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Racist attacks continue as Stormont Executive makes token gestures
23 July 2014
As usual the loyalist marching season has been accompanied by a heightening of sectarian sentiment in the north. Given that this objective is (and always has been) the primary purpose of Loyalist parades, flag flying and bonfires etc., that is hardly surprising. However, a new element that has become a more obvious part of these so-called cultural displays in the recent period has been virulent racism. An example of this was the placing of Polish and Palestinian flags on loyalist bonfires.
This year it is noticeable that the racist element has been ramped up significantly. This has seen the erection of Ku Klux Klan and Confederate flags on lampposts in Belfast and the display of racist slogans at bonfire sites. It seemed that this year no loyalist bonfire was complete without a poster of the ethnic Chinese MLA Anna Lo. In case the symbolism of this was lost they were usually accompanied by the crudest racist slogans such the one at a site in Antrim which declared: “Wee (sic) “R” not racist just don’t like cotton picking ni**a’s or taigs.” These racist displays, which were widespread, drew very little criticism from unionist politicians. Neither did they provoke a response from the PSNI despite there being a clear breach of the law.
While racist and sectarian sentiments are not unique to the north of Ireland there is probably nowhere else in Europe where they are accommodated to such a degree by officialdom. Even in cases where the state is prepared to intervene, such as the erection of Ku Klux Klan flags in east Belfast, there is still a lot of ambiguity. It was condemned by unionists, including the DUP leader Peter Robinson, but in a way that was more a denial of the role of loyalists in such an act than a clear commendation of racism. So while Peter Robinson said that erection of such a flag was “absolutely outrageous” he immediately diminished the seriousness of the incident by putting it down to “some local idiot” who “doesn’t represent the unionist or loyalist community". Yet if it really was just a lone idiot why did it require “discussions with local residents and representatives” (a phrase often used to refer to loyalists) before the flags could be removed by the police? All this suggests that the flags were erected by loyalists and their approval was needed in order for them to be removed. The PSNI couldn't even say if a crime had been committed.
Of course the whole idea of Ku Klux Klan flags representing some red line when it comes to racism in Belfast is ridiculous as the organisation has no presence in the city or influence over the ongoing racist attacks and intimation. This is in contrast to the loyalist groups who have orchestrated much of it and whose flags and murals are all over the place.
We saw an example of this intimidation in June when a Nigerian man and his family were forced to give up a home they had been allocated in east Belfast after a racist picket on the property. When Michael Abiona, whole has lived in Belfast for four years, made a visit to his new home found five people sitting outside holding posters saying "Local Houses 4 Local People". Bed sheets with similar messages painted on them were attached to the railings and windows of the property. Despite claims by the protesters that they were only highlighting a shortage of social housing for disabled people and pensioners Mr Abiona was in no doubt that this was a “blatantly racist” incident. "It's about discrimination, it's about intimidation and it's about racism," he told the BBC. "It speaks for itself. The banner...it's just shameful that this is happening in this era, and at this stage." He said he found the incident particularly distressing as it brought back memories of a racist assault he had suffered three years earlier. Commenting on the incident a Housing Executive official revealed that this was only one of ten cases, mostly in south and east Belfast, where people had been prohibited from moving into properties they had been allocated.
Despite the obvious racist motive for this case of intimidation in his constituency, the First Minister and DUP leader, was unable unequivocally condemn it as such. In his initial statement Peter Robinson said he was not convinced that the incident had been motivated by racism. Echoing the claims of the loyalist protesters he claimed that there was “massive concern” in the area over the allocation of social housing and that the prospect of “somebody from up-country moving into a local area” would likely have provoked a similar response. It was only after the PSNI and the Housing Executive said they were treating it as a racist incident that the DUP issued a second statement clarifying that their leader accepted that this was the case.
In many ways this episode was similar to the earlier controversy around the anti-Muslim rant made by a local Pastor. In both cases the DUP endorsed or at least tried to minimise the racist actions or comments by parts of its support base (whether that is the evangelical Christians or the loyalists), before finally issuing a statement that said the bare minimum to cover themselves against accusations that they are condoning racism. Of course the initial responses can be taken as the authentic view of the DUP which, despite subsequent clarifications and “apologies”, are never withdrawn. This continual pandering to sectarianism and racism is not confined to the DUP. For example in the recent European elections the anti-immigrant UKIP gained 24,000 votes in the north. Also, a UUP candidate in south Belfast, one of the hotspots for racist attacks, put out a flyer calling for “Local houses for local people” - the very same slogan used in the racist intimidation incident just a few weeks later.
Of course, this is not to say that racist sentiments or racist attacks are confined to unionist areas. There have also been racist and sectarian attacks and intimidation (such as the recent attack on a Somali man and the pellet gun attack on a Protestant teenager in west Belfast) in nationalist areas. However, they are at much lower level. This is not because people there are inherently more progressive but because such actions and attitudes don’t receive any endorsement at a political level.
However, given that both SDLP and Sinn Fein are locked into a political settlement that is founded upon sectarianism and the more they accommodate to this to more likely they will accommodate to racism. We already see this to some extent in the muted response to Robinson’s comments on the racial intimidation incident in east Belfast. Despite being very similar to his response to the Pastor rant, they generated nowhere as much controversy as his anti-Muslim comments. To some degree this is linked to the housing issue and the agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP to scrap the Housing Executive and move away from needs based allocation. In this new framework “local houses for local people” might become one of the new criteria. A public indignation about racism can go along with making use of sectarian patronage. In these circumstances racism and sectarianism will gain new fuel.
Another reason for the muted response is that it Robinson’s comments were made in the same week as the lunch of the long delayed Racial Equality Strategy. As this was the main demand of the official anti-racism campaign lead by the political parties, NGOs and trade unions there was a reluctance to focus on an issue that would cast doubt on its seriousness. In any event the Racial Equality Strategy turned out to be very weak. While it did recognise the link between sectarianism and racism in did so in terms of sectarianism being ideas or types of behaviour that had developed during the period of the Troubles that were now being transferred to other areas. This ignores the fact that sectarianism in the north of Ireland has a material and institutional base. It also ignores the fact that sectarianism is ingrained in the current political settlement.
Sectarianism and racism are linked because they share as a common root the denial of equality. But effectively official anti-racism policy is in the hands of institutions and political leaders that are committed to maintaining inequality. In these circumstances racial equality can only be tokenism.
While the token gestures of the Executive may satisfy the official leadership of the anti-racism campaign in the north it is unlikely to satisfy a significant section of the thousands of people who have mobilized around the issue over recent months. It is clear from the large demonstrations that took place in response to the anti-Muslim comments controversy that there is a more generalized dissatisfaction with the increasingly reactionary direction the political system is being driven in. While the consciousness of this political shift is still quite low it does contain the potential for the development of an anti-sectarian and anti-racist movement. Even at its current low level this is already in advance of anything that is likely to come out of Stormont.
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