From Sectarianism to Racism

By Garry McKeown, Contributor
June / July 2005

The only sign that something happened here last night is the shower of shattered glass spread across the pavement.

A few hours after a pregnant Pakistani woman and her brother-in-law moved in to this house in the Village area of south Belfast, a large plank of wood was hurled through their living room window, forcing them to flee the area.

Perhaps as disturbing is the apparent indifference of people living nearby.

One neighbor I speak to claims he does not know the attack has even taken place, whereas another resident of the street, who is taking his young child to school, says: “It doesn’t really bother me.”

However, such attacks are not unique in this area. Only a few days previously, Hua Long Lin and his pregnant wife were attacked in their home, forcing them to seek refuge in a local hotel. Mr. Lin had a brick smashed in his face.

One local estate agent said recently he had been told by a group of paramilitaries from the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) not to rent to any more “Chinese, blacks, or Asians.” A number of his tenants from ethnic minorities have been forced out of their homes in the past year.

The Chinese Welfare Association was established in 1986 to support and represent the Chinese community in Northern Ireland. Leish Cox, the association’s Community Relations Officer, is the first point of contact for victims of racist attacks, helping them to get rehoused, contact the police, and seek assistance from the Victim Support charity.

She says there has been a huge increase in racist incidents in south Belfast over the past few years, and that police figures are only the tip of the iceberg. She estimates that for every racist attack reported to the police, another ten go unreported.

Between 1996 and 2001, the number of racist incidents recorded by police rocketed by 444 percent. This can only partially testify to the true extent of suffering endured by ethnic minorities.

Cox says that since the ceasefires almost a decade ago, Chinese people have felt particularly vulnerable as they increasingly become the targets of paramilitaries and thugs.

She adds: “Fear is a big issue, especially for the elderly. They are afraid to leave their houses after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Certain times of the year such as mid-term and the twelfth of July are particularly bad for Chinese people, not only in south Belfast, but across the province.”

Chinese people began moving to Northern Ireland in the 1960s, and there is now a thriving Asian community of several thousand. However, although they constitute the biggest minority group, they only comprise 0.25 percent of the overall population. Northern Ireland’s 1.7 million population is 99.15 percent white.

A recent survey of young Chinese people born and bred in south and east Belfast found that an alarming 100 per cent had experienced some kind of racially motivated attacks.

Another study, commissioned by the Statistics &Research Agency, found that two-thirds of Chinese people surveyed had been verbally abused and over half reported that their property had been criminally damaged.

Cox verifies these results, saying harassment of ethnic minorities happens “day in, day out, on a non-stop basis.”

“Young people kick footballs against Chinese people’s houses; they throw stones at them, and push excrement through their letter boxes. There are different levels of racism, which can range from people’s homes being attacked to them simply being treated differently in shops. There is a huge sense of frustration among the Chinese community.”

Part of the problem is the culture of violence that has prevailed in Northern Ireland. Through the Troubles, loyalist paramilitaries had links with the fascist National Front and Combat 18 organizations.

Monica McWilliams, leader of the Women’s Coalition party, says: “Research shows that people in Northern Ireland exhibit as much racism as they do sectarianism.”

Racism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin. In areas of housing shortages, Chinese people are often made scapegoats for difficulties in finding accommodation.

During the Troubles, paramilitaries took the law into their own hands and forced people of different religious backgrounds out of their houses, creating loyalist and republican ghettos. Now, the same terror is being brought to bear on people who come from different ethnic backgrounds, and they are being forced to abandon their homes in these areas.

Many residents in both communities oppose the harassment of ethnic minorities, but are afraid to speak out. Throughout the Troubles, terror groups effectively controlled many inner-city areas in Belfast, and this power has continued to grip these neighborhoods.

People have learnt to keep their heads down and say nothing. The threat of punishment beatings with baseball bats, or being shot in the kneecaps, is enough to keep people quiet.

Cox says, “The association believes these people are terrified to extend the hand of friendship for fear that they will be next in line for attack.”

Local councilor and assembly member Carmel Hanna of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is on the board of the Chinese Welfare Association and has been one of the most vocal opponents of racist behavior in the area. However, she too has had to bear the brunt of racist venom, having her windows broken and home attacked by those who oppose her stance.

South Belfast is one of the most ethnically diverse and integrated areas of Northern Ireland because of the universities and hospitals in the locality. Hanna reasons that our health service could not function without the help of nurses from abroad.

“I enjoy seeing new faces move into the area. People have the right to live wherever they want, and to enjoy the full protection of the law. We need strong anti-racist legislation, and it needs to be fully enforced.”

Hanna is particularly concerned that the current law has loopholes which allow racist attackers to escape tough sentences.

“If the attacker at the time of the assault does not make clear that they have a racist motive, then they will not get a tougher penalty.”

She adds that while there may be social problems in the areas where racist attacks are most prevalent, this is no excuse for such behavior.

“We need to give children good civics education as early as possible. They need responsible teaching about interdependence on other cultures, and must be introduced to diversity to normalize our society.”

She advocates a twin-track approach, combining political condemnation of racist attacks with education.

The number of xenophobic attacks in Northern Ireland is set to surge beyond 600 this year, in comparison to 185 in 2002. This is an increase of over 200 percent, with a large proportion of these occurring in the loyalist Village and Donegall Pass areas of south Belfast.

Loyalist leaders have moved to condemn racist actions. Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine admitted that anti-Chinese leaflets that appeared in south Belfast last year were distributed by members of the UVF, the paramilitary group associated with his party.

He said, “We can’t stand on the same ground as those who are avowed racists,” and added that such actions could put a strain on his party’s relations with the UVF.

As Education Minister in 2001, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness announced plans of a 700,000 euro ($1,320,000) package to create a network of five teachers to provide translation and support services to pupils from ethnic minorities.

He said at the time: “Racism and racist bullying is intolerable and has no place in our schools. Racism exists across all age groups and all sectors of our society. But a new society is emerging, and we have the opportunity to tackle racism within the context of a set of unique political and social changes.”

However, after the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the return of Direct Rule from Westminster in London, little more could be done by the North’s politicians to tackle racism.

Whatever approach is taken, in the meantime, people from ethnic minorities living in south Belfast have to deal with abuse and attacks on a daily basis, with no sign of any respite.

Perhaps some people would do well to bear in mind the teaching of Confucius, that social life could be reformed if everyone lived by `li’ (courtesy and reverence) and `shu’ (consideration for others). ♦

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