Attacked Romanians heading for home

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The Independent Online

Up to 100 Romanians are to quit Northern Ireland after a series of racist attacks, it was revealed today.

Twenty-five have already left and another 75 are planning to return home, Stormont minister Margaret Ritchie disclosed. Air fares are being paid out of an emergency fund.

Just 17 who were caught up in the violence in Belfast last week, when families were offered temporary accommodation, have decided to stay on.

Ms Ritchie, the minister for social development, said she deeply regretted the decision by the Romanians to leave.

She said: "We are not a racist society, but it's now time we took a serious look at ourselves. There is now an urgency and an imperative to build a shared society.

"We live apart. We are educated apart, and therefore it is no surprise that this is a them and us attitude. We have to work to challenge that attitude. There must be total respect for political, religious and ethnic differences."

Details of the evacuation emerged just hours after a church which offered sanctuary to the 100 Romanians when they fled their homes was attacked overnight.

The windows of City Church in University Avenue, south Belfast, were smashed by stone-throwers.

Pastor Malcolm Morgan discovered the damage when he arrived this morning.

He said: "I arrived at 7am and found several windows smashed at the front of our church and the main door windows smashed.

"There were stones lying scattered on the floor inside and outside and obviously broken glass all around."

Mr Morgan said the church had never been attacked in such a way before but added that it was only speculation that it was connected to the help the church gave to the 22 Romanian families.

"It would be easy to conclude that it was someone who did not like our work with the Romanians, but that is only guesswork.

"If it is, I think that is very sad. We had nothing but positive comments all last week - so many emails and local folk thanking us - so it was quite a surprise this morning," he said.

He said he did not regret what he had done for the migrant workers.

"Absolutely not. I was just thrilled we, as a church, were able to respond last week and we would do the same tomorrow."

The Romanians - 115 people, including 49 children - spent a night in the church hall before being found temporary accommodation in student homes left empty for the summer holidays.

They fled their homes after a series of racist attacks.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said they were investigating the attack on the church and appealed for information.

A number of items were taken away for examination, said a spokeswoman, who said a motive was being investigated.

Meanwhile, a 21-year-old man was due to appear in court later today charged with intimidating Romanians.

The suspect is also accused of provocative behaviour during disturbances earlier this month which saw the migrants flee their homes in south Belfast.

Politicians have appealed for unity and the Romanian ambassador visited Belfast last week in a sign of solidarity with the displaced.

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness branded the attack on the church "totally and absolutely wrong, totally shameful and totally unforgivable".

He said the church and its pastor, Mr Morgan, had been an inspiration in recent weeks and a symbol of goodness in their help for the Romanian families.

He said that, while it was still only speculation that the attack on the church was linked to the attacks on the Romanian families, it seemed likely, and the breaking of the leaded windows is understood to have been caught on CCTV cameras.

Mr McGuiness said: "I fully expect, in the course in the next number of hours, we will see arrests. Those responsible need to be apprehended."

He said that, in all likelihood, those who were responsible would turn out to be young people.

He added: "One of the things that does concern me over the events in Belfast over the course of the last number of weeks is the slogan shouting of Combat 18 and the writing on walls of Combat 18.

"It strikes me, people - young people in all probability - have been watching what has happened over recent weeks in the European elections in England and the so-called success of the British National Party.

"So there is a real danger here of a copycat situation taking place. That is highly regrettable."

He said it presented a real challenge to society and to politicians.

He added that the vast majority of the population were against sectarianism and against racism.

But he said: "There are an awful lot of sectarian bigots and racist bigots within our society, of that there can be no doubt.

"What we need to see is a coming together of all the political institutions and the politicians to lead by example."

Mr McGuiness, who visited the church and Mr Morgan with Belfast's Lord Mayor, Naomi Long, to inspect the damage, said that, if politicians did not lead by example and speak with one voice, "We are doomed to revisit this in the coming weeks and months".

Mr McGuinness said it was very sad that most of the Romanians had decided to go home - but perfectly understandable given their experiences.

He said when he visited them after they took refuge in the church every one had wanted to go home.

"I made it clear to them we would support whatever decision they took but I passionately wanted them to stay, so I'm actually quite pleased that 14 have decided to stay. I think that is to be welcomed."

Ms Long said some of those who were returning to Romania were doing so to reassure families there who were concerned about them.

"I would be hopeful, from our conversations with them, that some will return in the future to Belfast."

Mr Morgan said a few broken windows "was a small price to pay" for the help the church had been able to give the Romanian families.

He said most people in the community were welcoming and only a small minority was responsible for what happened.

"The community in this locality have been superb with their support. We have had so many phone calls this morning and donations given," he said.

The pastor said he would not be deterred by the attack and would do the same again should help be needed.

"This will always be a safe refuge. Our doors are always open and if it happens again our doors will still be open."

Two more teenagers were today being questioned by police about the attacks on the Romanian families last week.

The pair, aged 16 and 17, were arrested in south Belfast late last night on suspicion of provocative conduct and intimidation, said a police spokesman.

Yesterday, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old appeared in court charged in relation to the racism and a 21-year-old was appearing in court today accused of provocative behaviour.

Three men were arrested today by police investigating the attack on the church.

The men, all aged 20, were arrested at Carmel Street in south Belfast, just around the corner from the damaged church.

Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Sir Hugh said he respected the decision of the Romanian families to leave but stressed he was confident his officers had done their best to make sure they could feel safe staying.

"I respect anyone's right to live where they want to and my job is to keep them safe where they want to stay," he said.

"Indeed, having met the Romanian ambassador, he was very positive in my office with my colleagues about what we had done to keep those people safe."

Sir Hugh again moved to scotch claims which surfaced last week, alleging that police had taken up to an hour and a half to respond to emergency calls from the distressed families.

"My officers were routinely at those calls within 10 minutes and on one occasion they were there within seconds," he said.

"So we take this very seriously. We will respond to those crimes and we will continue to respond to them."

In regard to last night's attack on the church, Sir Hugh said: "It shows that Northern Ireland still has to come to terms with the fact there are small numbers of people in the communities determined to drag us backwards - it's the new sectarianism, for want of a better description."

He also highlighted the work being done by community advocates to act as points of contact for minority groups and the police.

Security Minister Paul Goggins, who also condemned the attack on the church, said more had to be done for migrants to feel confident coming to the region to work.

"I think the attack on a place of worship last night was absolutely to be condemned and I think that the Romanian people know that the people of Northern Ireland by and large are deeply concerned and perplexed by the attacks that have taken place," he said.

"I am delighted and encouraged by the leadership shown by the politicians in Northern Ireland in working together to condemn this but clearly there is some way to go to make sure that people do feel safe, do feel secure in coming to work here to build a future here in Northern Ireland, which these people are perfectly at liberty to do.

"There's a lot of work to do but I know that the political leaders are up for that and I believe the community is as well."