There’s been a story doing the rounds the last week or so that David Cameron invited Jeremy Clarkson to advise him on transport policy. Now, I saw this in the Daily Star, so the relevant health warnings apply, but given Dave the Haircut’s love of celebs and his weakness for dopey populist stunts, it seems all too plausible. If we’re to believe this, Clarkson – who’s no fan of Dave’s green agenda – told the Tories to piss off, which at least reflects well on him.
Over here, of course, we don’t need Clarkson. We have Sammy Wilson, whose career this blog has covered in exhaustive detail. In days of old, Sammy used to be a sort of common-or-garden East Belfast spide, only distinguished from his DUP comrades by the occasional urge to get back to nature. More recently, though, Sammy’s been carving out a populist niche for himself, channelling Clarkson but also mixing in a big dollop of Richard Littlejohn and a tincture of Jim Davidson. And it seems to have worked for him – having gained notoriety as the environment minister who didn’t believe in global warming, he’s lately been promoted to finance. (His replacement at environment is Edwin Poots, who does believe in global warming, but doesn’t believe in evolution.) But now we have Sammy streaking back into the headlines with his thoughts on racism:
Earlier, Mr Wilson had said when there was “any attempt to have an honest debate” on the issue of immigration “the people involved in that were accused of being racist”.
He said racism charges coincided with appeals for money from some groups.
“What I had said was that first of all when there was any attempt to have an honest debate on the issue of immigration, immediately the people who were involved in that were accused of being racist.
“Secondly these charges of racism then were always coincided with the holding out of the hand for more money for the organisations which were dealing with the issue.
“From that point of view organisations like NICEM needed to keep raising this issue because that was one way of perpetuating their own existence.”
Patrick Yu of NICEM, who Mark Devenport was talking to, was not impressed, and frankly neither am I. As Patrick points out, when the police are saying that racist incidents are rising year on year, Sammy is giving the impression that the whole issue is a self-serving con job designed to raise funds for the “racism industry”, the same way the environmental movement invented global warming.
Sammy, of course, has form on this issue, and his ongoing spat with Patrick Yu dates from his call for “local people” to be given precedence in the jobs market, something that Sammy surely knows is extremely illegal under both British and EU law. But does Sammy, as the Greens’ Steven Agnew suggested with his “I offend therefore I am” quip, simply suffer from a form of political Tourette’s, like the red mist that descends over Iris Robinson whenever homosexuals are mentioned?
I don’t think so. Sammy knows the DUP base as well as anyone, and he knows that you really can’t be too reactionary. What with DUP voters’ disquiet at the New Dispensation at Stormont, and the threat of Jim Allister’s Prodiban insurgency, a bit of tub-thumping rhetoric can’t hurt Sammy’s re-election prospects in East Antrim. To take a small example, last Saturday saw Belfast’s annual Gay Pride parade, bringing a much-needed splash of colour to the city centre. As usual, we have had punters from what would be the DUP’s traditional base – this guy is a good example – wondering loudly why the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (whose minister is DUP member and born-again fundamentalist Nelson McCausland) was funding the sodomites’ street party. Nelson, I suppose, could have burbled on a bit about equality legislation and Section 75, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as Sammy popping up to give us his stream of consciousness.
There is, however, one aspect of what Sammy said that repays inspection. That is this contention:
Mr Wilson said the “anti-racism industry” brought in millions of pounds and employed “scores of people”.
“Of course they have to justify their existence and now and again I think they take an unfair shot at politicians and when they do they can’t expect people to remain silent,” he added.
Let’s leave aside the hint of self-pity at the end? Is there an enormous “racism industry” in the north? Patrick Yu doesn’t think so, arguing that three-quarters of ethnic minority groups are entirely voluntary. And Stormont MLA Anna Lo (Alliance, South Belfast) comments that “Few specifically anti-racism groups receive funding – most ethnic minority organisations are support agencies providing information and assistance to their own communities all year round but of course they need to speak up against racism when racist incidents occur, hurting people in their communities. It is irresponsible of Mr Wilson to say claims of racism coincided with appeals for money from some groups – this can undermine the role of these groups.”
It’s important to unpick this. There are the ethnic minority groups like NICEM or the Chinese Welfare Association, who mostly do work serving ethnic minorities and can’t really be described as campaigning anti-racism groups. They have been getting some money, and the flow has increased in the last couple of years, but it’s really quite small beer in terms of our funded community sector. There is also the Equality Commission, a large, powerful and well-funded quango that isn’t exactly bashful about pressing its divers agendas. But racism is only part of the Commission’s remit, and has to fight for space with sectarianism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, being nasty to people in wheelchairs and whatever else the Commission is pursuing at the moment. And there is also the Anti-Racism Network, a small group of leftwing activists who’ve got a bit of media attention by regularly taking offence on behalf of ethnic minorities, but I hardly think Barbara Muldoon qualifies as an “industry”. I know Sammy draws heavily on the Daily Mail for his polemics, but Belfast is not London and we don’t have any anti-racist entrepreneurs of the Lee Jasper variety.
There is, of course, a strong argument for taking a hatchet to the north’s grantocracy. But, in picking (inaccurately) on ethnic minorities, Sammy is missing the elephant in the room – the north’s biggest employer, the peace industry. Now, the peace industry covers a lot of ground, and there are some good people there doing useful work, but an awful lot of it consists of republicans and loyalists who have been kept quiet by being put on the payroll. If you ever have to go to an economic regeneration meeting in Belfast, you’ll immediately notice that many of the people in the room are UDA men, and despite the fact that you know they’re UDA men, they invariably introduce themselves as representing some community development project that’s in urgent need of funding. It’s like the fucking Muppet Show sometimes.
Indeed, such is the influence of peace money that the splits in the UDA during the peace process have mostly been about money – in Johnny Adair’s case, we’re talking about control of criminal empires, but bribes like the Conflict Transformation Initiative have played their part too. One thinks back to 2006, when the South-East Antrim UDA seceded from the main group. Some observers presented this as being a split between the “good” mainstream UDA and a hardline faction wedded to the old ways, citing as evidence how the Shoukri brothers, on being run out of North Belfast, had been given asylum in Carrickfergus. But it soon became plain that Tommy Millions and his mates were looking to negotiate a conflict transformation subsidy of their own, while dispensing with Hard Bap’s mediation.
I suspect there’s something similar going on with the recent secession of the UDA’s North Antrim and Derry fiefdom. This was the occasion for a show of force by the Derry UDA a couple of weeks back, and it seems likely that the recent irruption of racism in Derry is connected. I am of course not privy to what the Mexican is thinking, but your best bet is that he’s looking to go into business for himself.
Yes, if you wanted to slash the grantocracy, there are plenty of obvious targets. In the grand scheme of things, the relatively small amount going to our ethnic communities does no harm. Since there’s all this money sloshing about the community sector, I don’t begrudge the Chinese and the Poles getting a little cash for translation services. Nor do I begrudge Patrick Yu doing what he does, advocating for vulnerable minorities. It’s the peace industry that is really asking for a bonfire of the grants. But such is our political system that the peace industry is not only untouchable, it’s virtually unmentionable. And attacking the vulnerable while ignoring the abuses of the powerful is, I’m afraid, par for the course for Sammy.