Friday, June 19, 2009

Attacks on Romanians in Belfast

Now, you might be thinking, "bigotry in Belfast? Well, I never!" True, the attacks on Romanians earlier this week come after years of assaults and intimidation of Chinese workers which reached a bloody crescendo in 2003 and 2004. And it follows attacks on Polish workers earlier this year, in which Unionist politicians tried to cover up the extent of what was happening. Actually, Unionist politicians like Sammy Wilson - one of the few people in the world who really does have a face like a well-smacked arse - have been openly encouraging discrimination against migrant workers. But I do consider it significant that the attackers were chanting BNP and Combat-18 slogans as they did this. Not because there's a powerful Nazi organisation in Ulster, but it does look as if Northern Ireland's disproportionate number of violent young bigots have been heartened by the recent success of fascism in the mainland. Eamonn McCann, noting the lack of BNP presence in the areas affected, suggests that the attackers are "invoking an established brand rather than acting at the instigation of an organisation". (Mind you, it seems the BNP have just established their national call centre in Dundonald, and presumably intend to try and build a little family of fascists in the area: can't you just hear the pitter-patter of tiny goosesteeps?)

Over at Splintered Sunrise, I see that the UDA boss is ventilating over the BNP's malevolent influence, desperately trying to deflect any blame that might be placed on his right-wing paramilitary outfit: "It seems that what is exercising Hard Bap is the possibility that the UDA’s good name might be besmirched by commentators linking it with the BNP. Which sort of says something about Nick Griffin’s push for respectability." This won't fly, of course. Studies have shown that 90% of racist crime in Northern Ireland takes place in Loyalist areas. It may not be that the UDA are actually encouraging such attacks, but there is a powerful continuity in the methods of violence and intimidation, and the bigotry underwriting them. Moreover, it seems that some other things don't change either: most of Northern Ireland's minorities consider the Police Service of Northern Ireland (née RUC) to be institutionally racist. Well, of course it is. It is the still largely unreconstructed authority of an occupying power that has spent decades terrorising Catholic estates. On top of that, the Crown Prosecution Service only seems to try a fraction of the reported cases of racist violence. So, if you're being driven out of your home by some jumped up Rangers fans with an admiration for the fascist way of doing things, you can't rely on the police, and you can't rely on the courts. And as for the Assembly, they've done fuck all about it for years, despite having pledged to do so. (The lack of consideration given to migrants in policymaking is discussed in this lengthy and useful report [pdf]). The efforts of solidarity campaigners is all that is coming down the pipeline.

McCann argues that the root of this is more than a deflection of older forms of sectarian violence, though, and I think this is crucial:

It is not to excuse the assaults to point to the fact that the Protestant working class, and its young people in particular, have been the main losers from change in Northern Ireland. It's not that they have taken a hit that their equivalents on the Catholic side have not also suffered. Whatever your religion, the poorer you are here the more likely you are to have not benefited at all from the agreement hailed around the world as ushering in a peace based on mutual tolerance. It's no accident that the Real IRA draws its support almost exclusively from the least well-off in the Catholic community.

The snarling young men who forced the Romanian families out have the additional grievance that the Protestant community's sense of itself as living in "their" state has been shattered by the developments symbolised by Sinn Féin sitting snugly in government with the DUP. That none of them can remember the glory days of untrammelled unionist rule matters little. They feel – and it's a feeling they know is endorsed and welcomed by many nationalists – that Catholics are on the way up, Protestants on the way down.

I know that complaint very well. One used to hear quite a bit (from Protestants) in the 1990s, that while once it was the Catholics who were being victimised, now it's the poor Prods. The neoliberal consensus reinforces this sense of grievance by reducing the sphere of legitimate arguments about public spending and resources to sectarian ones: not, will we close this hospital, but will this hospital be closed in a Protestant, or a Catholic area. This entails McCann's conclusion that, while it is necessary to confront these thugs - physically, if it comes to that - it is also essential to build the kind of radical anti-neoliberal left that has just done so splendidly well in the south of Ireland.