Continuing the series of articles on anti-racism and anti-fascism in issue 2 of Organise’s
The Leveller, this article deals with racism, the far-right and the recession, emphasising
that the battle against racism and the far-right, is also a battle against the social and
economic conditions that are its root cause. —– The flight of the vast majority of the
116 Roma from Belfast in June following sustained and co-ordinated racist attacks
emphasises the need for effective action against racists in our society. The recent return
of 12 of the Roma men in the first week of August with families to follow does not take
away from this. While the attackers are unlikely to have been members of any of the
British far right organisations seeking to recruit in working class protestant areas of
Northern Ireland these actions will be seen as a boost to the fascists and give
encouragement to racists.
Reactions to the events have been varied but some have chosen to view the attacks through
the prism of sectarianism. While there is undoubtedly widespread and genuine opposition to
racism in West Belfast the mural painted on the International Wall on the Falls Road in
response to the attacks betrays a smug complacency that is at heart as sectarian as those
it condemns for carrying out racist and sectarian attacks.
There is a danger of being blind to the levels of racism right across the sectarian
divide, particularly when it comes to anti-Traveller racism. Travellers still find it
impossible to get appointments at hair dressers, are barred from pubs and shops and are
subject to almost constant racist abuse. That these things, along with last years attacks
on Lithuanians, also happen in West Belfast needs to be acknowledged and challenged. The
recently published Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey for 2008 found that Travellers
faced more prejudice than migrant workers with 51% of those questioned saying they would
have a problem with a Traveller living beside them. This is an increase of 10% since the
While much is made of links between Loyalist paramilitaries and the British far right,
many who claim to be opposed to fascism in principle have been silent about reports that
Italian fascists took part, alongside nationalists, in recent riots in Ardoyne.
The notion that it is the ‘Prods’ who are racist and sectarian may serve some sort of
Republican self-image of its imagined community but it does nothing to challenge or
confront bigotry. It is people from within working class protestant communities who are
key to taking on and challenging the racists and fascists within those communities and who
are carrying out attacks and spreading hate.
Increasing Intolerance: A Shift to the Right?
There is a fear that the current recession is driving large sections of society further to
the right. Problems created by slum landlords, cut backs in social housing stock, and
seemingly unending announcements of job losses leave migrant workers more vulnerable to
scapegoating. Unemployment is rising so rapidly that dole offices have been forced to move
from fortnightly to monthly signing, while this may be good news for those of us who are
unemployed and sick of the petty harassment that is associated with signing on it is a
worrying development. Across the UK unemployment has jumped to a staggering (and under
estimated!) 2.38 million – the highest level since 1995. Unemployment in Northern Ireland
had increased to 6.1% this May from 4.6% the year before. There was a 159% increase in
confirmed redundancies over the previous year. While the Northern Ireland unemployment
rate is lower than the average for the rest of the UK it does not take into consideration
the staggering 28.6% figure for the number of working age adults who are economically
The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2008 also found that homophobia and racism are
on the increase in Northern Ireland. Anti-gay prejudice has almost doubled in three years,
from 14% of people surveyed admitting they would have a problem with a gay, lesbian or
bisexual person to 23% in the 2008 poll.
The labour movement in the UK appears to be infected with reactionary nationalist ideas
about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, taking the lead from the media and Prime
Minister Gordon Brown.
It should come as no great shock that there will be those who want to deflect from the
misery that capital has caused to so many by stirring up bigotry and hatred. The far right
could undoubtedly benefit from the current recession and seek to promote its anti-working
class agenda by scapegoating ‘easy’ targets.
The BNP have now got two MEPs and are actively trying to build a base in Northern Ireland
and have opened a call centre in East Belfast. “B N P” was heard among the chants directed
at those who were involved in the recent defence of the Roma in South Belfast.
Governments have also been busy strengthening repressive legislation and clamping down on
dissent. The UK government are still trying to force ID cards on us, and have entered into
worse than dubious extradition arrangements with the US while Shami Chakrabarti, Director
of Liberty, has warned that the UK has become a surveillance society. Locally the PSNI are
piloting the wearing, as a matter of course, of video cameras by the police while public
displays of dissent were publically clamped down upon by the police at the G20
demonstrations earlier this year.
In the south the state has moved to clamp down on workers trying to protect themselves
from the worst blows of the recession and has engaged in heavy-handed raids on workers
occupying the Thomas Cook outlet in Dublin. Anti-Shell activists have also been jailed.
