It must have been the most benevolent ethnic cleansing in the history of Europe. As Roma in Belfast found refuge in a leisure centre following a period of sustained racist violence in June this year, a whole range of the good and great from Stormont arrived to ask them to stay. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein was joined by the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson to condemn their attackers as criminals and call for prosecutions and convictions. Donaldson was keen to repudiate the ‘Northern Ireland is the race hate capital of Europe’ label which had re-emerged in the context. The SDLP’s Margaret Ritiche offered to re-house them (‘for at least a week’). British Prime Minister Gordon Brown added his voice to the general condemnation. McGuinness even ‘cradled’ a Roma baby girl hours before she left Ireland via Dublin airport. Even after the Roma had been forced out of the country, the Trades Union movement was organising solidarity rallies. These Roma from Romania may not have received much of a welcome from any of these actors but they all combined to make sure that they got one hell of a send off. And while the solidarity was laudable enough, when the dust had settled it was still a pogrom and the Roma had still been forced out of Belfast.
So what was going on? The broad narrative of events is fairly uncontested. Following a week of sustained racist violence, the Roma were removed from their houses in the community in South Belfast, first to a church, then to a leisure centre, then to an undisclosed location from which they were removed to Romania. It was clear that they returned to a situation of racism, poverty and exclusion in Romania. It also seems they also are considering a return to the north of Ireland which may suggest that the solidarity was not in vain. Without being too cynical, however, it is possible to suggest that the level of concern represented as much a worry about the damage that was being done to ‘Northern Ireland PLC’ as it did genuine solidarity with the victims of racist violence. Once again, racism had spoiled the mood music of post-Good Friday Northern Ireland. People have wanted the peace process to work and therefore maintained a perverse insistence that Northern Ireland is at peace. Yet – once again – Belfast was splashed across headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.
But this reminder of the interface between racism and sectarianism reveals the real contradiction at the centre of this episode. For all the ‘Northern Ireland is the race hate capital of Europe’ jibes, Roma are not yet being killed on the streets of Belfast – while they are in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. However, the sectarian murder of Catholic man had occurred only a month before in Coleraine – not normally regarded as a hotbed of sectarian tensions. Moreover the same accusations of police inaction that accompanied the attacks on the Roma were associated with the death of Kevin McDaid. All of this reality slipped quietly by a world that wants to believe that the peace process has worked. This is why people latch easily upon the notion that racism has somehow replaced sectarianism in the north – many saw the pogroms against the Roma as final confirmation of this analysis. But it bears emphasis that Catholics are not living in the areas that are expelling minority ethnic people any more than they were ten or fifteen years ago – and none of the ‘peace lines’ segregating working class communities have come down. While migrant workers and refugees have moved into loyalist working class areas with available (albeit poor) housing stock, Catholics remain excluded from these areas – and the key mechanism for this is the threat of organised sectarian violence. It doesn’t require huge political sophistication to work out that once the principle and politics of exclusion by violence is established, it transfers easily from one group to another.
Of course attacks on ‘Gypsies’ are also far from being a new thing in Belfast. It has played its own part in the long history of European antigypsyism. In the 1990s a loyalist deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast had called for ‘Gypsies’ to be sent to the city incinerators – referencing established genocidal practice towards Roma. Ironically, however, the Roma in this most instance were probably attacked less because they were Roma than because they were ‘Eastern European’. The Village area of South Belfast has had a long and specific association with racist violence. But tensions in the Village area (which contains the stadium of Linfield soccer club and Northern Ireland) were heightened by recent clashes between Loyalists and Polish soccer fans at a Poland/Northern Ireland soccer match. This incident reminded Loyalists that they had a small vulnerable minority of migrant workers living amongst them. There was a general ‘cleansing’ of Eastern Europeans from Loyalist areas after this match. It is questionable whether the Loyalist youth involved in attacking the Roma were aware that these were Roma at all – especially since they were not living in the Loyalist working class Village area but a determinedly middle class/student area next door to it. But antigypsyism did kick in as soon as the violence occurred – because at this point police non-response appears to have been informed very directly by their attitude towards the Roma community.
Thus the real rights disgrace in all of this was the policing issue – the PSNI received unusual sharp criticism in terms of its abject failure to protect the Roma. It bears emphasis that there are racist youths all across Europe happy to have a go at Roma families – but what is unusual is the total refusal of the police to take any responsibility for effectively defending people from racist violence. Indeed the PSNI only became proactive as soon as it became clear that this was more than a local story. There has been organised racist violence against people of colour and Eastern Europeans in this area for over six years and yet the PSNI have failed to come up with any strategy for protecting these communities other than helping them to move out and return ‘home’. Moreover, the PSNI response seemed much more concerned about how the violence was to be read than with the fate of the victims of that violence. (And here there were echoes of the darkest days of the ‘Troubles’ when the RUC would routinely insist that an incident was ‘not sectarian’ even when they suggested they had little idea about who was responsible.) Any police service that insists it doesn’t know who is involved in racist violence but it absolutely knows that they are not ‘organised’ has a profound problem with both its credibility and its competence.
But the obsession with denying loyalist involvement was much more widespread than with the PSNI. So long as this approach continues, the possibilities of further violence remain – because spinning the response to racism becomes much more important than challenging racism itself. And while no-one has died yet in this upsurge in racist violence, let there be no mistaking the dangers in the current situation. The body politic of post-GFA Northern Ireland has become profoundly delusional on both racism and sectarianism. As the world was trumpeting the decommissioning of loyalism, the north’s only minority ethnic MLA was being death-threatened by loyalists – and UDA’s youth wing was sending signed bomb threats to minority ethnic organisations across Belfast:
The threat against the Islamic Centre, which was signed Ulster Young Militants [the youth wing of the UDA] and Combat-18, stated: “Get out of our country before Bonfire Night. If you don’t, your building will be blown up. Keep Northern Ireland for white British people. For God and Ulster.”
It is tempting to ask what more a Loyalist paramilitary organisation has to do to prove that it is involved in racist violence beyond signing its death threats. This is a profoundly disturbing scenario – a paramilitary force often directed by the state and riddled with informers is routinely engaged in targeting minority ethnic people in racist violence and yet no-one appears particularly concerned. Whether people like it or not, the vexed, sordid world of the dirty war now threatens a new and lethal combination of racism and sectarianism, loyalist paramilitarism and state collusion. Meanwhile anti-racists have been bickering about their own role in this whole process while others begin to suggest that the issue was not racist at all. In this context, it is chilling testament to the profound racism and poverty that Roma confront in Eastern Europe that they would even contemplate a return to Belfast.
4. The Guardian ‘Unhappy return: fear and loathing await fugitives from Belfast racism’ 26 June 09 [↑]
5. BBC News Northern Ireland – Hard times for Roma who fled Belfast 9 Jul 09 [↑]
7. Rolston, Bill. ‘Legacy of intolerance: racism and Unionism in South Belfast: What lies behind the recent spate of racist attacks on Africans and Asians in the Village, a Unionist stronghold in south Belfast?’ IRR News 10 Feb 04 [↑]
10. Belfast Telegraph ‘PSNI can’t deal with hate crime, says newsreader Snow’ [↑]