An overview of racist attacks and convictions in Northern Ireland: January – March 2014.
On the eve of the new year, the British mainstream media was awash with headlines anticipating the end of the seven-year long transitional restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers on 1 January 2014. Press reporters and photographers lined airport baggage areas on the morning of 2014 awaiting the ‘invasion’ of ‘Benefits Britain’, while a sizeable proportion of the governing party seethed at the early signs of a burgeoning backbench rebellion as they backed amendments to the Immigration Bill.
MP Nigel Mills proposed re-introducing the same entry restrictions that had come to an end with an eye to extending them until 2018 (despite the motion directly contravening the European Union Convention on Human Rights). The amendment of MP Dominic Raab to make mandatory the deportation of migrants convicted of a crime resulting in a prison sentence of a year or more was supported by two Northern Ireland MPs, Ian Paisley Jnr and Nigel Dodds – both of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The spectacle was a furore-turned-farce – with fewer than thirty Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers arriving in the UK within a fortnight, and the rebellion to the Immigration Bill defeated. Yet as the Immigration Bill continues to make its way through the House of Lords, there has been no let-up of the onslaught on migrant rights.
At the beginning of the year, the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith stated his intention to deny the rights of migrants to claim and receive welfare who cannot speak English. And the Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he wanted to stop the printing of welfare literature and documentation in foreign languages, and to prevent migrant welfare recipients from using taxpayer-funded translators at jobs and benefits offices. This policy disclosure came about despite evidence from both the 2011 UK Census and the 2011 Census of Northern Ireland, which found that only 0.3 per cent of the UK population and 0.2 per cent of the NI population speak English ‘not at all.’
Cameron’s announcement followed a joint initiative by the Home Secretary Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith declaring that from 1 April 2014 only migrants in employment will be entitled to claim and receive social housing benefits, and that migrants who fall into unemployment will be denied the right to claim and receive Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) for six months. Verification from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London (UCL) late last year, however, demonstrated that recent migrants are both ‘45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits’ and ‘three per cent less likely live in social housing’ while ‘EU figures suggest only 2% of people currently claiming jobseeker’s allowance were EU migrants.’
Iain Duncan Smith declared the plans ‘strong and fair measures to make sure British taxpayers don’t subsidise people who want to do a bit of benefit tourism and come from one country to another just to get the better benefits system.’ The official rationale behind the announcements was contradicted late last year by the European Commission, which found there is no evidence to suggest that people migrate to the UK in order to abuse the welfare system, stating, ‘No evidence shows that access to the specific special non-contributory benefits such as income-based Jobseekers Allowance could be considered a significant driver for EU migrants in the UK.’
The regularity of this barrage of anti-migrant announcements from Downing Street is a very deliberate ploy thought up by the Conservative Party’s election strategist Lynton Crosby, who earlier this year instructed the leading party to produce a new policy linking immigration curbs and welfare cuts every week. Could it be that the cynical plan, which no doubt plays to the proclivities of the rightwing press, is already bearing its rotten fruit at the community level in the crude expression of racist verbal and physical attacks? The most recent high-profile racist attacks that have made headline news locally have been overwhelmingly orchestrated against migrants from Eastern Europe, conceivably giving a strong indication that the attacks have been a repercussion of the inflammatory government and press rhetoric concerning the increased freedom of movement for EU workers.
Within 24 hours of the lifting of the transitional restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had launched an investigation into the erecting of a sign in Moygashel, County Tyrone, which read: ‘Attention Landlords, leasing property to foreign nationals will not be tolerated.’ Similar messages were documented in South and East Belfast in both March and April, pertaining to the public housing of migrants, as well as to their employment, indicating that opposition to migrants is increasingly taking the form of a socioeconomically-based backlash on the part of the assailants. By the end of the first week of January, the windows of three homes in East Belfast belonging to Polish families had been smashed late at night within a fifteen minute period in what was to be the beginning of a concerted campaign of racist intimidation in the area, which the PSNI considered to firmly imply that there was a level of organisation among the perpetrators. Along with the inference of organisation, one of the prominent features of this hike in racist attacks is the scale and propensity for intended bloodshed. Two incidents recorded in March are particularly concerning: the mailing of a sympathy card containing a bullet was sent to Tobermore Primary School in Magherafelt, County Derry, as a warning over an elder sibling of a foreign national child at the school, and nail-bombing of homes belonging to two Romanian families in the Waterside, County Derry, worryingly suggesting possible paramilitary involvement.
