Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Racist violence in a sectarian society

Over a hundred Romanians have left their homes due to harassment or fear of harassment in South Belfast’s university area. The racist violence appears to be the work of residents from adjacent loyalist areas, and there’s talk of links with both paramilitary groups and Combat 18, the former rather more likely I would say. A demonstration in support of the families was attacked last night.

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.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Taking on the BNP voters

There’s been much ineffectual hand-wringing among the British chattering classes this week about the two European Parliament seats won by the BNP in England. Discussion on Question Time, Any Questions, Newsnight and so on; supplemented by numerous vox pop pieces with people admitting they voted BNP as a protest against the mainstream parties – expenses, credit crunch, Gordon Brown, whatever.

BNP voters would all deny being racist, although they usually also commented that immigration has ‘gone too far’. So let’s be kind and assume that they only voted BNP in order to shock the political establishment, which they have certainly succeeded in doing. So what did these people actually vote for?

As Johnny Guitar has pointed out, the BNP has a policy of voluntary repatriation. Their web site states:

…we call for an immediate halt to all further immigration, the immediate deportation of criminal and illegal immigrants, and the introduction of a system of voluntary resettlement whereby those immigrants who are legally here will be afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin assisted by a generous financial incentives (sic) both for individuals and for the countries in question.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to get agreement with the first two statements, because new immigrants and criminals are always other people. But what about ‘voluntary resettlement’?

Well, first of all, just how voluntary would it be? Once word got around, in a BNP-led state, that ‘generous’ payments were available, some eligible people would leave for financial reasons. Others would be made to feel it would be in their best interests to go. And eventually, we can be sure that the voluntary nature of this deportation policy would be removed.

So how would your average BNP voter feel about that? How would it affect their lives? When I lived in England, I was struck by the contrast between racism expressed by individuals in the abstract, and their defence of people they knew – he works hard, or she married into the family down the road, or their kids are lovely. ‘I don’t mean you, love’ is the standard cop-out when racist views are being expressed publicly.

So BNP voters need to be asked – who do you mean? Who do you want to see put on the plane? Your GP? Your neighbour? Your workmates? Your best friend? Your daughter-in-law? Your grandchildren?

The BNP wants to remove from the UK everyone who is not of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish descent (which, incidentally, leads to laughable contradictions in their approach to Northern Ireland). All the other parties need to do is to keep on repeating this simple fact at every opportunity, and to ask every BNP voter in every election – do you know what you’re really voting for?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Welcome to East Belfast Diary

Welcome to the new blog. East Belfast Diary retains many of the features of the old South Belfast Diary, such as the majority of its name. I expect the content will be broadly similar too. I’m sure I’ll keep writing about politics, although from a slightly different perspective now that I’m no longer a member of a political party. I’ll continue to reflect on the strange world of academia and on aspects of everyday life which fascinate or horrify. I may include some posts on the very interesting history of East Belfast, and perhaps some more content on my academic specialisms of urban regeneration and housing. I hope there'll be time for a few book, TV and film reviews too, along with occasional accounts of my continuing struggle to learn the Irish language.

South Belfast hasn’t quite been left behind – I still work there. But getting to know our new neighbourhood has been a very positive experience. Although we’re further from the centre of Belfast, it feels less suburban than did the part of Stranmillis where we used to live. The variety in house types, the social mix (in terms of class) and the accessibility of shops and other facilities reminds us of London.

It’s also clear that East Belfast has a very distinct identity, more so I would say than South. What does East Belfast mean to you? You might mention the shipyards (there used to be more than one), Titanic Quarter, George Best, Van Morrison, CS Lewis, Freedom Corner, Cyprus Avenue, the UDA, the Robinsons, the Paisleys, Castlereagh, Stormont, IKEA, Aldens, the UWC strike, Connswater Community Greenway, Kincora, the Twelfth, Naomi Long, Cluan Place, the Short Strand, City Airport, Glenn Patterson….

There will be plenty to write about.