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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Has peace made us the race hate capital of the world?

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

The Muslim man had just arrived in Belfast by boat. He had no accommodation arranged so he slept on a bench. He awoke to three youths kicking him. They beat him about the face. Then, they hit him with a bottle.

"The men started shouting at me and laughing. I couldn't understand what they were saying as I don't speak any English," he said through his Arabic interpreter.

At first, the black couple in Antrim were amused at being called 'blackie' when they visited the local shops. Then, the husband was hit by a football, and the wife was stoned.

Now, they get taxis everywhere. It's too dangerous to walk in their estate. The woman is terrified: "I am very nervous whenever I am in the house on my own. I am 16 weeks pregnant. I don't believe I can remain (here) much longer."

"I don't allow my daughter who is nine to play outside," says a north Belfast mother. "The one day I did let her play she was called a Paki whore." The mother was also threatened. "Paki, you are going to be burned out!" a gang of youths shouted at her.

Another mother and her children met with shouts of 'niggers' and 'black bastards' walking to the local chip shop. "It got to the stage where my son was saying, 'I don't like the colour of my skin. I want my skin bleached.'"

Another mother whose family experienced racist attacks says: "My children are asking, 'Is it bad to be brown? Is it bad to have this hair?' One of my girls was very scared and wetting the bed."

These are some of the stories of victims of racist violence outlined in 'The Next Stephen Lawrence? Racist violence and criminal justice in Northern Ireland', by Dr Robbie McVeigh, which was published last week.

Racist incidents have rocketed during the peace process: from 41 in 1996 to 936 in the past year. Northern Ireland has been dubbed the race hate capital of Europe. It's estimated 35,000 ethnic minorities have settled in the North and there are another 50,000 migrant workers.

It's causing deep unrest among some elements, especially in working-class loyalist communities. Dr McVeigh's report notes loyalist paramilitary involvement, particularly that of the UVF, in some attacks.

With new foreign workers arriving every week, the situation is set to deteriorate further. Anti-racist campaigners fear it's only a matter of time before somebody dies.

Patrick Yu of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, which published the report, has been living in the North for 16 years. He's been punched, elbowed in the street, and called a 'Chinky bastard' but says that's low-level compared to what others have experienced. "People are very frightened," he says.

Last weekend alone, there were six racist attacks. Five masked men burst into the home of three Eastern European women in Cloughey, Co Down, and beat them with baseball bats. The women sustained cuts, bruises and head injuries.

In Dunmurry in south Belfast, windows were smashed in two homes of Lithuanians. Polish immigrants were burned out of their home in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.

A Lithuanian was assaulted in Castledawson, Co Derry. A Latvian sustained a serious eye and head injuries when beaten with baseball bats in Lisburn, Co Down.

Lisburn community worker, Fiona McCausland, organised a rally on Friday in support of ethnic minorities in the area. "They're picked upon because they're the most vulnerable and they don't fight back.

"They are exploited by employers, they have very poor English, they don't know their housing or employment rights. On top of all that, they're physically attacked and they don't even have family, neighbour or any other support system available to them.

"They're baffled as to why they are targeted. 'Why are you doing this to me when I've done nothing to you?' they ask their attackers. Other times they ask, 'Do you want me to pay you money?'"

McCausland says ethnic minorities can be seen as the enemy by some in Northern Ireland at the bottom of the social ladder. "In Lisburn, we've heard people complain 'we lost our jobs at £20 a day because the Poles work for £12. They should be protesting about employers paying anybody £20 or £12 a day.

"People also fear change. An Eastern European food shop has opened on the Longstone Road. I think that's wonderful but some people are saying 'Oh my God will the Spar be closing now?'"

She says some of those carrying out the attacks are children. "We need to educate children about race issues very quickly. Otherwise, this problem could explode."

Anti-racist activists say anyone Arab-looking is called 'Bin Laden' on the North's streets. A man in Bangor was attacked with a knife by two local men who accused him of blowing up the Twin Towers. When his wife ran for help, they threw bottles at her. Then, they poured alcohol over him and tried to set him on fire.

The high rate of attacks in loyalist areas is partly due to the fact that many ethnic minorities live there because houses in those districts are cheaper. Also, loyalists traditionally have had links and sympathies with far-right groups.

In a survey published last week, 33% of Protestants admitted to being prejudiced, compared to 18% of Catholics. Eamonn McCann of the Socialist Environmental Alliance says: "The nature of Northern Ireland politics means the Catholic community here has been more internationalist and outward looking, while Protestants have felt under siege.

"They've been inside the walls trying to keep people out, seeing threats and infiltrators everywhere. They feel they can't open the gates. The outsiders – whether they're Catholics or ethnic minorities – are saying 'we're no threat, let us in' and the Protestants are thinking 'we're not falling for that one'."

McCann says working-class Protestants have been the big losers in the peace process. "The Belfast Agreement strengthened the Union but the Protestant working-class were told, 'you won't be ruling the roost like you did for decades'.

"This community feels it's treated worse now than the Catholic working-class, and if it's looking for somebody to hit out at, the only people below it are ethnic minorities.

"The Protestant working-class feel particularly abandoned because there's a huge gulf between it and the Protestant elite. I'm not idealising the Catholic middle-class but they tend to stay more involved with their community. Middle-class Catholics on the Malone Road are only a generation away from Ballymurphy. They've cousins and nephews still there.

"Moneyed Protestant fled their areas generations ago. They maintain no links with the communities their families came from. Nobody from North Down bothers with the Shankill, and the Shankill and other working-class Protestant areas rightly feel angry and abused."

The PSNI clearance rate for racial incidents is 20%. Police have said they are committed to tackling racist attacks and do their utmost to investigate them. However, Barbara Muldoon of the Anti-Racist Network says she knows of no other crime with such a low prosecution rate.

"Massive resources would be deployed if Catholics or Protestants were being targeted as extensively as ethnic minorities. Victims complain the PSNI don't arrive quickly and are often disinterested. In many cases, police don't even bother sending forensic teams to look for fingerprints.

"The institutionalised racism in the criminal justice system encourages racism on the ground. Nine PSNI officers have been seconded to an immigration team to hunt illegal immigrants. It would have been far more appropriate had they been deployed in a special race hate team."

July 17, 2006

This article appeared in the July 2, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.