“Hello, garbage.” Ayesha* was walking her youngest daughter to school in south Belfast when a passerby made the cruel jibe. It isn’t the first time the Saudi student and her family have been targeted since moving to Northern Ireland two years ago.
“People have shouted ‘bomb’ and ‘Isis’ at me,” says Ayesha, who wears the niqab. “I was with my teenage daughter when a woman in the passenger seat of a van rolled down the window and yelled, ‘Take off your fucking mask, ninja.’ Last week, a man in the Botanic Gardens started doing karate moves and asked me to fight him. I was afraid he would do something.” She avoids going out after 4pm and sticks to areas with CCTV monitoring. “I don’t feel safe,” she admits.
Ayesha’s experience is all too familiar in the so-called post-conflict Northern Ireland, where race hate crimes continue to rise. Earlier this year, the Belfast Islamic Centre surveyed Muslims living in the region and found more than half had been verbally abused and one in ten physically assaulted. Last year, a pig’s head was left on the doorstep of a mosque in Newtownards, and Islamophobic graffiti scrawled across its walls.
Blogs and Facebook posts including pictures of local Muslim women have called for a “cleansing”, while figures published last month by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey revealed more than half of those questioned would not willingly accept a Muslim as a relative through marriage.
It’s not just the Islamic community under attack. Police figures show racially-motivated crimes now exceed those connected to sectarian bigotry. In June, a woman called a mixed-race toddler a n***** outside west Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery – the area where I grew up.Mark*, who moved to Belfast from Jamaica in 2000, isn’t surprised. “Every child at my son’s nursery had a gold star sticker placed above their coat hook. Someone put a monkey above his peg. The nursery said it wasn’t intentional, but he’s the only black child there.”
In the Afro-Caribbean youth group Mark runs, “all of the kids have experienced racism, but not a single one has reported it. They just accept it as part of living here”. According to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, almost three people from ethnic minorities are attacked in some way every day. “This doesn’t give the full picture,” Mark insists.
I was born and raised in Belfast near the staunchly nationalist Falls Road. I had a great aunt who would bless herself whenever we went anywhere “foreign” and no one batted an eyelid when, at Mass, the priest announced the parish was doing a collection for the “black babies”. Generally speaking, though, that was as far as the prejudice went. Catholics and Protestants were too busy directing their vitriol at each other to bother hating on outsiders. The same can’t be said for my hometown today.
When I moved to Dublin in 2001, a truce had been called. The Good Friday Agreement promised a fresh start. Despite the uncertainty around Brexit and the Irish border, and a devolved government which hasn’t sat for 18 months, by and large, life in Northern Ireland has flourished – it’s the fourth most prosperous region in the UK. Visit Belfast today and you can expect cafe culture, a lively music and comedy scene, and a more diverse range of faces than ever before. If you were unaware of the ruling DUP’s pro-life, anti-gay, climate-denying positions, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in any other cosmopolitan city.
Yet in recent months, far-right groups have gained a foothold in the Northern Irish capital. Generation Identity has held half a dozen protests in Belfast since last August. Its “ethnopluralist” stance – the belief that different ethnic groups should live in separation from one another – appears to resonate with those who haven’t had a slice of the post-peace pie.
“The vast majority of people have been left behind,” explains Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit. “There’s this idea that migrants are taking our jobs and threatening our services. This is propagated by politicians – the DUP have done nothing to condemn white supremacist groups – and has trickled down to organisations that are trying to maintain influence in working-class areas.”
To be fair to the DUP, in theory it takes a more liberal view on immigration than the Tories. The party’s general election manifesto called for an “effective” immigration policy “which meets the skills, labour and security needs of the UK”. Yet in practice, it is plagued by controversy. In 2016, DUP leader Arlene Foster backed her colleague Sammy Wilson, who was caught on video appearing to agree with a member of the public wanting to “get the ethics out” (he later denied these were his views). The same year, former Alliance MLA Anna Lo accused the DUP of being the most racist party in Northern Ireland after the Chinese-born parliamentarian quit politics over abuse from loyalists.
While race-motivated hate crimes take place on both sides of the divide, the PSNI says the majority of incidents happen in loyalist areas, where recently, a number of Confederate flags (and previously, Swastikas and a KKK banner) have been spotted. It’s tempting to draw parallels between a Protestant working class that feels left behind and Trump’s disaffected rust-belt base.
Peter Shirlow, director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and author of The End of Ulster Loyalism? rejects this narrative. “More migrants tend to live in Protestant working-class communities because of the availability of cheap housing. What you’ve got is a Protestant community that’s demographically in decline and a Catholic community that’s still growing. If you map the violence to location, you find the relationship is between the availability of housing and violence, which then becomes Protestant. Within loyalism there are people working in anti-racism projects and there are also those who are racist. It’s that division between the two that defines the way they’re responding to migrants within their communities.”
The loyalist bigot is a common and unhelpful trope and clearly, efforts are being made within loyalist communities to stamp out racism. Restorative justice organisations such as East Belfast Alternatives runs a race relations and hate crimes programme. But the PSNI has acknowledged a link between racist violence and loyalist paramilitaries.
In a society built on separation and distrust, where tribalism is alive and well, these groups present themselves as defenders against the perceived threat of a communal identity. Only now, ethnic minorities are the unwelcome outsiders – a legacy of Northern Ireland’s unresolved sectarian past.
Despite the increased hostility, Mark has never been considered leaving Belfast. “This is home. There are a lot of very lovely people in Northern Ireland, but sadly, some are giving it a bad name. To those who say ‘this isn’t us, this isn’t what we want for our country’, they need to come forward and help migrants living here. Because we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
Alix O’Neill is a freelance journalist. She tweets @AlixONeill.