Legacy of intolerance: racism and Unionism in South Belfast

February 10, 2004 — Comment

Written by Bill Rolston

What lies behind the recent spate of racist attacks on Africans and Asians in the Village, a Unionist stronghold in south Belfast?

On 6 February 2004 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) announced that it had stood down its commander in the Village area of South Belfast. Such a move is rare among the North’s loyalist paramilitary groups, and is usually linked to major power struggles within the organisation concerned over issues of military strategy, moves toward peace, control of weapons, or all to often, over territorial control of the drug trade. But this action related to something entirely different: the occurrence of a spate of racist attacks in the Village area. To begin to understand the connection between racism and the demotion of a local ‘warlord’, it is necessary to look a bit more closely at the area itself.

New residents

The Village consists of about a dozen streets of small tenement houses. It is bounded by busy roads, a motorway and a railway line, with no possibility of expansion in any direction. On the contrary, beyond these barriers are processes afoot which seem to threaten the survival of the area. A large area of commercial outlets – B&Q, Homebase, car showrooms, etc. – moves closer to the working-class homes with every passing year. And on the other side of the railway line is cosmopolitan South Belfast, with Queen’s University, offices, numerous restaurants and the City Hospital. Many previously owner-occupied houses in South Belfast are now owned by landlords and rented out to students, nurses, young professionals and others. The pressure on property is immense, and landlords can charge higher rents than they could elsewhere in the city.

Given that, it was inevitable that the private-rented sector would push its way towards and into the Village. Most of the houses in the Village are rented from the state housing authority, although some residents have taken the opportunity to buy their homes. But now new, expensive, private apartments overlook the railway line yards away from the working class tenements. And landlords (including, amazingly, a large number of investors from the South of Ireland, flush with profits from the Celtic tiger) have seized every chance to buy houses which have gone on sale in the Village and turned them to multiple occupancy. There are now university students, Catholic as well as Protestant, Filipino nurses, Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi food retail workers, African students and nurses, and some eastern Europeans living in the area.

This has been a sudden and profound change for the Village. It was once somewhat mixed, but the minority of Catholics who lived in the area were forced out between 1969 and 1971, with the start of the ‘troubles’. Since that time the area has been not only Protestant in character, but also staunchly loyalist. In the early and mid-1970s it boasted a small paramilitary force which called itself the Village Assassination Squad, and, true to its name, it was responsible for the murder of a number of unsuspecting Catholics who worked nearby or who made the mistake of taking a short cut through the area on the way home at night. Even today almost every gable wall in the area sports a militaristic wall mural. The difference from the 1970s, though, is that there are two main loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), each with deep roots in the area. Throughout the North overall the UDA is the larger group, but in the Village area they seem to be evenly represented. Consequently each group has taken alternate gable walls for its own murals, and some walls as yet unpainted are marked as ‘reserved’ by whichever organisation believes that the balance of visual display is about to be upset.

Initimidation

Between them, the UVF and the UDA control the Village. 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 is why the local reaction to the recent arrival of outsiders is significant. A few summers ago, the UDA posted the area with notices warning any Catholic students renting in the area to move out. And in the past few months there has been a rise of attacks on minority ethnic people in the area. A Pakistani family moved out less than a day after moving in when a plank of wood was thrown through their window. A Chinese couple, including a pregnant woman, were beaten and forced out just before Christmas. A Zimbabwean woman had to leave at a moment’s notice after direct threats. Local minority ethnic people tell of being visited at night by men who force their way into their homes, taking stereos, televisions, etc. and telling them: ‘You won’t be needing these; you’ll be leaving soon’. And a local estate agent received a visit from some ‘heavies’ who advised him not to rent to any more foreigners.

As widespread condemnation of the people behind this racist intimidation grew, denials emerged from certain quarters in the Village. Locals told the Observer that the attacks were being carried out by a gang of burglars eager to divert attention from their criminal activities! More seriously, the political representatives of the political groups linked to the two paramilitary groups – the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), linked to the UVF, and the Ulster Political Research Group, linked to the UDA – denied that the respective paramilitary groups were involved. At the same time, the police stated that it was their belief that there was local paramilitary involvement.

The allegation was particularly troubling for the PUP and its party leader David Ervine. Although the smaller of the loyalist paramilitary groups overall, the PUP sees itself as the more principled. The UVF calls itself ‘the people’s army’, a title with an almost anti-colonial ring to it, and the PUP has aspirations to being a socialist grouping. It is unusual for either group to have a good word to say about the UDA, which is regarded as a federal and disjointed organisation, infiltrated by British security spies, and riven by frequent turf wars over guns and drugs. Ervine was incandescent at suggestions that the UVF might be involved and on numerous radio and television interviews seemed determined to get to the root of the matter.

Racism on the rise

In the end, it turns out it was the UVF. And it is to its credit that it has had the courage to sack its local boss. There has been no public statement of admission, and no public apology to the minority ethnic people affected. That said, as symbols go, the sacking of a local warlord is a particularly powerful one.

It would be comforting to believe that all is now well. But while the spotlight in recent months has been on the Village, the problem has been far from confined to this local area. Racist attacks have been on the rise throughout the North in recent years, not just in Belfast, but also in County Antrim, north of Belfast. To the west, there has been widespread opposition to an attempt by Northern Ireland’s Muslims to acquire planning permission to build a mosque in Craigavon. There are at least two factors which can help explain this phenomenon.

