An assessment of racial violence in Northern Ireland
December 12, 2013 — Comment
Written by Gerard Stewart
An overview of racist attacks and convictions over the last six months in Northern Ireland.
According to the most recent statistics produced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), there are two racist incidents reported, and more than one incident recorded as a racist hate crime in the north of Ireland every day. In the last year, there were a total of 750 racist incidents and 470 hate crimes reported to the PSNI – an increase when compared to the 2011/12 period, as documented by the 2013 Northern Ireland Peace and Monitoring Report.
Despite the era of a ‘shared future’ and the dawn of a ‘new’ Northern Ireland since the peace agreement(s), the most high-profile attacks that have made the news in the last six months give us a glimpse into the everyday reality of abuse, harassment, and intimidation which BME communities in the north of Ireland experience.
The vast majority of the racist attacks which have become headline news have taken place in the middle of the night at the homes of foreign nationals, usually from Africa or Eastern Europe – where attackers daub racist graffiti onto the property, ahead of smashing doors and windows before fleeing. In one case, a number of Lithuanians in Dungannon experienced several attacks at their home, including the daubing of a Nazi symbol on their property accompanied by a written order to ‘get out’, in a prolonged campaign of harassment. In another incident, which bore striking resemblance to an attack months earlier in the same area, the home of a Zimbabwean family in East Belfast – who had already left another property in Belfast due to racism – was daubed with ‘No Blacks’ before they had even moved into the property.
In November 2013, Belfast City Council launched a billboard and online campaign, entitled ‘Don’t Turn Your Back On Hate Crime’, in response to recent PSNI statistics that hate crime incidents in Belfast had swelled almost 90 per cent compared with the previous year. With the exception of sectarian hate incidents, racism in Belfast has become the most prevalent hate crime – and the rise of 86.9 per cent between April and November 2013 in comparison with the same period in 2012 has surpassed the 36.3 per cent rise in sectarian incidents in the last 12 months. The number of race-hate incidents in the Belfast area alone is now higher than it was a decade ago for the entire province of Northern Ireland; with 215 reported incidents of race-hate between April and November 2013 in Belfast compared to 212 reported incidents of race-hate between April and December 2003 in all of Northern Ireland.
Could it be possible, as the PSNI argues, that the dramatic increase in racially aggravated crimes represents an increased willingness to report them? Certainly, the PSNI has been working with a range of public, community and voluntary organisations to encourage victims of hate crime to report their experience to police.
But whilst such moves by the PSNI are to be welcomed, a staggering amount (about 80 per cent) of racially aggravated crime continues to go unreported. There are a number of reasons for this – ranging from a lack of confidence by victims in the policing and justice system (as was documented in a 2006 report published by the Institute of Conflict Research entitled Policing, Accountability, and the Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in Northern Ireland), a failure on the part of the criminal justice agencies to properly identify victims of racially aggravated crimes (as was documented in a 2013 report conducted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission entitled Racist Hate Crime: human rights and the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland), to a fear of reprisals.
As has been previously acknowledged, the fear of reprisals in the north of Ireland is often linked to paramilitary elements. While racism is not the exclusive expression of one section of the community, there is a high correlation between racist attacks and areas which are staunchly Loyalist and a traditional heartland for affiliation to prominent Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA). As Bill Rolston has stated, ‘It is not far-fetched to say that nothing happens in this small cluster of streets without these groups knowing, or even more, authorising it’. This sentiment has also been expressed by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), the PSNI, and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee which has to date acknowledged the significant synergy that appears to exist between Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UVF and the UDA, and racist violence which targets ethnic minorities.
