Two stories have dominated the headlines in Northern Ireland over the past few weeks: racists driving out a number of Roma families from their South Belfast homes and the expensive tastes of “Swish Family Robinson” – first minister Peter Robinson and his wife Iris – exposed by the MPs’ expenses scandal. The two stories, of course, are not unconnected.
The youths who attacked the homes of the Roma people probably voted for the DUP, the party formerly led by Ian Paisley, now by Robinson. They live in an area known as The Village, a run-down warren of working class streets where many of the homes still have outdoor toilets.
The Village is within walking distance of the Lisburn Road, home to fancy restaurants and designer clothes shops that charge hundreds of pounds for children’s clothes.
A recent Stormont Assembly report found that working class Protestant boys, particularly in the poorest parts of Belfast, are the most likely of all groups to leave school without basic literacy or numeracy skills. All the statistics about poverty in Northern Ireland show that they are the group most left behind in the “new” Northern Ireland.
There’s not much “new”, however, about the messages that these youths will have heard growing up. The mantra of Unionist politicians, particularly those of the DUP, is of the need to “defend the Protestant culture”.
This siege mentality is aimed mainly at Catholic Nationalists, but it’s easy to transfer the sentiment to other groups. There is no evidence to support media reports that fascists organised or encouraged the attacks, and little evidence of organised fascism in the region. But there is little need for fascists when mainstream politicians spread their hate-filled messages for them.
The Roma who were chased out of their homes met a triple whammy of prejudice: they were outsiders, Catholic and perceived as similar to Irish travellers. Social attitudes surveys show that Irish travellers remain the minority group against which there is most prejudice in the region.
The fact that over 100 people were living in just three or four houses was used against the Roma by local people who said they did not want them in the area, though many of them condemned the violence. But politicians, not the Roma, are to blame for these conditions.
Across Britain, Romanian families have no right to benefits or any state support. Extended families help each other out – when one rents a house, others share it and help pay the rent. Most of the men were working as self-employed newspaper sellers at traffic lights, earning as little as £20 for a ten-hour day – not enough to pay rent and feed a large family.
The upsurge of anger against the attacks, and the hundreds who attended anti-racist rallies in Belfast and Derry on the Saturday following them, show that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are not racist. However, there is evidence of a rise in racism and the economic situation could encourage further growth.
Peter Robinson spent £750 on a briefcase; Iris Robinson paid £300 for a fountain pen. Both husband and wife claimed £4,000 a year for food – more than some of their constituents would get on benefits to cover heat, light, clothing and food for a full year. Together they take over half a million pounds every year from the taxpayer. The collapse in the vote for the DUP in the European elections was caused as much by the expenses scandal as by their being in government with Sinn Fein.
However, the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition has to take much of the blame for the poverty and alienation afflicting many parts of the region. Unemployment has rocketed, yet politicians continue to see no alternative to neoliberalism, maintaining plans for more privatisation of services. They refuse to use their devolved powers to humanise welfare reform. They market Northern Ireland as a low wage economy, boasting that wage levels here are 30 percent lower than the European Union average.
What Northern Ireland needs urgently is a left alternative – such as People Before Profit in the South – to organise for working class unity against sectarianism and racism and to defend workers’ rights.
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