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A legacy of intolerance

Last update - Thursday, June 25, 2009, 16:07 By Ronit Lentin

When post-conflict Northern Ireland was dubbed the ‘race hate capital of Europe’ by the BBC in 2004, my colleague Robbie McVeigh made the point that it was wrong to say, as many journalists did, that racism escalated simply because Protestants and Catholics had stopped fighting each other. Rather, he insisted, racism was not a new phenomenon in Northern Ireland but was rather part of a legacy of intolerance built into loyalist areas and into unionism itself.

The racist violent attacks against a group of Romanian Roma last week in Belfast confirms McVeigh’s analysis that racism, rather than being the consequence of neo-Nazi BNP sympathisers – a claim made all too easily by Northern politicians, including MLP Anna Lo – is built into northern loyalism.
It’s true that the attacks happened only a few weeks after the victory of the BNP in Britain’s European and local elections. It’s also true that both the UVF and the UDA denied their involvement with both the BNP and the attacks against the Roma families. Yet according to journalist Peter Geoghegan, the ‘Village’ area of Belfast – a run-down area of loyalist terraces which became popular with eastern European migrants – has seen many racist attacks, of which those on the Roma last week were only the most recent.
It’s easy to blame racial violence on the far right, but more difficult to understand it as part of the fabric of Irish life, both north and south. In the north, as McVeigh argues, members of the Loyalist Commission who had been involved in organised racist violence that aimed to ‘defend’ their communities were not taken to task by the police, as if racism did not matter. Furthermore, the direct link between loyalism and racism is rarely named, the result being what has been called the ‘new racism’, a racism aimed to defend society – more specifically, loyalist society – against its migrant others (in this case, the disempowered Roma migrants).
Just recently an RTÉ reporter rang me to ask why I thought no one was speaking about migrants any more. Was it because the Irish are getting used to immigrants, because they are becoming accustomed to life in Ireland, because there are no longer any problems to do with migrants, or what?
My answer was that the media has become bored reporting about the everyday existence of migrants in Ireland, many of which are making successful efforts to adapt and integrate. Good news is unfortunately mundane news that doesn’t sell. On the other hand, no one wants to write, or think, about the ongoing racialisation of asylum seekers, labour migrants and EU migrants such as the Roma who, because they come from Romania, cannot get work permits and are therefore seen as endangering the security of the Irish racial state.
Likewise, writing about ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland, or about the odium we all feel about the victories of the BNP in the UK, is much more acceptable than speaking about the realities of racism – until racist violence actually erupts, as it did last week. But then it is much easier to blame the lunatic fringes, rather than seek an answer in the sectarian and racist structure of Irish society itself.
Dr Ronit Lentin is head of the MPhil in Ethnic and Racial Studies at the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann

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