15 January 2004 Edition
Targeting the helpless for fun and profit
BY ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN
Racism is on the rise in the Six Counties, but is the current unionist paramilitary campaign to force non-whites from loyalist strongholds also part of an equally sinister extortion racket?
Perhaps both — with the latter being suggested as a dubious "excuse" for the first. In any event, unionist paramilitaries have been in overdrive since the holiday season, targeting heavily pregnant women, their infants, and whomever else happens to be at home in a series of continuing racial attacks.
Just before Christmas, three ethnic minority families — two Chinese and one African — were attacked and driven from their homes in the loyalist Village area of Belfast on the same night. The Chinese women involved were both pregnant at the time, with one due to give birth only days later, and the African woman was the mother of infant twins.
One of the expectant mothers was forced to watch helplessly while two men, who had broken down her front door, smashed a brick into her husband's face as he tried desperately to protect her and her unborn child. The attackers then turned their attentions to the pregnant woman herself, punching her in the head, and continued to beat both victims before demanding money and disappearing back into the darkness from whence they came.
The Chinese father-to-be was hospitalised for a fractured skull and broken nose and although his wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy on 2 January, there is little doubt the couple will carry the horror of that night with them for many years to come.
On the same evening as the attacks on the three families, missiles were fired through the windows of two other homes in the area. The following weekend there were arson attacks on a further two houses in the Donegall Road and Coolfin Street areas of South Belfast, both of which are normally occupied by Romanian and Pakistani families. Fortunately when the attacks took place both families were away.
Then last week, a Bangladeshi woman and her brother-in-law narrowly escaped injury when a six-foot plank was thrown through the front window of the home they had moved into only hours before. On this occasion too, the woman concerned was heavily pregnant — 8 1/2 months along.
There are claims that this spate of attacks follows the refusal of Chinese community representatives to negotiate with the unionist UVF over "protection" payments for their businesses. It is also alleged that unionist paramilitaries have placed restrictions on the number of Chinese people allowed to move into UVF-controlled areas.
Other reports claim that the campaign of random racial violence is aimed at pressuring one Chinese businessman to drop charges of extortion against a high-ranking UVF figure. The loyalist leader had been caught on tape after the businessman informed the PSNI about UVF demands for protection money and agreed to wear a 'wire' to gather evidence against him.
Yet in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, the UVF and UDA continue to deny any involvement in the continuing attacks. Their supporters in the UPRG and PUP have dismissed the assertion that unionist paramilitaries are to blame, attempting instead to shift responsibility for the attacks onto "rogue elements" within the unionist community.
"It is scum who are carrying these attacks out," says PUP leader David Ervine, whose party is linked to the UVF. "They are the lowest of the low.
"There is no paramilitary policy as far as I am aware and, at the moment, I do not know who is responsible. As to whether there are any individuals involved on a paramilitary level, I do not know and that is something we need to look at."
However, Real Estate agent William Faulkner says he has no doubts about who is behind the attacks.
Faulkner states that two men came into his South Belfast office in early December and told him not to rent property to ethnic minorities. Although the men did not say who they represented, Faulkner is confident they had paramilitary connections.
"They didn't make threats. They just told me not to rent out to them," says Faulkner of the encounter. "To be honest, it is a bit shocking but I have no doubt that there was paramilitary involvement.
"I have continued to rent out, but have been telling people of the dangers and the threat they may be under by living in the area. Many of the people we would put into homes in this area would be from an ethnic background and a fair proportion of them would work in the City hospital. But you have to take these warning seriously. It's just a fact of life."
Faulkner says that in the past 12 months, ten of his clients have been driven from their homes by continuing intimidation.
"The last year has been particularly bad. That's a lot of people being forced to move in just one year. It's not just me; other organisations are getting squeezed as well. This sort of thing is very bad for the image of the area, not to mention property values. These attacks are reducing the price of houses in the area."
Faulkner is not the only real estate agent being warned not to house ethnic minorities. A number of South Belfast agents have reported that they too, have received warnings over recent months. Some add that they are being "taxed" for renting to visible minorities and that they have been told to house "white Protestants" in any available properties instead.
Meanwhile, some individuals seem content to blame those targeted for the ongoing attacks, in a somewhat more subtle (but equally abhorrent) racist bent. Opportunistic private landlords in parts of several unionist areas are now actually demanding that potential tenants from ethnic minority groups pay twice the normal deposit required to secure accommodation.
Last week, a solicitor who was trying to find new lodgings for one of the Chinese families driven from their home over Christmas was told they would have to pay the extra deposit because they "had a history of violence".
Many members of ethnic minority groups, particularly those who are in the Six Counties illegally, have little choice when it comes to housing, and as a result are often forced to accept cheap or substandard housing in less than desirable areas.
Illegal are also vulnerable because they are trying to remain under the radar of official government bodies, and are therefore understandably reluctant to contact the PSNI to report incidents of abuse or discrimination. Cultural and language barriers are additional deterrents.
In his annual report, PSNI boss Hugh Orde admitted that there have been nearly 700 such crimes reported in the last three years alone, with statistics revealing that between April of 2002 and April 2003 there were 226 incidents of racial violence. Fifty-two of these episodes were physical assaults and 56 were attacks on homes.