The speculation of paramilitary involvement in the latest spate of attacks has been corroborated by the PSNI, who last week revealed that the UVF alone had contributed to a 70 per cent rise in racist attacks in Belfast, in what the Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Will Kerr described as ‘a deeply unpleasant taste … of ethnic cleansing.’ As has been previously acknowledged, there is a strikingly high concentration of racist attacks in areas which are staunchly Loyalist and a traditional heartland for affiliation to prominent Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA). As such, according to one commentator at least, the latest attacks are representative of a well catalogued trajectory of racial-nationalist class politics rooted to a degree in sections of the Protestant working class, and of the significant synergy that exists between Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UVF and the UDA and racist violence which targets BME communities.
Much of the legacy of intolerance has been analysed as a product of the historic links between Loyalism and neofascism and the geographical proximity of BME communities to working class Loyalist neighbourhoods. There has been ‘native’ depopulation as a result of deindustrialisation, which has led to a high turnover of public and private housing stock. While these factors are noteworthy, so too is the legacy of segregation stemming from ‘the Troubles’ and the Loyalist grievance for a lost supremacy, which has episodically translated to consciously and actively producing hostility to all ‘communities’ which constitute ‘the Other’. The parochial competition for resources inherent in the structure of the Good Friday Agreement, combined by the effects of the recession and the imposition of austerity on the back of the failure of the neoliberal state to deliver a promised socio-economic peace dividend for the working class as a whole in the north of Ireland has exacerbated this state of affairs.
The most high-profile attacks to have made local news in the last number of months gives us a glimpse into the role that ‘the immigration debate’ is playing in the everyday torment and violence BME communities in the north of Ireland experience. A selection of these attacks are presented below:
7 April 2014: Posters were put up in South and East Belfast which alleged that ‘local people’ in the north of Ireland are being denied employment due to the alleged employment of hundreds of migrants workers. The posters also claimed that migrant workers were receiving higher-than-average wages and were not paying National Insurance. (BBC News, 7 April 2014)
16 March 2014: A Polish family living in a Loyalist estate in Ballyronan Park, Rathcoole, on the outskirts of Belfast, were forced to flee their home following a racist attack on their residence. Several men were believed to have been involved in the petrol bomb attack on the house, destroying the parked car belonging to the family via arson, and smashing the front door and windows. (Irish News, 18 March 2014)
10 March 2014: Bricks and paint were thrown at a house in the Bleachfield Park area of Moygashel, Dungannon, County Tyrone, in the early hours of the morning in a suspected racist attack. (Mid-Ulster Mail, 10 March 2014)
8 March 2014: Two nail bombs were detonated outside two Romanian families’ homes in Lapwing Way and Lincoln Court in the Waterside area of County Derry. The PSNI, treating the attacks as racially motivated hate crimes, stated that nine people escaped injury in the blasts, including a nine-year-old child. One of the homes sustained damage to the front door. Chief Supt Jon Burrows stated, ‘Nails are put there for one reason only and that is to inflict serious injury.’ Two men, aged 40 and 32, were arrested and later released without charge. (Belfast Telegraph and UTV News, 8 March – 10 March 2014)
6 March 2014: A swastika, a gun and a message reading, ‘Polish out!’ was daubed onto a wall in East Belfast. (Nolan Show, 6 March 2014)
6 March 2014: A sympathy card containing a bullet was sent to Tobermore Primary School in Magherafelt, County Derry, as a warning over an elder sibling of a foreign national child at the school. The elder sibling is believed to attend a Catholic school in the Mid Ulster area, and may have been seen in school uniform outside Tobermore primary. The threat was thought to be racially motivated and was being treated as a hate crime by the PSNI. (Mid Ulster-Mail and UTV News, 6 March 2014)
3 – 5 March 2014: Racist graffiti was spray-painted onto two empty properties in South Belfast in a bid to deter migrants from moving into the area. The words ‘Locals Only’ appeared on the vacant Housing Executive properties in Maryville Street and Walnut Street. (Newsletter, 5 March 2014)
26 February 2014: Raymond Gibson, from Strabane, County Tyrone, was sentenced to four months in jail suspended for two years for racially abusing an Egyptian-born shopkeeper. While attending the Fleadh Cheoil (‘Festival of Music’) in County Derry, Gibson told the victim, ‘Go back where you belong! Get out of this country!’ (UTV News, 26 February 2014).