A selection of these attacks and convictions are presented below:
- 12 October 2013: The new home of a Zimbabwean family was daubed with racist graffiti in an overnight attack in Loyalist Bloomfield Drive in East Belfast. The family was due to move into the house, having moved from another part of Belfast due to racism. The PSNI confirmed they were treating the attack – in which ‘No Blacks’ was painted on the front of the property – as a racially-motivated hate crime. (Belfast Telegraph, 17 October 2013)
- 25 September 2013: A hatchet was thrown through the window of a family home in Loyalist Sandy Row area of south-central Belfast. Nigerian mother of two, Adenike Yisa, who had been resident in Northern Ireland for almost ten years but only lived in Sandy Row for a year, was on the sofa in the living room when a hatchet was smashed through the window. Speaking to the Guardian about the attack she said, ‘I was really, really upset,’ she said. ‘I have never been in that situation in my life. I only moved into that house about a year ago and never had any trouble. When I heard the noise I thought it was a shot, then I saw the axe or hatchet and the big hole in my window. I was screaming at the top of my voice and shaking like a leaf. Luckily my children were in their rooms. I didn’t see whoever did this, but think it was because of the colour of my skin.’ The PSNI confirmed they were treating the attack as a racially-motivated hate crime. (Guardian, 25 September 2013)
- 18 September 2013: At the trial of Gary Smyth, Lithuanian residents in Dungannon, County Tyrone, expressed their terror stemming from repeated attacks on their homes. Smyth (30), faced charges of criminal damage, disorderly behaviour, attempted intimidation and threats to kill. Testifying at the High Court in Belfast, the Lithuanian residents told how paint was thrown over three of their cars, a brick was thrown through the front window of a home, and a swastika was daubed on the garage door alongside racist graffiti declaring ‘non-nationals must go’. A Lithuanian woman, claiming to have recognised Mr Smyth outside her property on 25 August 2013, alleged he ran across the street shouting ‘Fucking bastards, fucking foreigners, get out now.’ Refusing bail, found him guilty of ‘violent conduct, terrorising innocent people on the basis of their race.’ (Mid-Ulster Mail, 18 September 2013). Mr. Smyth was previously remanded in custody in 2004 following allegations that he was in possession of a petrol bomb and also throwing a petrol bomb with intent to damage the property of Dungannon District Council and cause personal injury to local people and non-nationals. The charges related to an alleged incident in Dungannon town centre when a device was thrown at a group of Portuguese people. No one was injured in the attack at Market Square as the device burnt itself out. (BBC News, 16 August 2004)
- 19 August 2013: The home of a Nigerian man in Loyalist East Belfast was vandalised and daubed in racist graffiti in an overnight attack. A window and a door pane were broken at the rented property, with ‘No Blacks’ painted several times on the front of the house. Although a resident of Belfast for eight years, the 27-year-old Nigerian national had only been living at the residence for a few days before the attack. Speaking to UTV News, the man expressed his desire to move out of the property in the aftermath, saying, ‘It feels horrible. I’ve been living in Belfast for eight years and I’ve never experienced anything like this before. It’s scary to be honest. Ever since I moved here, I have been working every day. To experience something like this it just makes you want to move out. They should be ashamed of themselves. Being a black human person living in Belfast, if that’s a crime, that’s the only crime I’ve committed.’ (UTV News, 19 August 2013)
- 18 August 2013: A number of cars, a wall and a flat were daubed in racist graffiti in the Loyalist Coolcush Court and Lisnaclin Court areas of Dungannon. Inspector Jamieson of the PSNI, treating the incident as a hate crime, condemned the attack and appealed for witnesses, saying, ‘This is a mindless and shameful attack on innocent members of the community and I would urge anyone with information to come forward.’ (Tyrone Times, 23 August 2013)
- 17 August 2013: A male parking attendant in the Market Street area of Armagh was racially abused and pushed by a man. The victim, who had worked in the city for several months, was offered support by the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) following the attack. (Ulster Gazette, 22 August 2013)
- 10 June, 2013: Two men, including a footballer who had played for the Northern Ireland junior international team, were jailed for a racist attack on a Polish man, Damien Wesolowski, in East Belfast. On 13 July 2011, the two men – Ryan Newberry (23), a Glentoran footballer, and David Wilton (25) – vandalised the house of Mr Wesolowski, kicking in the front door of the property and smashing a window. They then chased the victim from his home into the street where they left him lying semi-conscious after assaulting him. Mr Wesolowski, who had been beaten about the head and face, sustained serious injuries – including lacerations to the nose and mouth, suspected fractures and bruising. Sentencing the pair, the judge concluded the attack had ‘severe racist and sectarian overtones’. Newberry and Wilton were sentenced to 18 months and 21 months respectively. (BBC News, 10 June 2013)
- 23 May, 2013: The day after the murder of Lee Rigby, the Belfast Islamic Centre was subject to a paint-bomb attack. According to witnesses, two teenage boys were seen running from the scene, in Wellington Park, at approximately 10pm. The PSNI treatied the incident as a hate crime. (Newsletter, 24 May 2013)
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.