(report by Matt Williamson, picture by Aisling Gallagher)
Some 4,000 people gathered in Belfast city centre last Saturday to protest at escalating levels of hate crime and increasing racist rhetoric in mainstream politics. A similar event took place in Derry.
The Belfast rally was organised at in two days and marks a sea change in Northern Irish politics. Sectarianism is rising and poverty widespread, yet people respond positively to the call for a radical alternative to the political establishment.
Events have moved quickly. On Sunday 18 May unionist pastor James McConnell used a sermon to describe Islam as “Satanic” and “a doctrine spawned in hell”. He added that “Enoch Powell was right” and described him as a “prophet”.
Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, shocked people with his reaction. Rather than condemn McConnell’s comments, he sought to defend him. A Christian minister had a duty to denounce “false prophesy”, he said.
Robinson told the Irish News that he wouldn’t trust Muslims “if they are fully devoted to Sharia law”, wouldn’t trust them for “spiritual guidance”, but would allow them to “go for the shops for me”. It took days for him issue a public apology.
What are these Robinson’s remarks about? In the first instance they are an attempt to court hardline elements of his own party, which has seen significant losses to UKIP and the right wing unionist Traditional Unionist Voice.
But they occur against a wider background of concessions to racist scapegoating and follow an election in which an Ulster Unionist Party candidate campaigned for “local homes for local people”.
The political establishment is keen to fuel this bigotry. Protestant and Catholic communities alike have been failed by a peace process which leaves droves in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says median incomes fell by 10% between 2006 and 2012. The numbers of unemployed doubled between 2007 and 2013.
A recent report by Save the Children predicts that by 2020 almost one in four Northern Ireland children will be living in poverty. Attacks on migrants and Muslims allow dominant political parties to shift attention from the failures of the system as a whole.
They are playing with fire. The consequences of this shameless pandering to racism can be seen in a 43% rise in hate crimes across Northern Ireland. More than two attacks are reported each day and campaigners say as many as 80% of crimes go unreported.
In Belfast racist slogans are daubed on the walls of immigrants and assaults on ethnic minorities are rife. On 21 April three Polish nationals were attacked and beaten by a group of 15 men. On 25 April a man was hospitalised and scarred after being stabbed in the leg during a racially motivated attack in South Belfast. On 30 April a Romanian man had shit thrown at him on the Newtownards Road. On 5 May a Polish man in East Belfast had his house and car trashed.
Even the police force has little doubt that the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, is a key force orchestrating these attacks. They want to purge neighbourhoods of “foreigners” to conserve control of limited social housing.
The parallels with the Troubles are unmistakable. Yet a clear challenge has now emerged to this wave of racism and violence. Anna Lo, the only Chinese born politician in the UK, announced that she would not stand for reelection. Lo is a member of Alliance, a small liberal party which registers as “other” rather than Nationalist or Unionist.
In an interview with the Guardian she attacked Robinson’s comments, but also cited her own experiences of racism. She described an incident during the recent election when she was chased by a loyalist mob through an East Belfast shopping centre. She declared that she could no longer remain active within Northern Irish politics.
It was partly in response to Lo’s announcement that a small group of activists decided to hold an unofficial rally at noon last Saturday. The impressive degree to which Facebook attendance translated into feet on the ground might seem to endorse a liberal narrative of all-powerful social media. The event certainly captured and channelled widespread popular distaste with the events of recent days, while underlying factors such as longstanding Republican commitment to internationalism undoubtedly also played a part.
But the rally was organised by a group of activists from a wide range of political positions who had experience of working together during a range of struggles over recent years. The pressing nature of the issues meant that the methods adopted were the polar opposite of the bureaucratic manoeuvres occasionally characteristic of anti-fascist activities in Britain. Activists involved with liberation campaigns, trade unions, liberal and revolutionary political parties all played a role in ensuring the rally’s success.
There is also the context of a resurgence of left wing politics in Ireland. One speaker was Gerry Carroll, a socialist who recently won a seat on Belfast city council, coming third and receiving 1,661 first preference votes.
Standing for People Before Profit, Gerry successfully challenged the dominance of Sinn Féin in a ward which has long been a Republican stronghold. But Carroll’s success has not simply emerged overnight: it comes from longstanding engagement with grassroots activism, campaigns against leisure centres privatisations and hospital ward closures.
Nationalist and unionist parties are failing their communities. There is a space for an alternative which moves beyond a return to sectarian violence. But it is an alternative which can only succeed as a result of a concerted commitment to local struggles at the level of public services and housing. We have to challenge the roots of racism and offer solutions that undercut the scapegoating of immigrants and rampant sectarianism.
What next? There is no mass organisation capable of channelling this Saturday’s widespread anger. But a Unite Against Racism March has been called for Saturday 7 June by groups including the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities.
The role for socialists will surely be to argue for a sustainable movement – and to assert the need for an approach that goes beyond liberal platitudes and attacks poverty, austerity and racism together.