17 February 2014: Anna Lo, Northern Ireland MLA and the UK’s only Chinese parliamentarian for the Alliance Party was subjected to online racist abuse by Loyalists after suggesting that paramilitary murals and flags glorifying Loyalist terror groups should be taken down along the route of this year’s Giro D’Italia cycle race, a stage of which will be held in the region for the first time. (Guardian and BBC News, 16 February – 20 February 2014)
16 February 2014: Windows in a house belonging to a Polish family were smashed in a racist attack in North Belfast. A man reported that the windows of his house in the loyalist Deacon Street area had been smashed at around 2am on Sunday morning, while he and several children were inside the home at the time. (UTV News, 16 February 2014)
14 February 2014: A man was attacked in what the PSNI treated as a racially motivated hate crime in East Belfast. The victim was approached by a man outside a shop on the loyalist lower Newtownards Road on Friday between 10am and 10.40am. He was attacked by the assailant, who then walked off in the direction of Dee Street. (UTV News, 15 February 2014)
5 – 7 February 2014: A house in North Belfast was targeted in a suspected racist attack; graffiti was sprayed across the walls of the property and a brick was thrown through the window. The damage to the home on loyalist Mountcollyer Avenue was discovered by the resident who had not been at the property in a number of days. (UTV News, 7 February 2014)
28 January 2014: Cars belonging to four Slovakian, Polish and Afghan families were extensively damaged after they were deliberately set on fire in loyalist Whitewell Road, North Belfast, shortly before 10.30pm. A Polish man who had just moved into the area six weeks ago with his partner and their two young children, aged three and seven, said that he felt lucky the family home was not set on fire when the family car, which was parked in the driveway adjacent to their home, was set alight. (BBC News, UTV News, and North Belfast News, 29 January and 1 February 2014)
16 January 2014: Windows of two houses belonging to Polish residents in East Belfast were smashed with bricks shortly after midnight in attacks which the PSNI treated as racist hate crimes. The PSNI initially said they were not ruling out a link between these attacks and strikingly similar attacks that occurred ten days prior in the exact and surrounding area. However, PSNI Commander for East Belfast, Chief Inspector Mark McEwan, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme (16 January 2014), later said the PSNI believed that the spate of attacks were all connected and amounted to an organised race hate campaign orchestrated by ‘a small group of people’. (BBC News and UTV News, 16 January 2014)
15 January 2014: A Romanian man had liquid thrown over him while busking on the Newtownards Road, East Belfast. (BBC News and Irish News, 16 January and 17 January 2014)
5 January 2014: The main windows of three homes in East Belfast were smashed with bricks in an overnight attack, with the PSNI treating the incidents as both linked and as race hate crimes. Within a fifteen minute period (between 11.25pm and 11.40), bricks were hurled at three houses in the Sydenham area – two in Strandburn Park and one in Victoria Avenue. (Belfast Telegraph, 6 January 2014)
3 January 2014: 43-year-old Donna Bedford was sentenced to 150 hours of community service for assaulting and racially abusing a taxi driver in a row over his choice of route following a night out with her partner in South Belfast. Bedford subjected the taxi driver to a torrent of racist abuse in November 2013, in which she called him a ‘Black bastard’, ahead of berating the driver further in the presence of the PSNI after they had arrived on the scene. (Irish News and Newsletter, 3 January 2014)
2 January 2014: The PSNI launched an investigation into the erection of a sign warning landlords in Moygashel, Dungannon, not to lease their properties to foreign nationals. The sign, which was erected on the loyalist end of the Jacksonville Road, read: ‘Attention Landlords, leasing property to foreign nationals will not be tolerated.’ The sign has since been removed. (The Mid-Ulster Mail and the Journal.ie, 2 January 2014)
Read an IRR News story: ‘An assessment of racial violence in Northern Ireland‘