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A meeting called by South Belfast’s SDLP MP Alistair McDonnell in response to "community tensions" erupted in racist vitriol directed at the Roma community.

Scenes frighteningly reminiscent of past anti-Roma racism erupted in Belfast earlier this week. The meeting, held at the Chinese Welfare Association, evoked memories of 2009, where nearly 100 Roma were evicted from Belfast.

The meeting was called by the SDLP’s MP Alistair McDonnell. Despite being warned that simmering local tensions were likely to head in a racist direction, McDonnellwent ahead with the meeting, called to discuss what he described as “the rise in anti-social behaviour” in the local area.  While there has been a substantial rise in reported instances of anti-social behaviour, there is no evidence that this is the preserve of one section of the community over another.

From the outset the meeting was consumed by racism. In a packed room of 150 people, 40 of whom were from the Roma community, long term local residents described the Roma as “dogs” and “animals”. Even people with a history of anti-racist activity were drawn into the fray, saying their children were frightened of Roma people. Two local women even accused members of the Roma community of being involved in the rape of a young woman earlier in the year. Both McDonnell and the SDLP’s Fearghal McKinney looked shell-shocked by the racist vitriol, but appeared incapable of defending the Roma from calls made by prominent residents that they be “put out”.

All the vitriol in this meeting was directed at the Roma residents. They were accused of stealing bikes and children’s toys, of attacking older residents and even of bricking their own windows in.

When a Roma representative tried to speak he was jeered and heckled. When the attempt was made by local community workers to address the accusations, they were also jeered. There is no way to understate how unpleasant and virulently racist the atmosphere was.

It is no wonder that the Roma community are now expecting a repeat of 2009 where they were driven first from their homes in the Lisburn Road and then from Belfast.

While it needs to be stated that there is an intensely local element which complicates this situation, it is worth looking at the broader picture to get some understanding of why a predominantly nationalist area with a history of welcoming immigrants and outsiders would, at least in a sizeable section of it, degenerate in such a way.

The recession

The recession has bitten deeply in Northern Ireland, an already depressed region. There was some respite for a short while during the boom years of the last decade where unemployment dropped, house prices rose and by and large the peace process held firm.

Since then the economy has fallen back dramatically and unemployment has more than doubled and is still rising. The latest figures suggest that South Belfast –  far from being shielded from the recession – had more people sign on for benefits in the last quarter than other areas of Belfast.

The cuts to the Assembly budget have seen jobs shed from the City Hospital, from Queens University and from many local small businesses.  The upcoming budget cuts will see the loss of many more.

While it is often thought that South Belfast is a haven for the wealthier section of Northern Irish society, the reality is that the area has a high concentration of public sector and community and voluntary sector workers. The recession and the budget cuts have ravaged this section of the workforce. It also has its share of heavily deprived working class estates. South Belfast sees both sides of the housing crisis. Mortgage foreclosures, housing repossessions and the lack of social housing are all forcing people with little in the way of finances into the private rental sector.

The recession, budget cuts and the reduction in public sector and community and voluntary sector jobs, combined with the housing crisis have created a particular situation. A situation where, even in an area with a history of struggle against bigotry, an area with Hong Kong born Anna Lo as one of its MLA’s, racism can still rear its ugly head.

This means there is much work to be done if what many people now fear, an attack on the Roma community, is to be averted.

Racist Lies

Much of what was argued at the meeting was based on misinformation, resulting in racist lies. As far as can be ascertained, it is not the case that anyone from the Roma community has been suspected of being involved in the sexual assault and rape of a young woman in Ormeau Park in May. This is important because the gossip in some local republican circles is that young men from the Roma community were involved. One can only wonder why the PSNI representatives in the meeting did nothing to dispel this rumour.

It is not the case either that petty crime in the area is on the increase, the PSNI figures suggesting that it is actually decreasing.  It may be the case that some people from the Roma community have been involved in petty theft as have a number of people who would be considered local residents. This has to do with poverty and deprivation, and the change in the economic circumstances, and not ethnicity.

It is the case that PSNI figures suggest anti social behaviour, or at least the reporting of this, is on the increase but there is no evidence anywhere that this is confined to one section of the community. One person at the meeting did suggest that there has emerged a real problem amongst local youths with drugs and alcohol. This they say is increasing community tensions.

It is definitely the case that there are serious problems for immigrants generally and the Roma in particular. They are not allowed access to social housing and so are forced into private accommodation often living in overcrowded conditions. They are not allowed to work unless allocated special work permits which often rely on having documentation which the Roma in particular have difficulty accessing. This situation forces people into selling the Big Issue or other such publications, or worse, into begging. The poverty experienced by people from the Roma community often means resorting to desperate measures, like scavenging through bins, just in order to survive. (This is the source of much local tension because the Belfast City Council has issued fines on long term local residents for having unkempt bins) But again the root cause here is poverty, and not ethnicity.

Ultimately this is the result of the Assembly politicians driving forward the austerity arguments and the policies associated with them every bit as hard as Cameron and Clegg. It is these policies which have created the climate for tensions which appear now to be driven in a racist direction.

Anti racism activists will be meeting local community workers early next week to organise a plan of action to stop racism from getting a toehold in the area and to avert any repeat of 2009 from taking place.

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