The simmering sectarianism that dominates Northern Ireland boiled over last week as a series of racist attacks forced more than 100 members of the Roma community out of their homes in Belfast.
The attacks spread from south Belfast to the east of the city on Thursday of last week.
The Roma victims, who had all come from Romania, are now in a secret location in a Republican area under armed police guard.
Local people have responded with disgust at the attacks. On Saturday a rally of around 400 trades unionists and anti-racist activists pledged to organise a campaign against racism.
This will counter both the vicious attacks made on the Roma families this week and the rise in racist attacks generally. There were close to 1,000 racist attacks in Northern Ireland last year.
Anna Lo, an assembly member from the Chinese community, Patricia McKeown from the Irish Congress of Trades Unions and Barbara Muldoon from the Anti Racism Network, addressed the rally.
Barbara Muldoon said that the attacks had to stop. “You deserve to walk the streets of this city without being spat on, you deserve the respect all of us deserve.”
Her second message was to the racists: “You do not speak on behalf of the people of Belfast or Northern Ireland, your shame is not our shame.
“We are not ashamed, we are bloody furious at what you have done to our neighbours.
“We reject any notion that the Romanian nationals who live in this community are responsible for social deprivation, for a lack of public housing and jobs.
“The responsibility for that lies in Stormont and lies in Westminster.”
Racism is on the rise in Northern Ireland. It is evident in the way the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the new “community friendly police service” responded to the attacks on the Roma.
These families had been targeted before, but police dismissed the attacks as acts of random vandalism. They did nothing for months. Even after repeated attacks on the same household the police provided little response or protection.
The media have run endless articles about the flood of immigrants and the Roma “beggars” who mistreat their children, and the eastern European workers who are taking “jobs from local workers”.
These arguments are based on lies. Just 3 percent of the population of Northern Ireland comes from an ethnic minority background.
Immigrants are not an economic threat. They don’t steal jobs. In fact, they are more likely to take jobs which people born locally would rather not do.
It was only recently that local business people in Dungannon praised the Portuguese workers for ensuring that local factories remained open.
And if you do what the local shop stewards at the Montupet factory did – unionise the Polish workers and fight to get them a pay rise – you don’t have to worry about the undercutting of wages and conditions.
The rally on Saturday was a good start in terms of building a serious anti-racist campaign.
The British National Party (BNP) has recently opened a call centre in Northern Ireland.
While it does not appear that the BNP or any other force orchestrated these attacks, this is no reason for complacency.
The BNP has been talked up so much over the last ten days that its leader Nick Griffin may feel that it is possible to build something now where it wasn’t before.
The peace process and the powersharing assembly was meant to deliver peace, prosperity and an end to sectarianism. But poverty is rising, and more than 30 percent of people exist solely on benefits.
Many people on the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road live in squalid housing. People from all communities are competing for the rapidly dwindling number of jobs available and the assembly has announced 10,000 job losses in the public sector.
In some ways it is far more worrying that local thugs, some no older than 15 years old, organised themselves without much in the way of backing.
But the rally on Saturday, combined with the fantastic seven week occupation by the Visteon workers in Belfast and the struggles by workers at Nortel and NCP, shows that there is an alternative route.
That is one of unity between workers of all backgrounds and nationalities to fight not only the immediate effects of the recession but the divisive nature of the state here as well.
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