Belfast must not lose battle against racism

The extent and severity of racism in Northern Ireland has been laid bare in a new report by Trademark, the trade union think tank, which reveals that in recent months there is, on average, three race-related incidents reported every day.

The report – Racism and Racist Attitudes in Northern Ireland – states that during the 12 month reporting period in 2013/14, there were 982 race- related incidents, and that information garnered from the PSNI through a freedom of information request suggests that the annual total of racist incidents is set to rise once again in 2014/15.

There may also be significant under- reporting of race-related crimes due to fear of recriminations or a lack of faith in the justice system. This lack of faith may not be unfounded: with the Trademark report highlighting that only twelve out of a reported 14,000 alleged race hate crimes in Northern Ireland over the last five years have resulted in successful prosecutions, while the PSNI has a clearance rate of only 8% between January and April 2014.

Trademark researcher, Sean Byers, said: “The figures concerning racism in Northern Ireland are deeply worrying. Racist harassment and intimidation has seen a sharp rise. Despite attempts to brand Belfast as a bright and shiny post- conflict city open for tourism and flows of transnational capital, it is in danger of confirming its reputation as the ‘race hate capital of Europe’. Drawing on evidence that the city has witnessed a spike in racist incidents in recent years, some argue that racism is the new sectarianism.”

The report states that in the last five years, 75% of all complaints received by the Equality Commission were related to racial abuse or intimidation. In local schools, meanwhile, 75% of children from minority ethnic backgrounds can expect to suffer derogatory name-calling; 42% of minority ethnic sixteen-year-old students have been “a victim of racist bullying or harassment in their school”.

Byers added: “Only four out of ten minority ethnic respondents to the 2013 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey are recorded as feeling a sense of belonging to the region, which leaves six out of ten experiencing some form of alienation.”

Byers said the report does not shy away from looking at exactly where some of the orchestrated racist attacks that migrants, many of whom live in the more affordable and readily-available private housing stock in Protestant inner-city Belfast, is emanating from.

“In support of anecdotal evidence and PSNI statistics, a number of academic studies suggest that the majority of racist incidents are concentrated in areas that are Protestant and working class,” he said, “East Belfast has witnessed a spate of racist attacks in a short period of time and is showing the highest level of racist incidents in ten years.”

He added: “Now we come to the elephant in the room. Whilst acknowl- edging its complex, decentralised or- ganisational structures, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr has made it abundantly clear that a particularly sinister UVF element is responsible for the majority of attacks in South and East Belfast. Seasoned unionist politicians have been found wanting in confronting the reality of UVF involvement in or- chestrating racist attacks. There is a danger this context could give far right groups oxygen or lead to a potentially lethal form of ‘racial-nationalist class politics’.”

In order to prevent such a development, community-led initiatives are being advocated by progressive organisations and trade unions to counter the threat of racism.

Workers’ Party representative in North Belfast, Gemma Weir, said: “Racism – like sectarianism and homophobia – can only really be defeated at the level of local communities. A start can be made by ensuring all leading community voices declare their opposition to these attacks and by communities supporting their neighbours, and by passing on any information about such incidents to the authorities.”

She added: “As well as confronting the unacceptable nature of racism, the high level of social deprivation in ethnic minority households in Northern Ireland must also be highlighted and the over- representation of people from minority ethnic groups in low-grade, low-pay jobs.”

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