Well Done, Lads


0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×
Print pagePDF pageEmail page

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.

The following two tabs change content below.
Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

18 Responses

  1. Paddy

    June 24, 2009 8:27 pm

    Wasn’t it obvious? N.I. has been a sectarian state since 1921, so it’s no big surprise that bigotry still thrives there. If my previous comment seemed too subtle, well, take a look at your history…

  2. Nick

    June 24, 2009 8:28 pm

    Not with you, Paddy. Are you saying discrimination only exists in NI? That migrants to the Republic are always treated with courtesy and compassion? That other European countries welcome migrants with open arms?

  3. Jenny Muir

    June 24, 2009 9:05 pm

    Paddy’s approach to history and to the present isn’t particularly subtle. For example, Ireland’s problems with sectarianism didn’t start with Partition and the sectarian state. There are different kinds of bigotry and different ways of expressing them in different societies, as Nick says. NI’s approach to discrimination and prejudice today is shaped by its history, but that doesn’t mean its a uniquely bigoted society by any means.

    Perhaps Paddy would like to suggest a solution?

  4. Paddy

    June 25, 2009 12:23 am

    If I could figure out a workable solution to N.I.’s problem with bigotry, I’d be up for a Nobel!

  5. Donagh

    June 25, 2009 9:20 am

    Perhaps without knowing it Paddy has focused on what is the problem with how the racism issue is being dealt with in NI, and which Jenny’s post was trying to address. By suggesting and dismissing the racist attacks as solely the result of Northern Ireland’s -let’s say hightened – sectrarianism there is a tendency to avoid looking at it in the way it would be in any other society. Racism is not unique to Northern Ireland, however the way that it manifests itself occurs along lines that have already developed. As Jenny’s previous post on East Belfast Diary says:

    So are racist attacks a worse problem in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK? I would say there are clearly some special features gained from over a century’s experience of sectarian harassment and violence: a more rapid escalation, the use of firearms, and of course links with organised gangs i.e. paramilitary groups. There’s also a question of the basic motive. In GB this might be a fear of difference, or a wish to drive out a group that’s competing for jobs. Here in NI, these may well apply but will be supplemented by a territorial imperative. Generations of trying to keep your area ‘safe’ from encroachment by themmuns isn’t going to make you inclined to welcome another group, as you are likely to treat all outsiders with suspicion.


    Makes sense to me.

  6. Hugh Green

    June 25, 2009 10:26 am

    I suppose the temptation when confronted with the story in Belfast is to try and find some sort of Northern Ireland-specific explanation, that there are some set of conditions peculiar to Northern Ireland that enable things like this to happen.

    But I think it is more useful to consider the events in Belfast in terms of the general problem of citizenship of a nation-state under neo-liberal management.

    Basically you have an impoverished sector of society who are incited to believe by ruling class interests that whatever else about the increasing precariousness of their situation, the best thing they have going for them is their nationality and the special status this accords. Obviously this special status can only be attained in the presence of some ‘other’. You could say that this is what has happened historically with loyalists in Belfast and elsewhere, but it is also what has happened recently in some areas of England, for instance, in New Labour’s various attempts to revive a British nationalism in the tradition of their immediate predecessors.

  7. Dn

    June 25, 2009 12:12 pm

    People may not be comfortable with this, but a lot of people are glad they are gone. They may be mostly confined to working class estates or the lower middle class, but it is there all the same.

  8. Jenny Muir

    June 25, 2009 2:53 pm

    Donagh, Hugh and Dn all raise the question of how we can relate what’s happened in NI to other societies. Interesting to relate it to neo-liberalism – I suspect the impact of neo-liberalism on identity is complex. I’m not sure ruling class interests are actually served by encouraging nationalism, as this impedes the state’s ability to encourage Foreign Direct Investment and also individual foreign workers to fill skills gaps. But I’ll think about this some more. Dn’s point (undouvtedly true) reminds me that I need to look at the new Equality Commission survey this weekend:

  9. Hugh Green

    June 25, 2009 3:06 pm

    Hi Jenny

    I’m not sure ruling class interests are actually served by encouraging nationalism, as this impedes the state’s ability to encourage Foreign Direct Investment

    David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism observes that ‘the neoliberal state needs nationalism of a certain sort to survive. Forced to operate as a competitive agent in the world market and seeking to establish the best possible business climate, it mobilizes nationalism in its effort to succeed…’

    He also notes that ‘Religion and cultural nationalism provided the moral heft behind the Hindu Nationalist Party’s success in enhancing neoliberal practices in India in recent times.’ Perhaps where you have two roughly similar western countries in direct competition for FDI, the absence/presence of nationalism that threatens social cohesion might be a decisive factor, but I don’t think nationalism is necessarily an impediment to FDI (as India demonstrates).

  10. Jenny Muir

    June 25, 2009 3:16 pm

    Yes, Harvey has some interesting things to say about state and nation, the context of contrasting neoliberalism and neoconservatism, which I think may be relevant to NI. Are the DUP, for example, neocons rather than neolibs? I was interested in Harvey’s remarks about sport and nationalism e.g. around the Olympics. So the question might be do some neoliberal states harness and promote nationalist feelings (pride? patroitism?) in order to control the population and inspire sacrifice (e.g. pay cuts, wars), without it turning into the kind of xenophobia that causes them to turn on foreigners? Hmmm.

  11. Nick

    June 25, 2009 8:22 pm

    Phew, we’re getting a long way from the Romanians. The question is, what chance of another 115 (insert any nationality here) being ethnically cleansed from South Belfast next month? And the month after that? Who’s doing anything effective to stop it?

  12. Ardoyne Republican

    June 26, 2009 12:15 am

    Jenny thanks for reminding the left community across the island about these sick attacks against decent people.

    It’s sad so many actually had to leave the country, which is a failure of socialist politics.

    What is needed more is for Irish socialists to be heard more and fair play to Paddy Meehan for speaking out!

  13. Jenny Muir

    June 27, 2009 7:55 am

    Nick – that’s exactly the question, and I’ve pointed out three ways improvements could be made. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that moving from a bicultural to a multicultural society won’t be easy. Like myself, Ardoyne Republican hopes this can be achieved through socilaism, but with such a divided political system that’ll be difficult, IMO – if I can’t even find a political party that I want to join, how on earth will newcomers manage?

  14. Nick

    June 30, 2009 7:48 am

    I read that MLA Anna Lo and several ethnic minority groups have received death threats. Where are the community leaders who should be drumming some sense into these people?