So the Romanians intimidated out of their homes in South Belfast have decided to leave Northern Ireland. No surprises there.
Of course the majority of people in Northern Ireland are ashamed and disgusted by this episode, which has put us back in the news for the wrong reasons. Politicians tell us that the incidents brought people together in supporting the Romanians and protesting about their treatment.
But the racists won. The Romanians left, and the message went out to the world that Northern Ireland, and particularly Belfast, is not safe for minority ethnic groups. It doesn’t matter how many people turn up with tea and cakes to the church hall or leisure centre where you’ve sought refuge after having been driven from your home. The truth is that the authorities, particularly the PSNI, weren’t able to protect these people.
And why was that? The PSNI have very honestly admitted their shortcomings. But they make the important point that they needed information from people. It’s an uncomfortable fact that many who wouldn’t dream of breaking windows or threatening women and children still turn a blind eye to others’ behaviour. There will be many more who are still uncomfortable with the idea of a multi-ethnic Northern Ireland, who will be secretly relieved at the outcome.
So what needs to be done? Some political parties have claimed that the problem is the delay in Assembly agreement for the Shared Future policy, apparently called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI – all the jokes have been made). Have a look at January’s Assembly debate if you want to know why it hasn’t appeared. A policy on cohesion offers nothing to political parties who are not seeking votes from the entire community. Remember, the Shared Future policy was agreed under direct rule. There’s also a separate Racial Equality Strategy, which hasn’t been mentioned by the political parties recently and I’m not sure of its status – whether it’s in abeyance along with the Shared Future or not.
But it’s nonsense to think these attacks wouldn’t have happened if we had a set of objectives and an action plan. Of course we need a functioning policy as part of a longer term agenda. It needs to cover both sectarianism and racism, and indeed all types of discrimination. Shared Future was very good on the role of the state as arbitrator in a divided society, and on the importance of civil society for legitimation of the policy, but less so on another aspect of the state’s role, namely use of the policing and legal systems, what Gramsci calls the legitimate use of force. Public policy needs to focus more on what will happen to people who drive others out of their homes, and less on how much money is available for ‘initiatives’ to help them understand their behaviour. I think they know exactly what they’re doing, and I find it very hard to believe there isn’t paramilitary involvement.
So three things are needed now. First, the policy. Second, leadership, from public figures across state organisations, civil society and the private sector. Third, better co-ordination of action on the ground, with the PSNI, City Council, Housing Executive, Northern Ireland Office and Executive Departments working more closely together, along with the churches and voluntary organisations who have shown they are in the front line when such incidents occur.
The damage done to Northern Ireland’s reputation goes beyond the personal safety of a few individuals, important though that is. In a global economic downturn, no jurisdiction can afford to have a reputation for being unsafe for international workers, a lesson you would think Northern Ireland’s politicians would be aware of. Ultimately, this incident is going to cost jobs. So well done, lads.
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