First, unionism/loyalism is a relatively broad church, containing as it has done in recent decades people like the Rev. Robert Bradford, former Westminster MP for South Belfast, who espoused the beliefs of the British-Israelite Society (that the British race is descended from the lost tribes of Israel), and others to the left of the political spectrum. But it is a political position which is circumscribed by the very foundation of the Northern Ireland state. When Ireland was partitioned, northern unionists abandoned their fellows in three counties of historic Ulster (Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) and went for self-government of six counties on the grounds that they could continue to maintain a majority over nationalists in six counties much easier than in nine. As a result, there is a strong strain in unionism which encourages protectionism, conservatism, narrowness of vision and opposition to anything which may threaten its need to be in the majority. Traditionally, the threat to majority has been seen to come from the nationalist community. But it is a small step to extend one’s attention to any new ‘threats’, including those from the minority ethnic community. Thus those unionists of Craigavon who oppose the mosque have not suddenly discovered a streak of intolerance which was not there before; they have been intolerant of nationalists for generations. And the loyalists of the Village have likewise in the past shown their intolerance towards Catholics in their midst; it is not a major step to apply the same principles and tactics to others who move into the area. While PUP chair David Ervine may condemn his fellow loyalists who act in this way, just as Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble has condemned the councillors of his own party who have opposed the building of a mosque, intolerance within unionism is a legacy which has not been overcome by recent peace moves, modernisation or realpolitik.

Links to British fascism

There is also a more immediate factor involved in the rise of racism. Sections of loyalism in particular have had an on-again, off-again relationship with fascist groups in Britain over the last three decades. Often it has been to the mutual benefit of both groups to collaborate; thus loyalist links to Scottish fascists have produced funds and weapons for the loyalists while raising the profile of the fascists. At the same time, the relationship has often been a fraught one; thus, when the National Front opened up an office in East Belfast in the 1970s, it did so with the blessing of the UDA. But the UDA later closed down the office and sent the National Front packing when they discovered that they were accepting membership from Catholic fascists as well as Protestant ones! The North is obviously attractive, almost virgin territory for British fascists. But it is territory in which they often run afoul of the splits and turf wars between loyalists. Combat 18, for example, managed to make some valuable (from their point of view) inroads in teaming up with Johnny Adair, the boss of Belfast’s Shankill Road C Company of the UDA in recent years. As Adair wooed the Loyalist Volunteer Force in Portadown – in an attempt to create an alternative empire to challenge the other commanders in his own organisation, the UDA – Combat 18 found its way into that area too. But the British fascists backed the wrong horse in this instance. Adair is currently in prison, his empire is under new management, his supporters in the Shankill have been forced out to Bolton (where Combat 18 supporters helped them resettle) and Combat 18 is no longer wanted by the UDA. Combat 18’s links have not been only with the UDA, however, and in fact, with losing the UDA connection, their connection to the UVF undoubtedly became all the more important. It is significant therefore that the recently demoted UVF commander of the Village had links with Combat 18.

Combat 18 is not alone in targeting the North. The British National Party is planning to run candidates in council elections in Northern Ireland. The White Nationalist Party claims to have 80 members in Antrim, Belfast and Portadown and has leafleted Craigavon in opposition to the possible mosque: ‘This is Ulster not Islamabad. No mosques here’. The heartland of loyalism is seen by the British far-Right as fertile recruiting ground.

Racism in West Belfast?

On the other side of the political divide in the North, things appear different. While most members of all major political parties in the North have publicly condemned racist attacks, it was left to Sinn Féin councillors in Belfast City Council to launch an anti-racist charter for local councils in July 2003. At the same time, it would be wrong to believe that there were parts of Northern Ireland that are not and never could be guilty of racism. The largest nationalist area of Belfast is West Belfast; it is the cockpit of Sinn Féin’s political rise, the area which has elected Gerry Adams as Westminster MP. It boasts a high-circulation paper, the Andersonstown News. At the time when Sinn Féin councillors launched the anti-racism charter, the editor of the newspaper seized the opportunity to warn against smugness. ‘There are those within the nationalist/republican community feeling very smug about the racist attacks which have taken place lately… It’s comforting for this community to believe that racism is the sole preserve of tattooed loyalists with a bit of time to kill before the next drug deal.’ But he goes on to put the matter in perspective: ‘Because there’s not the same number of black people in West Belfast as you’ll find in the south of the city, or hostels full of asylum-seekers on the Andytown or Falls Road… we don’t get to find out whether the language of hate translates into hate crime.’ He then proceeds to recount the way in which local people easily tell racist jokes or use offensive language. It is a timely message. For, to paraphrase Brecht, racism is undoubtedly a bitch in heat in Northern Ireland at the moment. And there’s no telling how large the litter will be.

Related links

Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities

Bill Rolston is a professor of sociology at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. His books include Unfinished Business: state killings and the quest for truth (Belfast, Beyond the Pale, 2000) and, with Michael Shannon, Encounters: how racism came to Ireland (Beyond the Pale, 2002).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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