So are racist attacks a worse problem in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK? I would say there are clearly some special features gained from over a century’s experience of sectarian harassment and violence: a more rapid escalation, the use of firearms, and of course links with organised gangs i.e. paramilitary groups. There’s also a question of the basic motive. In GB this might be a fear of difference, or a wish to drive out a group that’s competing for jobs. Here in NI, these may well apply but will be supplemented by a territorial imperative. Generations of trying to keep your area ‘safe’ from encroachment by themmuns isn’t going to make you inclined to welcome another group, as you are likely to treat all outsiders with suspicion.
There’s an important structural point to be made about where the harassment is taking place. In this case, the area would be seen as ‘mixed’ in terms of religious occupancy. But many cases of racial harassment in Belfast take place in ‘Protestant’ areas, where the population is declining both due to lower rates of household formation and younger generations moving out to the suburbs. Empty houses are bought up by private landlords and let to minority ethnic newcomers. Pressure on housing in ‘Catholic’ areas is greater and this means fewer, if any, empty houses. Therefore it remains unknown whether republican communities (and paramilitary groups) would behave in the same way if faced with a similar situation.
Combining racism with a history of violent responses to sectarianism creates a volatile mix which requires particularly strong condemnation from Northern Ireland’s politicians and community leaders, as well as decisive action from the PSNI. So far, action and reaction have been patchy to say the least. That’s what’s most worrying for the future.