Friday, 6 June 2014

(In)tolerant Belfast – a black man’s impression

On Saturday, a huge manifestation against racism took place in Belfast. It was a response to the recent surge in xenophobic attacks around the city; attacks directed towards not only non-white but also white immigrants (from eastern Europe). On Sunday, there were reports of yet another attack, this time against two Pakistanis.

What almost all the attacks seem to have in common is that the perpetrators are loyalists, and that the attacks have taken place in loyalist working class areas. (Loyalists are part of the unionist camp, i.e. Protestants who are “loyal” to the British monarchy and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the “union” that is the United Kingdom). Which is telling.

The unionist First minister Peter Robinson has helped to fan the flames of intolerance by supporting an Evangelical pastor who labelled Islam an “evil” religion, “the spawn of the Devil”, “heathen”, etcetera. And adding insult to injury, in a recent interview in a paper, Robinson made some unsavoury comments bordering on Islamophobia (Robinson has later apologized and claims he was misinterpreted).

For a black man who has lived in Belfast, it is sad to see the whole city tainted by these deplorable incidents. They are not representative of Belfast. At all. Far more representative is Saturday’s anti-racist manifestation, which drew thousands of people.

I spent two months in the city, back in 2001. I have to admit that I was a tad uneasy at first, seeing as the infamous neo-Nazi loyalist Johnny “Mad dog” Adair had been in the media spotlight just before. But apart from one incident, throughout the two months stint, I was treated with nothing but kindness, welcomes’ and good banter by the Belfastians.

If I was in a pub on my own, I was always asked over by people to join them at their table. I shared an apartment with a Northern Irishman who swiftly invited me to meet his friends and family. The research I conducted had me inter alia interviewing politicians and ordinary citizens from the Catholic and the Protestant community, officials from the police, Human Rights Watch and the ombudsman for Northern Ireland. I had not pre-arranged any of these interviews, and I was astonished at how easily the doors opened when I arrived.

That one incident? Well, it is telling that it took place on Shankill Road; the infamous loyalist stronghold (where Adair incidentally used to hold court). As so many other loyalist working class areas, it is poor, neglected, downtrodden. Here, as Adair exemplifies, paramilitary loyalist organisations could flourish and neo-Nazism find fertile ground.

As I was walking down Shankill some teenagers informed me that I was a “black bastard”, prefixed by “Oi! You fucking”. I pretended not to hear as I had no inclination to strike up a conversation with them, particularly not one pertaining to my mother’s marital status.

Shankill Road (2007)

Another victim of loyalist racist abuse is Annie Lo – the “[o]nly Chinese-born parliamentarian in UK” – who sits in the Northern Irish assembly for the Alliance party. Last Thursday, Lo declared that due to racist attacks she will not be a candidate in the assembly elections 2016. She will quit politics and might even leave Northern Ireland.*

Lo told The Guardian that the latest attack she suffered was during the European election campaign where she was followed by a loyalist mob that:
"started hurling abuse at me […] About three or four individuals then followed me to the car park but I kept ahead of them walking as quickly as I could. Even when I got inside my car there was a young girl who climbed out of the wound-down window of a parked car and started shouting vile things at me. If I hadn't decided to act quickly and get out of there I don't know what would have happened to me."

The Northern Irish police has now set up an operation primarily “directed at loyalist organisations involved in racial violence and intimidation.”

So why is this vicious racism, as it seems, an almost completely loyalist problem? It appears systemic, certainly not incidental, and also impossible to dismiss as some form of youthful tomfoolery since several of the perpetrators have been in their 40s and 50s. There are no simple answers. But perhaps Amnesty’s Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan provides at least a partial explanation when he asserts that there has been a ”political failure at the highest level to offer leadership to combat racism in Northern Ireland”.

During my time in Belfast, I interviewed a former loyalist who had been active in a paramilitary organisation. He was sent to prison where he discovered literature and acting. He spoke of growing up in a loyalist working class area where academia, literature, educational aspirations, intellectual culture, was not an option because it was simply not on offer. All that counted was “brawn, not brain”. He saw this as in many ways a failure of the leaders of the Protestant community (political, social, religious).

Shankill Road (2005)
Which in turns begs the question: why would the Protestant elite want to hold their working class down? A sound Marxist suspicion would be that by keeping your working class in darkness, it is kept exploitable and malleable. Indoctrinate it with various simplistic and vacuous concepts of identity and race to take pride in (à la “sure, you might be poor, but at least you’re white and Protestant”); keep it unenlightened, away from educational aspirations and prospects of social mobility. And voilà! You have a working class that will stay in its place, an obedient tool to exploit, easy to set upon the Catholics and/or others. Of course, by keeping your working class separated from its Catholic class brethren – whom it actually has far more in common with – you hamper any chance of a strong working class movement. Divide and rule the working class, how sweet ‘tis for the privileged.

In the 1970’s, a leader of one of the paramilitary loyalist organisations described the support they were given from the Protestant elite as comparable to pissing in your trousers: it felt nice and warm at the start, but soon left you cold and queasy. In contrast, the leaders of the Catholic community have been more prone to stress the importance of empowerment via education and enlightenment; raising aspirations, self-awareness, prospects of social mobility.

My impression during those months in Belfast was that the Catholic community was more confident, perhaps because it had overcome its subjugation, broken its shackles. The Protestant working class, however, appeared bitter and discombobulated. Still stuck in its subjugation, courtesy of its Protestant betters.

On Shankill road, this subjugation was evident in its social and economic misery. And where such powerlessness holds power, so does xenophobia.

Thus, it was probably not coincidental that is was there, in a loyalist working class area, that I encountered the only unpleasant incident during my stay in Belfast. All in line with where the recent racist attacks have taken place.

Hence, my stay presumably encapsulates Belfast on the whole today: An overall tolerant city, but with small pockets of intolerance in neglected loyalist areas. These pockets need addressing, with economic and social investment, with infusion of aspiration and enlightenment. It is time for leaders in the Protestant community to take responsibility. 

Till then, with the risk of labouring the point, remember, the small number of racists who have committed (and unfortunately might continue to commit) attacks are not representative of Belfast. The thousands of people who on Saturday demonstrated against racism are.

Some of the thousands of Belfastians who marched against racism on Saturday

*A cynic would note that Lo made this declaration on the day that the European election was held; an election in which she had in February been fielded as the Alliance party’s MEP-candidate. This party is vigorously non-sectarian, its fundamental principle being neutrality on the divisive issue of whether Northern Ireland should be united with the Republic of Ireland (ROI) or remain united with the United Kingdom.
    So when Lo in an interview in March stated that she would prefer if Northern Ireland was united with ROI, she made herself guilty of a cardinal sin – and was met with some harsh criticism from the party.
    The election results were accordingly disappointing, with Lo only getting 7.1%. Thus, the cynic would claim that Lo knew she was heading for a major defeat and that her ROI-remarks would make it hard for the party to field her as a candidate in coming elections. Hence, when you see the writing on the wall, better to pre-empt it, shift focus from your failures and misdoings and leave the stage by way of a subterfuge that will afford you sympathy and commiserations.
     Nonetheless, even if the cynic is right, there is no excuse for the racist attacks Lo has been subjected to.