Again on the racist attacks in South Belfast

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I basically agree with Garibaldy on the attacks on the Roma in South Belfast, but there are a few aspects that I think might be worth fleshing out.

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.

21 Comments

  1. Dr Paul said,

    June 17, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Having noted the appalling racist attacks in Belfast, I can’t help asking: what on earth makes Romanians want to settle in Northern Ireland in the first place?

  2. Garibaldy said,

    June 17, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    I’d agree with you entirely that this is most probably just hoods rather than a paramilitary group, and that there is no sign of a swing towards the extreme right (apart from the 70,000 votes of Allastair of course!). That story of the Chinese family up on charges has parallels with the experience of someone I know at the hands of sectarian hoods, but I suspect we could find similar ones in, say, west Belfast or Derry that have no racial or sectarian undertones easy enough. A complex web clearly.

    The press coverage is astounding, but like you say it fits easily into an established narrative that the British media (and elsewhere) can relate to, and helps them think that NI is as British as – if not Finchley, at least Burnley.

    The rehousing question is an interesting one. My first thought was empty private housing on an estate somewhere, but what would that do to the property prices. Can’t see a developer liking that, no matter how desperate.

    Some of the comments over at slugger have been horrendous.

  3. Garibaldy said,

    June 17, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Dr Paul,

    the year round sunshine.

  4. Madam Miaow said,

    June 18, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    What happened to the Chinese family shares features with a case in Cheltenham where the Wongs were terrorised in their Fontana takeaway over a period of two years to the point where Mr Wong ended up injured with blood streaming from him. Guess who ended up with a charge against him?

    I feel very sorry for the Roma. Perhaps the prominence of this story suggests that racism is still news (good), implying that there’s more chance of a change for the better (more good) than with the sectarianism which is perceived as being ongoing, immutable and permanent (v ba-a-ad).

  5. Madam Miaow said,

    June 18, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    BTW, isn’t it Romanians and not Roma who are on the receiving end here?

  6. dsquared said,

    June 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Romanians aren’t Roma mate – the similarity of the words is a false friend. “Romanians” comes from “Romanus” (the original Roman-speaking Dacians) whereas Roma is from the Romani word for “man”.

  7. Garibaldy said,

    June 18, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    It seems that the victims are Roma from Romania. I suspect there was a deliberate choice by an editorial team to describe them as Romanian in one news room, and the rest followed suit.

    BTW, Roman-speaking?

  8. Ciarán said,

    June 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    It seems to be spreading wider. Republican graves in Milltown cemetery were smeared with Combat 18 signs and racist slogans last night.

  9. Garibaldy said,

    June 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Was this another attack on the provisional plot Ciarán, or was it wider than that?

  10. June 18, 2009 at 2:14 pm

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  11. June 18, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    […] 3: Splintered Sunrise has some thoughts picking up important points I missed, and an issue raised the comments here, namely geography. […]

  12. Red Maria said,

    June 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Romanians aren’t Roma mate – the similarity of the words is a false friend. “Romanians” comes from “Romanus” (the original Roman-speaking Dacians) whereas Roma is from the Romani word for “man”.

    Yes but … there are quite a few Romanian Roma. Indeed the Russian stereotype of Romania is that it is almost exclusively populated by Roma.

    Apropos the derivation of the word “Roma”, doesn’t the word from which it is derived, “Rom” also mean, or imply husband? Hence in the Prosper Merimee novel, Carmen says to Don Jose that he will be her “Rom”, or husband.

    The capricious creature then went on to dump the dull plodding Jose for the glamorous Escamillo but that of course is another story.

  13. skidmarx said,

    June 18, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    I thought Rom implied Ferengi.

  14. Ciarán said,

    June 18, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Was this another attack on the provisional plot Ciarán, or was it wider than that?

    The Provisional plot was all I saw defaced, most of the headstones had been painted over as well as the Proclamation. There was also paint strewn across the plot itself.

  15. June 18, 2009 at 5:14 pm

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  16. Garibaldy said,

    June 18, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Thanks Ciarán. Shameful.

  17. Liam said,

    June 18, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I know I’ll be accused of prejudice against the UDA but my view is that the attacks must have been committed with the express consent of one of the loyalist gangster organisations. Most likely the UDA. They control the drug trade, prostitution and protection rackets in the area. The overlap between their membership and the local drunken racist criminals is substantial, although these will not necessarily be the one whose names appear on the grant applications for the funding which the British state uses to pay them off.

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 18, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    There is likely a connection somewhere, although Emperor Jackie has been very keen to take his distance. This sort of thing might have a negative effect on those peace grants.

  19. Ciarán said,

    June 19, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    The Antrim plot in Milltown was also attacked, with ‘C18’ daubed right over a stone commemorating the Irishmen who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

    Paul Maskey released a statement about it, I’m not sure how widely it was covered. Unionists challenged after grave attack

  20. Ciarán said,

    June 19, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    I’ve heard that the Workers’ Party plot was targeted as well.

  21. Garibaldy said,

    June 20, 2009 at 7:44 am

    It was indeed although it has been cleaned up.


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