime offenders represent the thoughts and feelings of an entire community. But the defending-our-turf mentality does reflect upon a legacy of conflict and division in Belfast.
It is this legacy, which fosters racist hatreds and maintains sectarian division, which we so desperately need to redress. Unfortunately, political attempts at a shared future to confront our troubled past are still left wanting and, as it is election season, tribal lines colour our politics.
In this context racist violence is not an aberration nor a static, one-off event, but highlights an ongoing culture of negativity towards "difference" within a place still dogged by a legacy of ethnic conflict.
Richard Montague is a PhD student in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast. He has recently completed a study on racist and sectarian hate crime in the city