Of course the conditions described above are the very same conditions that give rise to
resistance that is aimed straight at the cause of the social problems we are currently
experiencing as a result of capitalism and the state. This issue of the Leveller is full
of inspiring examples of workers fighting back and winning! Working class self
organisation and solidarity are what are called for in the struggle against racism and
fascism and in the struggle against capital and state.
Pumped Up Vigilantes?
Continuing the series of articles on anti-racism and anti-fascism in issue 2 of The
Leveller (Aug-Oct 2009), the newspaper of Irish anarchist group Organise!. This article is
a response to Derek Hanway’s (director of Irish traveller organisation An Munia Tober)
claims that those who defended the Roma under attack in Belfast in the summer of 2009 were
pumped up vigilantes.
Derek Hanway’s article in the July/August issue of Fortnight magazine, among other
inaccuracies and distortions, accused anti-racist activists of being pumped up vigilantes
who’s actions were counter-productive. He isn’t alone in that attitude, it is a position
which has been whispered by many, from the voluntary and community ‘sector’, church
‘leaders’, bureaucrats and politicians and more publicly by the police.
Hanway betrays his lack of knowledge about the situation when he says anti-racist
activists’ presence outside Roma homes, which had been attacked, attracted unwelcome
“Anyone with a knowledge of Roma people would have known about a general reluctance by
Roma to attract attention,” the director of An Munia Tober Travellers Centre said.
“While the Roma families were still in their damaged homes, they were being ‘protected’ by
anti-racist activists. I witnessed many acting like pumped up vigilantes, some bringing
cider carry-outs to the garden of one home. This response strengthened the Roma families’
sense of fear and attracted more unwelcome attention to their homes.”
True, 3 or 4 punks brought a couple of tins of beer while they sat-down outside the home,
but they were very much a minority of those at the home, and were told that doing so was
inappropriate. That said, they were among the few people who did bother to stay with the
families all night on the Monday. Hanway can say what he likes, but he was not there
helping these people defend themselves, and his ill-informed comments read like he did
nothing more than drive by in a car. He clearly did not speak to the Roma families, who
overwhelmingly welcomed the support from local residents, anti-racists and anti-fascists.
They brought cups of coffee out to supporters and made abundantly clear that they very
much welcomed the showing of solidarity demonstrated by locals and activists.
Hanway ignores the fact that there had been no publicity surrounding the attacks before
Monday 15th June. The only unwelcome attention being visited upon the Romanian families
was that of the racists who had persistently carried out attacks in the absence of any
protests, defence or publicity.
The Socialist Party were right when interviewed by the BBC, that “The Roma families were
extremely supportive of the stance that we took and if Mr Hanway was there he would have
seen the hospitality we received from the families.” The supporters only stayed with the
Roma families as long as they were asked. When some supporters thought about leaving after
repeated hassle from the police about the crowd outside the house, the families politely
asked us to stay, and help them defend their homes.
It should come as no surprise that the only nights the houses were not attacked were those
when a physical presence was visible. Hanway also bemoans the fact that the police did not
realise the “damage” anti-racists were doing, wishing that they had acted to remove those
acting in defence of the Roma families. Gary Mulcahy of the Socialist Party, who were
central to the organisation of support for the families points out in their response to
Hanway’s article that:
On Channel 4 News a representative from the PSNI was unable to defend their inaction and
admitted that the PSNI did not respond appropriately. The most effective defence of the
homes was not to rely on the police; it was by organising local residents to be present
outside of the homes. This approach, combined with the protest and publicity, succeeded in
stopping the attacks.
It was the intervention of the authorities, church groups, liberal ‘do-gooders’, the
political establishment and the Northern Ireland Executive who began a process of
‘repatriation’, encouraging the families to return to Romania. In doing so they are guilty
of handing a victory to the racists.
No Gods, No Masters: how the churches and politicians failed to help the Roma in Belfast
Continuing the series of articles on anti-racism and anti-fascism in issue 2 of The
Leveller (Aug-Oct 2009), newspaper of Irish anarchist group Organise!, this article
comments on the failure of the churches and politicians to tackle racism in Belfast.
When the attacks on Roma homes in South Belfast finally ceased after a week, it wasn’t
because of the actions of eager politicians or earnest church representatives. However
when the Roma made the final decision, 6 days after the first attack, to leave their
homes, politicians were in for the photo ops, and the churches weren’t far behind in using
the crisis to promote themselves. News broadcasters worldwide took an interest in a
sanitised humanitarian ‘flight’ story, but had been pretty reluctant in the previous days
to cover the racist attacks.
