The simmering sectarianism that still dominates Northern Ireland has boiled over this week with more than 100 Romanians forced out of their homes in a series of racist attacks in Belfast.
One of the Romanians, Couaccu Siluis, said, ‘They made signs like they wanted to cut my brother’s baby’s throat. They said they wanted to kill us. We’re scared.’
Another, called Maria, told how people broke into her home and threatened her and her children. Others said people with guns warned they would be shot unless they went back to Romania.
Importantly over 300 people protested in the area in defence of the Romanians.
Nazi chants and literature accompanied the attacks. The election of two fascist British National Party members to the European parliament may have spurred on the bigots, as may the presence of the BNP’s call centre in the city. But the structural divisions of Northern Ireland are at the root of the attack.
It is a society where every member is encouraged to judge others by their sectarian background. Such a structure will inevitably encourage viewing communities as divided by race.
Northern Ireland was set up by the British government in 1921 as a society based on discrimination against Catholics. Bigotry has been at its core ever since.
When the police in Northern Ireland started recording racially motivated crime in 1996 there were just 41 incidents. Last year there were nearly 1,000.
However, this does not include sectarian incidents, which have remained over 1,500 a year in the same period.
There has been a history of racist attacks, most recently the violent assault against migrant workers after a Northern Ireland football match in March.
Scenes of people been driven from their homes are reminiscent of the pogroms against Catholics at the start of ‘the Troubles’ in 1969, though these are on a much smaller scale. The violence of the British backed Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict.
We are constantly told that the establishment brought peace. In reality, the peace process is bringing Protestant and Catholic workers together in poverty while at the same time dividing them politically on sectarian lines.
Peter Shirlow of Queen’s University told the Guardian newspaper, “There is no serious attempt to tackle sectarianism. If you listen to Unionist politicians… all they talk about is more money for Protestant areas. They emphasis only one community instead of talking about a shared, united society.”
Throughout Northern Ireland’s history Catholics have faced systematic discrimination, but the division in the working class has meant that Protestant workers are also held back. Immigrants are just the latest victims of this divide and rule.
That combination of bigotry and poverty is a poisonous mix. The murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine last month by a loyalist mob shows where it can lead.
The divisions fostered from the top produce violence on the streets
Yet there is an alternative. That people from the area where the attacks took place came out and protested to defend the Romanians shows the opposition to racism.
After a wave of racist attacks against the Chinese community in 2004 thousands demonstrated against racism in the centre of Belfast.
The Visteon occupation in Belfast showed another face of unity. Workers came together across the religious divide and beat back a huge multinational. The same political unity was shown in the 2006 postal workers dispute, when a march up the Protestant Shankill Road passed through the sectarian walls and then down the Catholic Falls Road.
That is a politics that can mobilise people together against bigotry. It is a politics that is urgently needed on the streets of Northern Ireland today.
Email messages of support for the Romanian families to the chair of the Anti-racism network in Belfast [email protected]
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