David McKittrick, Independent (London), Oct. 16
Community leaders in Northern Ireland have warned that racism is threatening to replace terrorism in a rising tide of attacks and incidents on immigrant families.
Three hundred incidents of racially motivated intimidation have been reported this year and the authorities fear that aggressive racism has become a permanent feature of post-Troubles society in the province. A former Belfast councillor said: “We’re beginning to think racism is the new terrorism.”
Police are hunting those responsible for the latest racist incident in which members of the Turkish and Indian communities in Comber, Co Down, had bricks thrown through their car windows and offensive graffiti painted on their homes.
Monica McWilliams, professor of social policy at Ulster University, said: “People here exhibit as much racism as they do sectarianism.”
With the general decline of political and sectarian violence over the past decade more immigrants have arrived and the ethnic minority population now stands at about 30,000. As the numbers have grown so have the problems.
Tom Ekin, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, said this week: “This year has seen a dramatic upsurge in serious racist attacks, motivated by prejudice and hatred, and it is an issue we need to get to grips with quickly.”
When the attacks began to mount a few years ago it was hoped that they would prove a passing phase, but it appears they are here to stay. The communities affected by the wave of violence include blacks, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, Lithuanians, Poles and Muslims. In the case of Muslims, hostility appeared to mount in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.
Jamal Iweida, a Muslim from Palestine who arrived in 1995 to attend university in Belfast, described his experience. “When I first came here there were no problems. Muslims have been living in Belfast for a hundred years and we are an integral part of social, educational and economic life. In recent years we have experienced a nastier side to Northern Irish society. Today the one thing I long for is that my children can walk down the street and not be called names or have people set their dogs on them.”
Alfred Abolarin, a Nigerian who is chairman of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, said he had been called names and had his car attacked. “This is fast becoming a multicultural society and that scares a lot of people. People are regularly subjected to name-calling and harassment,” he said. “The most extreme form is physical attacks where people have had their cars burnt, homes wrecked, graffiti sprayed on their walls — they have been beaten up on the streets or forced from their homes.”
Immigrants tend to cluster in some areas. In Portadown, Co Armagh, a Filipino Mass is held once a month in a Catholic church, while more than a thousand Portuguese-speaking people now live around Dungannon, Co Tyrone. Incidents in the area include an attack in which a petrol-bomb was thrown at a group of migrant workers. Migrants say that in general most people are welcoming, but a significant minority causes them much trouble.
Extra police patrols have been deployed in south Belfast and parts of Co Tyrone to combat the problem, while new legislation allows for stiffer sentences for crimes motivated by hatred. The law now requires judges to treat crimes involving race, along with those involving religion, sexual orientation and disability, as an aggravating factor when passing sentences. The maximum sentence for violent attacks has been increased from five to seven years, while the maximum penalty for criminal damage has gonefrom 10 to 14 years.
Mr Justice Coghlin, a judge in Belfast, said: “It is almost beyond credibility that after 30 years of sectarian strife this community is now turning itself on foreign nationals.”
John Spellar, a Northern Ireland minister, said the problem was not as bad as in parts of England, but he added: “I want to make sure we do not go down that slippery slope by nipping this problem in the bud.”
Hardline Protestants and loyalist paramilitary groups, some with connections to right-wing groups in Britain, have been involved in bomb attacks on blacks and Chinese.
HATE CRIMES ON THE INCREASE
* October: Attacks on the homes of Turkish and Indian families in Comber, Co Down. A Polish house attacked and damaged in Londonderry.
* September: A Lithuanian household petrol-bombed in Armagh. This followed an attack two months earlier on another Lithuanian house in the same street.
*August: A Lithuanian man badly hurt by a gang in Armagh. The following night his home was petrol-bombed. Portuguese families targeted: two houses damaged in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. Two families forced out by attacks on their homes in Portadown, Co Armagh.
* July: Several Asian nurses left a house they were renting in north Belfast, after being subjected to abuse.
* March: Car belonging to a Brazilian couple burnt and bricks thrown at their house in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.
* January: Pakistani family, including pregnant woman, targeted just hours after moving into house in south Belfast.