Intolerance in Northern Ireland: Religion, and Now Race

New York Times/January 22, 2004
By Lizette Alvarez

Elfast, Northern Ireland -- The young couple from China were sitting in front of the television set in their newly rented row house in South Belfast, just before Christmas, when they heard glass shatter.

They looked up to see two men standing in their living room with bricks in their hands. One of them battered the Chinese man's face repeatedly. When his wife, nine months pregnant, ran to help, they punched her in the face and tossed her to the ground. Then the men demanded money.

The attack drew a crowd of curious neighbors, who watched the men walk out of the couple's home.

"The men got nervous and left," said the 31-year-old wife, who with her husband and new baby is now homeless and living rent-free at the Balfour Hotel here. The woman, fearful of more violence, requested anonymity. "Everyone just watched them walk out. Nobody did anything."

Although the police arrested one man, he has not been charged and is now free, pending forensics, said a police spokesman.

Belfast, once the engine of violence between Catholics and Protestants, is being seized by a new kind of hostility - racism, fueled in large part by the recent arrival of Asians, blacks, Indians and Pakistanis in Northern Ireland, which in 2001 was still 99 percent white.

During the so-called Troubles, the violent 30-year conflict between Catholics and Protestants here, few immigrants, no matter how desperate, chose to settle in Northern Ireland. That slowly began to change with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity.

Foreigners looking for jobs, primarily in the health care, restaurant and university sectors, started to trickle in, most of them unaware of the Byzantine rules, credos and allegiances that govern Northern Ireland. Few speak English well, and most stand out because of their skin color.

As a result, the number of attacks on foreigners has jumped sharply, particularly in the hardscrabble neighborhood called the Village in South Belfast, which is populated by people called loyalists for their fierce allegiance to the British crown. From April through December, 212 racist incidents were recorded in Northern Ireland, ranging from assault to arson, police statistics show. Five years ago, only a handful of such incidents were reported.

The violence has worsened lately. In the last two months, a six-foot plank was thrown through the window of a Pakistani home, two houses have been pipe bombed, one occupied by a Ugandan family the other by Romanians, and another Chinese family was forced to flee its home after being threatened by a gang.

Filipino nurses walking home are routinely harassed and physically threatened, said a local official of the hospital workers' union. Children are being bullied. In an interview, a local real estate agent, William Faulkner, said he was warned not to rent to foreigners before his office was firebombed. Swastikas and racist words now compete for wall space with anti-Catholic vitriol and Protestant murals of paramilitaries carrying assault weapons.

Political officials and advocates of immigrants' rights say they can pinpoint the flash points. With few exceptions, racially motivated attacks have taken place in Protestant working-class neighborhoods like the Village and on streets controlled by loyalist paramilitary groups. It is common knowledge that loyalist leaders can just as easily start trouble as end trouble in these neighborhoods, and people who fall out of line know the consequences, city and immigrant group leaders say.

"Very little goes on in those areas that people don't learn about very quickly," said Ken Fraser, who works for the Race Equality Unit in the office of the first minister. "Typically, you steal cars in the wrong area and your kneecaps hear about it."

David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which represents the Ulster Voluntary Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, said that a small group of troublemakers were responsible, "and I have no doubt that some of these are paramilitaries."

"We certainly have a problem, but it's not so different from other communities who have been exposed to immigrants for the first time," he said. "You hear, `They are taking our jobs and our houses.' " But to blame paramilitary leaders is to oversimplify and exaggerate their power nowadays, he said.

The city indeed finds itself struggling to stop the violence. For decades, Northern Ireland has shaped itself - its institutions, its property maps, its laws - through the prism of Catholic and Protestant divisions. The police department, for example, must be 50 percent Catholic, 50 percent Protestant. But there is no requirement for ethnic minorities.

Politicians are planning to toughen hate crime laws, and the city is busy forming new groups to deal with racism. But the larger problem is getting the laws enforced and people to cooperate.

"For these racial attacks, there is never any information put forward by local people," said Patrick Yu, head of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. "No information, no arrests, no prosecutions."

After the decades of violence, Belfast is trying to brighten its cultural and financial image in the European community, and for its mayor, Martin Morgan, quelling the attacks is crucial to dispelling the city's reputation as a violent backwater.

"We must not be dragged down by bigotry, hatred and intolerance," Mr. Morgan said. "How we are perceived has a direct effect on our ability to develop and thrive as a city. We cannot ignore these issues."

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