Over December and January a spate of racist attacks against members of ethnic minority communities living in Belfast received international media attention. In an article on 10 January, The Guardian labelled Northern Ireland "the race-hate capital of Europe".
The headlines centred around a brutal campaign of racist violence aimed at intimidating ethnic minorities from their homes in South Belfast.
It is clear that sections of loyalist paramilitaries, as part of a racketeering campaign, have been behind some racist attacks in the Village area of South Belfast. However, it would be dangerous not to point to the attempts of small neo-fascist groups like the White Nationalist Party, the British National Party and Combat 18 to build a base of support, as a major cause for the dramatic rise in racist attacks in Belfast and across Northern Ireland. Orchestrated attacks have been taking place in areas like Craigavon, Ballymena and Coleraine where far-right leaflets have been circulated.
Racist attacks on the rise
Last year it was announced that between 1996 and 1999 over 350 racial incidents were reported to the police – a 400% increase, whilst the number of attacks on children rose from 8.5% of total attacks to over 16%. Between April 2002 – April 2003, reported attacks rose to 226 as opposed to the previous figure of 185. Over 200 incidents were reported in the past nine months. Many more cases are not reported.
The far-right are playing up fears about housing costs, the lack of social housing, lack of jobs, low wages and deprivation of working class estates in an effort to scapegoat immigrants for the many problems faced by working class people. The reality is that successive Governments have hugely under-funded public services in Northern Ireland for decades.
Anti-working class policies
In areas like the Village, people can no longer afford to buy a house locally because of the speculation of property developers and private landlords buying up houses in the area.
The poverty conditions which exist in working class estates across the North (half a million people in NI are living below the poverty line, 37.4% of children are growing up in poor households, 32% have an income of less than £5,000 a year), are a breeding ground for sectarianism and racism.
Racism is a by-product of class division in society. The fight against racism and the far-right needs to be a fight for a better future for all, where the needs of people come before profit – a socialist fight. Without addressing racism on a class basis, the roots of racism cannot be tackled.
The racist attacks in Belfast have been met with outrage from people of all communities. The recently formed Anti-Racism Network (ARN), to which the Socialist Party is affiliated, held a lunchtime rally on Holocaust Memorial Day outside Belfast City Hall in bad weather conditions and attracted an estimated 1,500-2,000 people. This is an indication of the support there is for standing up to the far-right and expressing solidarity with the victims of racism. Rallies are a useful tool in sending a message to the far-right, but an effective anti-racist campaign also needs to highlight the inequality and poverty which leads to racism. Speakers at the rally failed to do this. By promoting the right-wing politicians, represented by the Lord Mayor of Belfast who spoke from the platform, there is a danger of adopting an all-class position to racism.
The campaign should stand against the right-wing policies that the major political parties implemented while in the Assembly. The policies of the main parties have actually contributed to the rise in racism and the growth of the far-right.
Working class unity
The only way of defeating the racists is to mobilise the communities where attacks are taking place and campaigning to bring together working people whether Catholic, Protestant or from any ethnic minority in a common struggle for decent jobs, proper wages and affordable homes for all. There is a need for the trade union movement to link up with community groups and ethnic minority groups to build anti-racist campaigns in the community and organise defence of families.
The Socialist Party has taken to the streets of South Belfast campaigning against the far-right and has received an excellent response from members of ethnic minority communities and residents of the Village and surrounding areas.
Socialist Youth members have also been instrumental in setting up Youth Against Racism to tackle the far-right’s attempts to recruit alienated youth. The activities of neo-fascist groups must be stopped. Their aim is to gain a base to organise. If they succeed, socialists, trade unionists, community activists as well as basic democratic rights are under threat.
The re-development of workers’ struggles and the radicalisation of a layer of youth however show that the ideas of socialism can gain support over the next period which can cut across the rise of racism.
From Socialist Voice, paper of the Socialist Party, the cwi in Ireland