Supporters and anti-racist activists were scapegoated by the media, either for provoking
an attack on the anti-racist protest on Monday 16 June, apparently ‘bringing it on
ourselves’, or for allegedly sealing the fate of the Roma by standing side by side with
them, at their request. But these charges levelled at anti-racist protestors only serve to
deflect blame for the abject failure that was the response of the police, statutory bodies
and churches to respond when it mattered.
While it was several days before anti-racists were aware of the situation, it was only
when anti-racist activists drew attention to the attacks on the Roma, that politicians,
the media and churches ‘intervened’. Once statutory agencies became involved, rather than
providing practical solidarity in defence of the Roma’s homes, the intervention in reality
became the start of a repatriation process. The politicians and media then had on their
hands a palatable ‘humanitarian crisis’, which allowed them to ‘help’ the Roma, without
getting their hands dirty tackling racism or the social/economic problems that have
Belfast Mayor Naomi Long only took an interest on the day the Roma finally vacated their
homes. Had the situation not been so grave, it would have been amusing that when she
arrived, she hung around for an hour looking concerned, only to miss a BBC News crew, and
a juicy PR opportunity, by minutes, as she was chauffeur-driven off in her mayoral car.
Other politicians were ‘quick’ to join Naomi in seeking photo opportunities. The Romanian
ambassador posed for the cameras with First and Deputy First Ministers Robinson &
McGuinness, and paid lip-service to anti-racist sentiment, however, at the makeshift
‘refugee camp’ in the Ozone Leisure Centre, he accused the Roma of bringing these attacks
on themselves, and told them that they had made him ‘ashamed to be Romanian’.
In the case of the Roma, the churches involved, and as far as individual members may have
been sincere, also exploited the situation to attempt to bring people ‘back to the
church’. The pastor at the church where the Roma were temporarily housed seized the moment
to indulge in some self-aggrandizement, talking up the church, “my office now is like the
stable at Bethlehem”.
Self-satisfaction oozed from every word, and barely a thought was given to what actually
happened to the Roma people, less than 10 minutes from his church. When interviewed on BBC
Radio 5 Live on the night of Tuesday 17 June, the pastor didn’t even know what had
happened, he didn’t know there been an impromptu assembly of over 200 people against
racism only minutes from his church the previous night, nor that attacks had been going on
nightly for the best part of a week. But boy could he talk about how great it was what he
was doing, and how pleased God was.
This complete detachment from what was really happening in ‘their community’ was
exemplified by another church member, who characterised the generally patronising and
self-congratulatory tone of the church, while saying: “I believe God’s hand was in the
timing of this event.” This Christian do-gooder, like the pastor, remained blissfully
unaware of what had actually occurred.
“our pastor, received an emergency phone call from his wife who relayed a message that
racial riots against Romanians had escalated to the point that about 130 Romanians were
attempting to pack themselves into one home to achieve safety in numbers in response to
threats from their neighbors. A member of our church who works with a relief organization
asked if we could take these families in for the night at our church building… [the
pastor] agreed without hesitation”
These attacks had happened less than ten minutes from the church and had been all over the
national news, yet an ill-informed do-gooder was calling this ‘racial riots’, completely
oblivious to the fact that these were not riots, but a serious of orchestrated and
consistent cowardly racist attacks on one of the most vulnerable minorities in Belfast.
“This evening illustrated tremendous human compassion and a battle against racial tension,
but for the Christian community, it signified much more. The relief and care provided to
the Romanians depended on a community of believers working diligently as one body with
many parts. I saw each member find his or her own way to serve, a glorious example of
individual gifts knit together to offer compassion of Christ…What unified us all to
press on through exhaustion and hunger was the knowledge that together we were sharing the
love of Christ and hopefully bringing glory to Him… I remember the sacrifice that Jesus
made for me and that no matter how much I do, I can never truly pay Him back. The beauty
of that is that He doesn’t expect me to!!!! Therefore, as Christians, we serve out of
love, not obligation. I am also mindful that it shouldn’t take a crisis to jolt me into
action. I was bought with a price, I am His. Victory over death has been won, and until
I am with Him, each day of my life should be a sacrificial tribute to God’s glory. We are
His ambassadors, the aroma of Christ…may the world open their hearts and breathe us in.”
We don’t need guidance from religious headcases, nor can we appeal to them to tackle
issues related to the existence of racism or the inequalities of class-society. Under
capitalism, racist divisions will always be used to divide the working class, and
particularly during a recession, tensions are pushed, so anyone conveniently perceived as
‘different enough’ can be blamed for the deficiencies in our lives, be they lack of
housing, lack of jobs, or generally poor living conditions.