The first thing is the spatial element. There is that patch of South Belfast that’s roughly bounded by the Ormeau Road and the Lisburn Road, where there is an awful lot of rented housing stock. Lots of students live up around Queens, much to the distress of the non-student population in the area. There’s also a very large ethnic population in the area, ranging between Filipinos working in the City Hospital, to the largest element of the long-established Chinese community, to more recent Polish and Lithuanian arrivals. Bordering this part of town are the run-down loyalist areas of Sandy Row, Donegall Pass and the Village, all of them with extensive social problems and all of them in long-term demographic decline.
These latest attacks took place in the university area, not the Village, but it isn’t seriously disputed that the perpetrators came from the Village. You then have to ask who it was. The area has a very strong paramilitary presence, but I don’t think this is exactly the same as the anti-Chinese pogrom of 2003-04. That was very clearly orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries, although for political reasons that side of it was downplayed, and it did spiral beyond that, with random hoods joining in and other visible minorities, such as African refugees, being targeted. The better comparison is probably with the murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine. The mob who beat Mr McDaid to death may have been chanting UDA slogans, but it doesn’t follow that that was a UDA action – it was essentially just lumpen Rangers supporters, tanked up on alcohol and giving vent to the sectarianism that still runs very close to the surface here.
And that’s what I think we have in this case. Notwithstanding the BNP call centre in Dundonald, specifically fascist organisations have virtually no presence. And that’s not surprising, because if you want to be bigoted here there are plenty of other outlets. Whatever about the headlines today proclaiming Belfast the most racist city in Europe, thankfully we don’t have the situation that exists in Hungary – and Italy seems to be going the same way – where uniformed vigilantes go around openly attacking minorities. (We were a bit like that in the 1970s, of course.) There, too, the Roma are the main targets – they seem to get the rough end wherever they go. There’s certainly been a lot of hostility to them here, often related to their tradition of begging, something that’s a familiar sight in Sofia or Bucharest but not in Belfast. In any case, they’re a small and vulnerable community without representation, and it’s been heartening to see the spontaneous response from lots of local people.
You also have to set this in the context of a long-term, usually low-level element of racist harassment. I heard Patrick Yu talking about ethnic cleansing, and I know what he means, but this isn’t Bosnia. Rather, it’s the constant drip-drip-drip. For example, the current Newtownards Chronicle carries a court report about a middle-aged Chinese woman and her son being up on assault charges, arising from an altercation with a crowd of young hoods who had apparently been congregating outside their takeaway for weeks. There was no sign of the hoods being in court, and Judge Hamill had some remarks to make about how he doubted this was an unprovoked assault on innocent kids going about their business. This sort of thing happens with some regularity, but it’s not often that it escalates into anything more serious.
So what I think we’re dealing with is essentially a bunch of lumpen hoods, of the sort that you do find in the Village and similar areas. I don’t think the loyalist groups are behind it, although it’s likely that some of the hoods will have some connections, and it’s possible that because of that connection the cops may have been wary about taking action. Nor do I detect any serious upsurge in the fascist right – this isn’t the 1980s, when the NF had several hundred youth in East Belfast. It is possible, though, that the BNP’s breakthrough has emboldened a few people who were already that way inclined.
What’s also unclear at this stage is what exactly is going to be done with the Roma. Margaret Ritchie says they’ll be rehoused, but I don’t know where, as the Housing Executive hasn’t built any houses in years. I imagine there will be a hope in officialdom that if you give them some money they might just go away. An equitable outcome might be to give them some Peace III money, since that’s the sort of thing it’s supposed to be there for. Although that might have to come out of South Belfast’s allocation.
Finally, just on the news coverage, I was a little taken aback at how big a story this has got to be across the water, even knocking Iran off the top of the TV bulletins for much of the day. When something similar happens to Catholics in Stoneyford, it barely even makes the local news. I suppose it’s a bit like when Iris Robinson decided to get up in the House of Commons and share her thoughts on homosexuality – what she said about gays wouldn’t even make the top twenty of outrageous things that Iris Robinson has said, but on this occasion all hell broke loose. It might just be that, when dealing with the north of Ireland, the British media tend to discount sectarianism, but racism is a story they can get their heads around.