On Monday 4 April Belfast City Council agreed to a proposal to make Belfast a ‘City of Sanctuary’. The motion described a City of Sanctuary as “a place that provides a welcome and safe place for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants and supports the conditions that will allow people from these backgrounds to feel safe, valued and included in Belfast.” At 1.20 on the morning of Friday 8 April police were alerted that a fire was discovered in the premises of the Belfast Multicultural Association in
Donegall Pass. It was the second time arsonists had attacked the building. In January 2021 an extensive fire gutted the premises, and repairs were only possible because of an energetic fundraising campaign which brought in a total of £71,773. The repairs to the roof had just been signed off on Wednesday 6 April, making the second attack seem particularly pointed.
An old adage from community development comes to mind : it takes years to grow a tree; it takes just a day to cut it down. Quite literally, hundreds of people have been involved in Belfast City of Sanctuary and the Belfast Multicultural Association, all of them working over years to create a society that can live with difference. It was maybe only two or three people who crept into the old church building with a can of petrol and a box of matches, and the job would have been done in minutes. But their action also has roots that go way back, back much further than the previous attack in 2021, back to cultural upheavals that manifested themselves at least a generation ago. As long ago as 2000, the Chinese Welfare Association convened a crime prevention seminar because of the rise in hate crime attacks that had been experienced in the preceding years. A submission to the NI Affairs Committee in the House of Commons in 2004 said that a survey of Chinese teenagers in south and east Belfast showed that 100% of them had experienced some form of racially motivated attack.
Donegall Pass was a particular flashpoint. In September 2003 a Chinese restaurant owner in the area faced down loyalist paramilitaries by reporting their extortion threats to the police. The reaction was predictable with further attacks, not just on businesses, but on Chinese families who had moved into the area. A leaflet headed ‘Yellow Invasion’ was circulated in the area with this message, “ I firmly believe that it is our duty to defend our community and our Protestant way of life within it. The influx of yellow people into Donegall Pass has done more damage than 35 years of the IRA’s recent campaign”.
Those who attacked the premises of the Belfast Multicultural Association would have grown up in that culture of fear of ‘the other’, of an external threat to their way of life. They would have experienced the same emotions that have driven the ‘Great Replacement’ movement in Le Pen’s France and Trump’s America, the belief that the native white population is being overtaken by non-white population groups with higher birth rates. It has happened to be the case that refugees and asylum-seekers in Belfast have tended to end up housed in areas where there were vacancies, and these have often been Protestant areas where the old communities have broken up with a population movement out to the suburbs and satellite towns. In fact, in areas like Donegall Pass there would be large tracts of derelict buildings if the newcomer communities hadn’t moved in.
Is it the case that racially-motivated hate crime is the preserve of the loyalist population? This question was considered in the recently published report of the House of Commons, ‘The Experiences of Minority Ethnic and Migrant People in Northern Ireland’. Having sifted the evidence the report is firm in its conclusions: “Despite views to the contrary, we do note that there is no evidence that the perpetrators of hate crime come from one community more than another”. The key correlation is not with religious identity, but with social deprivation. That does not make poverty in itself a sufficient explanation for the growth of racism. There are plenty of rundown areas where minorities can feel safe. The other key ingredient is rapid social change, such as population movement and the fragmentation of traditional communities. Worryingly, the evidence also shows that hate crime is increasing in line with new prejudices: against Polish people after the EU referendum, against Chinese people because of Covid, and of course the oldest prejudice of all, antisemitism, was also reported as being on the increase in Belfast. The report was published on 9 March; if the research was being conducted today it would show that the swelling of sympathy for Ukraine has brought with it the dark undertow of anti-Russian hostility and abuse.
Anecdotal evidence is supported by the official hate crime statistics issued by the PSNI, which lend support to the idea that the problem is worsening. The number of hate crimes had increased from 630 in 2020 to 943 in 2021, an increase of more than 50%. That’s still lower than the peak in 2014 /15 but it’s an upward trend with no sign of slowing. Only one in ten of hate crimes (10.4%) results in charges or summons. Convictions are even less common. It is too early to say whether anyone will be convicted for the recent arson attack on the Belfast Multicultural Association, but we know that no one has been charged with the January 2021 crime. The PSNI prepared a file for the PPS, but it did not meet the evidential bar. Hate crimes rarely do. They are also known as ‘message’ crimes because they send a message to all those who belong to the same community as the immediate victim, and the message from the arsonists is clearly understood.
Ultimately, the criminal justice system can only be a small part of the solution. The real answer lies in mobilising the goodwill that exists within the broader population, and increasing the social, sporting and workplace contact between cultures. There are myriad organisations, many of them faith communities, doing that in Northern Ireland and with considerable success. The most recent NI Life and Times survey contains heartening evidence of this. When asked if they would willingly accept people from minority ethnic groups living and working here 96% of respondents said yes. To date some 7,500 people have offered to provide accommodation to Ukrainian refugees. In Donegall Pass there are some new Chinese food stores. The
Just Giving fundraising campaign to repair once again the premises of the Belfast Multicultural Association hit its target of £5,000 in the first few days. We may not yet be a city of sanctuary but there are plenty of people who are trying to make it one.
Paul Nolan is a voluntary member of Belfast City of Sanctuary
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