David McKittrick: Northern Ireland has united to combat racism

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The Independent Online

The terrified Romanians huddling for safety in a Belfast leisure centre will derive little consolation from it, but Northern Ireland has made considerable efforts to combat racism.

Within the past decade, funding for anti-racist initiatives has been increased, new laws have been brought in, and representatives from across the political spectrum have denounced racist attacks.

It was once claimed that "racism is the new sectarianism", but this has not turned out to be the case. However, although race crime is not widespread, nor has Belfast proven to be a safe haven for immigrants. Events like those this week are not isolated, and many anti-racist incidents have occurred without being publicised or reported to police.

Nearly all those involved in anti-racist work agree that the attacks do not have mass support in local communities and normally involve a small number of local youths. Until the last decade, little attention was paid to the type of low-level racism endured by immigrants such as Belfast's long-established Chinese community.

Unsurprisingly, the numbers arriving in Northern Ireland were low during the Troubles. As more foreigners arrived, the number of racist incidents grew, with almost 300 registered in 2004 as the population of ethnic minorities rose to 30,000. Most often they involved attacks on individuals or on homes, sometimes involving the use of petrol bombs. Those affected included blacks, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, Lithuanians, Poles and Muslims. A majority of cases take place in, or close to, tough loyalist areas. A few loyalists have sympathies with right-wing groups in Britain, which occasionally surface in Northern Ireland and Combat 18 stickers have been seen from time to time, featuring swastikas and "Keep Ulster white" slogans.

And though the law, and society in general, have combined to combat racist attacks – and may well have reduced them – the bottom line is that gangs of lawless youths can still seriously blight the lives of migrant families.

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