Darcus Howe fears the racists of Belfast

In Belfast, I was warned, a black man should not go out alone at night

A few days ago, I was in Belfast to be interviewed at the BBC studios about my participation in the Belfast Film Festival, which featured anti-racism as its theme. I had been warned by Sean, who picked me up at the airport, that Belfast had earned the title of "most racist city in the world". He could speak confidently: he was at one time an IRA volunteer and he spent six years in the Maze Prison for possession of arms. Born and bred a west Belfast boy, he knows the city like the back of his hand.

He told me of an African man who had recently been dragged out of his house and beaten almost to death by a loyalist gang. The victim was a successful asylum-seeker who had been despatched to a loyalist area of Belfast by the housing authorities. Belfast has lots of experience of ethnic cleansing. Once used against those of a different religion, it is now being practised on blacks. It is short, sharp and brutish. For example, Jamal, a Palestinian born in Jordan, has had to move house on two occasions, overnight.

As I was packing to return to London, Michael Howard announced his immigration policy on the radio. I am certain of one thing: Howard does not have white Americans, white Zimbabweans, white South Africans, or white Australians in his sights. His previous references to disease, immigrants, spongers and the rest point directly to those of us with dark skins, and the working-class communities of Belfast and elsewhere understand his campaign and respond accordingly.

Sean said I should not go out alone at night in Belfast, and that if I did, I should travel by car. I obeyed him even though I have lived for 44 years in the UK. I recall similar circumstances when I first arrived. Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan, had been murdered a few years earlier, and certain areas in London weren't that much different from the Belfast of today.

Soon after I came to Britain, a Tory parliamentary candidate called Peter Griffiths introduced the issue of immigration in a notorious by-election at Smethwick, in the Midlands. He raised the slogan: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour". Howard is not quite so crude, but he is no less effective in targeting black people. Even if I walked the streets of Belfast with a placard saying that I am a citizen who has lived here for so many years, the brutes would make little distinction between me and the African who was beaten to within an inch of his life.