While writing the forthcoming report Afrophobia in Ireland for ENAR Ireland, I was struck by the level of mimicry evident in the kinds of racist attacks, verbal and physical, which were reported to iReport.ie.The throwing of bananas, making of monkey sounds and references to black bodies are long standing shortcuts for those who want to make their racism loud and clear. But in the reports, there are also accounts of cars and vans slowing in the street to shout ‘Go Home’ – directly after the introduction in the UK by the Home Office of vans which were to ‘encourage’ irregular migrants to return home.
When we saw the Confederate flag raised over East Belfast, and, two days later, a Nazi flag and Confederate flag raised with an Israeli flag, in Carrickfergus, it raised the question, does this tell us something about racism in Northern Ireland, or is this just a kind of global mimicry?
As the first Confederate flag was pulled down in East Belfast, there was something of a murmur in the press which lazily referred to previous racist attacks and graffiti in the area. The media has in recent years continued to refer to Belfast as “Europe’s race hate capital” – it started in 2006, and continues to be used (Belfast Telegraph 2014; Irish News 2015) despite an international expert saying in 2007 this didn’t reflect the sporadic nature of the violence compared to how prolific it is in other cities. Since 2007, however, racist violence has increased significantly across the city of Belfast, as well as in more rural areas (where there are significantly fewer ethnic minorities, but noted cases of violent robbery for example).
Flags have a considered importance in Northern Ireland, with significant attention to 2013 protests around the flying of flags. Academic studies of the protests concluded that there is a “growing sense of alienation” amongst loyalist communities in Belfast who feel that unionist/loyalist cultures and traditions will not be included within the new Northern Ireland.
In East Belfast, loyalist paramilitaries are blamed for the general increase in racism, and the involvement of young people in violent protest there gives fuel to a connection between the two. It would be no surprise to find racism in East Belfast, since it is one area of the city which has suffered significantly in economic terms in recent years, as well as experienced one of the highest rates of ethnic diversification. Local community groups have tried to stem the proliferation of attacks, supported victims of racist attacks, and undertaken restorative justice projects to try to reduce tensions and address young people’s behaviour. I worked this year with one such group, whose youth section were keen to learn about racism and address it in their neighbourhood.
But East Belfast is not the only area of the city in which racist violence occurs – just the best known. Across the city, north, south, east and west, ethnic minorities have experienced physical attacks, graffiti on their homes, initimidation, arson, broken windows, damaged cars and property damage against their businesses, as well as bullying and violence towards their children. In that, Belfast is no different than most cities in having persistent racist attacks on its minorities, but it draws particular attention because the rise of racism has been directly connected to the peace process.
The start of bonfire season in Northern Ireland is turning out to be this year, like last year, a space in which racism is expressed loudly and clearly. Last summer also saw a KKK flag raised over a house in East Belfast. Peter Robinson, the North’s First Minister, failed to condemn the perpetrators strongly enough for many of the North’s citizens. “It’s absolutely outrageous. How some local idiot puts up a flag and gets a reputation of the area” – his condemnation of stupidity, rather than the racism that the flag represented, even following his own apology to Muslims the previous month after spontaneous antiracist protests in the city by 1000s against his defence of an Islamophobic preacher. This year he has come out more strongly, tweeting “Nazi flags have nothing to do with unionism. I commend the residents who removed them. Shameful that such flags were ever erected.”
Also appearing on bonfires at the same time last year, were the election posters of Anna Lo MLA, Northern Ireland’s only politician of Cantonese ethnicity, and the first elected in Europe. Lo is an Alliance party member who has been outspoken on her preference for a United Ireland. Her image appeared alongside those of Sinn Fein MLAs and the Pope, but with particularly racist slogans on banners about Lo. Internet memes that circulated afterwards referenced “white genocide” and Chinese one-party rule.
There are clear connections between racist acts of speech and violence (even if they are considered inappropriate by most) and loyalist practices around the celebration of the 12th. We cannot isolate the problem to loyalists however. Sinn Fein in the North of Ireland speak loudly about racism alongside Alliance and other parties, but racist attacks are also recorded in nationalist areas, and antiracist groups seek strategies to cross all communities, rather than single out areas like East Belfast.
Taking a whole island view, we must remember that racism in the Republic too spikes around nationalist celebrations such as St Patricks Day. Two vicious assaults in 2014 of a Brazilian in Dublin city centre, and earlier at 5am, in the brutal attempted murder of a Chechen man in South Dublin. These were linked in media discussions to the intensive nationalist discourse surrounding the day, and there is no doubt that they were brutal enough to gain publicity and spread fear amongst other ethnic minority residents and foreign visitors.
What is significant about racist violence, and the use of racist imagery, is the ways in which these spread fear far beyond the power of the individual act. ‘Message’ crimes are acts of hate that reach into the community to create fear. Using racist tropes as shortcuts to creating those pervasive nessages is, then, an easier means of spreading fear. Flags can, therefore, be read as a substitute for physical violence in terms of providing the ‘message’. However, flags are more powerful than individual acts of violence. They act as a marker to encourage acts of hatred, marking out spaces where such violence is encouraged. For minorities living in those spaces, it is clear that they will not be protected by those who tolerate the flying of racist flags. The flying of the Confederate flag, in the context of discussions in the US about its racist nature, is what prompted its adoption in Northern Ireland while last year, only the KKK flag was flown. This is clear mimicry of events abroad and an attempt to signify global alliances that have little reality in direct relationships. The power of the flag, however, lies in its reference to the global nature of white power, and its implications for migrants living in a society where politicians are not brave enough to really address the violence that underpins it.
This is why it is imperative that flags which are racist in the message that they send have no place in our society. Northern Ireland, of course, has a particularly difficult history in terms of managing cultural symbolism and flags, perhaps explaining why PSNI were slow to remove the Confederate flag when it appeared last week. Last year, the PSNI clarified its policy, saying that the removal of flags is not their responsibility. Today, they announced they would stick to that policy, but take a partnership approach to the removal of the KKK and Nazi flags in Carrickfergus. This is not Carrickfergus’ first foray into the use of flags as protest – in 2013, a march of 300 loyalist protestors in the area led to serious disorder there as well as in other areas.
The involvement of loyalists, or nationalists, in the flying of racist flags should not permit our elected representatives to hesitate when it comes to racism. The fact of global mimicry points to the superficial and changeable nature of racist positioning in the Northern Irish insecurity around identity, while fear spreads through its minority and migrant communities.