In May 2007 a 25ft-high peace wall was erected through the grounds of an integrated primary school in North Belfast because houses in the adjacent housing estate had been attacked by youths of the ‘other’ religion. There are now 57 peace walls here, mostly in North and West Belfast but they can also be found in Derry and Portadown. (In towns and villages around the North the geographical sectarian divide exists even if there are no walls to set it in stone.) A recent survey of more than 1, 000 people living near these dividing lines showed that 81% were in favour of the walls coming down, with 21% wanting them down immediately and 60% reporting that they want them down but only when it’s safe enough. Not yet.
After all, although the big guns are decommissioned, there are still ultra-sectarian elements on both sides who would like to take their fight forward. In April 2008 a man had his throat cut in a Belfast city centre bar when the pub was invaded by fifty loyalist thugs. The man’s crime? Supporting the ‘wrong’ football team. In May 2009 another crowd of young loyalist ‘football fans’ in Coleraine beat Kevin McDaid to death and injured his wife and neighbours.
In the wake of this awful murder Queen’s University academic Peter Shirlow commented:
“It’s all very well for politicians in the Northern Ireland assembly to condemn [such] murders. But there is no serious attempt to tackle sectarianism at its roots. No one is challenging the people as to why some of them are sectarian. And no serious effort is being made to encourage communities to confront the issue of why there is still so much sectarian division in our society.” (The Guardian, Monday 1st June 2009)
Added to this already toxic sectarian mix, racist abuse and attacks have increased as Northern Ireland has moved into the wider world. Examples of racist attacks are, unfortunately, legion. Earlier this year a nationalist paramilitary organisation calling itself Saor Uladh descended upon the houses of foreign workers in West Belfast and ordered them to leave the area. The paramilitaries accused the foreign workers of growing drugs but no-one really believes that this is the real reason behind the attack.
In 2004 the Belfast Telegraph reported that a number of Asian nurses were forced to leave their homes in Newtownabbey due to racist attacks. In 2005 a report on the 2,000 foreign workers in the health service in Northern Ireland showed that nearly 50% said that they have been subject to racist abuse or harassment from other staff, patients or relatives of patients. Nearly 15% said they experienced racism on a weekly or monthly basis, and a third said that they had experience of racist patients refusing to accept their care. More recently, in what amounts to a pogrom, 20 Romanian families were intimidated out of Northern Ireland by young men who may or may not have direct ties to fascist organisations.
Despite the shining new commercial facade that is Belfast City Centre, when it comes to how people relate to each other as human beings things appear to be getting worse. Research in 2002 by University of Ulster academic Dr Paul Connolly showed that nearly a third of all 12-17 year olds had been threatened or verbally abused because of their religion and two thirds of minority ethnic school children had experienced racism. Unfortunately, more recent research shows that racist and sectarian attitudes are hardening.
More than 10 years after the Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. If the words and aspirations of Stormont politicians were anything to go by, sectarianism would have disappeared from our streets at least a decade ago. Around that time mainstream politicians of all political shades began to talk about their “hopes for a shared future”. But as long as the Stormont regime remains a sectarian carve-up with no room for meaningful opposition based around class politics, then these fine words amount to so-much hot air and the rhetoric will slip into the more traditional sectarian mode when the situation demands it.
As journalist Liam Clarke put it in a recent article:
“The division is structural. The political system is still firmly rooted in tribal and sectarian affiliation. The Stormont executive is a carve-up between nationalism and unionism rather than real power-sharing. Each group’s confidence in the arrangement was built on a complex structure of mutual vetoes that often reduces decision-making to a stand-off.” (Sunday Times, June 21st 2009)
Without making any excuses for the perpetrators of racist and sectarian attacks, the structural roots of racism and sectarianism can be found in alienation, inequality, poverty and ultimately in tribal horse-trading in the corridors of Stormont. No amount of fine words can change that.
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