Patrick Yu of the Six-County based Council for Ethnic Minorities says that his organisation believes that many more racially-motivated incidents take place than are actually reported.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Yu remarked on a BBC news show. "These attacks must stop immediately."
Davy Carlin, of the Belfast based Anti-Racism Network, says that loyalist leaders need to "get their heads out of the sand and wake up to the fact that there is a strong element of racism within sections of loyalism and that extortion rackets extend to businesses owned by people from ethnic minorities.
"Whether or not these attacks are sanctioned by the UDA or UVF is not the issue," says Carlin, "although they are turning a blind eye at the very least. But it is important that those with influence take responsibility and use it positively to ensure that violence against ethnic minorities ends."
Also not at issue is the long-acknowledged link between unionist paramilitary groups and race-driven hate groups like the BNP, WNP and Combat 18.
Racist graffiti and graffiti referring to hate groups like Combat 18 and the KKK, have appeared on walls, telephone posts and buildings throughout unionist areas. The websites of several "Kick the Pope" bands openly carry messages of hatred against ethnic minorities. Prominent unionist paramilitaries are often spotted at far-right rallies in England, and there have been regular visits to the north by far-right English football hooligans, the British Ulster Alliance.
Several predominately unionist communities have recently found themselves papered with leaflets from neo-nazi groups masquerading as political parties, like the British National Party and the White National Party — part of an attempt to lend extremist beliefs an air of legitimacy. In 2003, the BNP announced its intention to run at least five candidates in the 2005 poll as part of a campaign to "try to halt a mass influx of immigrants".
The message of intolerance and racial violence these right-wing extremists preach fits comfortably within the already sectarian beliefs held by unionist paramilitaries. It does not require a big ideological leap to move from targeting defenceless Catholic homes to targeting those belonging to visible minorities. In fact, painted on the wall of a house on the same street as the recent attacks, is the phrase "Kill all Taigs".
Northern society was structured along sectarian lines. Bigotry and intolerance were encouraged, cultivated and rewarded as a means to a political and religious end. The mechanisms of the northern state were based on oppression and discrimination, on inequality and contempt. And so is racism, or sexism or homophobia. They are all sides of the same coin.
Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey points out that the recent attacks in South Belfast are not "isolated incidents", nor are they the first of their kind. In his capacity as Lord Mayor, Maskey was instrumental in the promotion of the Anti-Racism charter, which was unveiled back in July of 2003.
The document — which provides guidelines for local Councils and their Members — was an attempt to present a united political front and challenge those involved in racially-motivated incidents. It came in response to a number of racist incidents in the Belfast and Upper Bann areas.
"The Good Friday Agreement is about creating a tolerant and peaceful society," Maskey was quoted as saying at the time, "not simply for nationalists, republicans, unionists or loyalists, but for all who live here.
"The charter does not pretend to be a solution to these kinds of attacks or this kind of activity. But we hope that it can become part of a political response to the upsurge in racism."
Sadly, the Sinn Féin charter has yet to be adopted by the very Councils who should be providing political leadership on the issue.
"These recent attacks against members of various ethnic minorities in South Belfast are part of a campaign of violence and intimidation aimed at driving ethnic minority communities out of these areas," says Maskey. "Politicians and ordinary people need to make it clear to those behind these attacks that their behaviour is unacceptable and that ethnic minority communities are welcome wherever they choose to live.
"This campaign has to stop. If it does not then I have a real fear that someone will be killed."
But in the interim, the racist attacks have continued. This past weekend nursing staff from several ethnic minority groups, particularly Filipino, found themselves subjected to racial abuse and assaults in South Belfast.
An Phoblacht can reveal that one nurse was forced to flee her home following a racially-motivated attack and that others have consistently reported incidents of racist verbal abuse and attacks on their homes.
Last week, Alex Maskey met with representatives of the Anti-Racism Network to discuss both the recent attacks and the ongoing concerns and needs of ethnic communities in the north. He will be meeting with NIO officials next week to pursue the matter further.
Nurses' union calls for end to racist attacks
UNISON, the Union representing Registered Nurses and Health Care Support Staff, has called for an end to racially-motivated attacks on its members after another series of incidents over the past weekend.
Unison members from several ethnic minority groups, particularly those from a Filipino background, have been subjected to racial abuse and attacks in South Belfast on numerous occasions.
Last week, the union met with its members to work out a plan of action and support and revealed that one member had already been forced to flee her home following a racial attack.
"Racism cannot be permitted to go unchallenged in this society," said Pamela Dooley, UNISON's Head of Organisation and Development. "The situation described by our members is frightening and on the increase.
"The workers have come here, at the request of the UK Government, to provide much needed health care to our citizens. In response, thugs, racists and bigot are intent on driving them out and doing them harm.
"UNISON is calling on the employer — Belfast City Hospital — and the PSNI to work with us to afford protection to the workers and to all people from ethnic minority groups living here. We do not want to hear any excuses about a lack of resources from police, employers or anyone else. We want to see investigations, charges brought, and prosecutions made.
"The proposed tougher legislation needs to be fast tracked. We also want to see people in their local communities stand up to the bullies and support their neighbours and work colleagues who come from a different background.
"This is a profoundly racist society. The sooner we face that fact and deal with it the sooner we will be free from it."