More than one hundred Romanians have been forced from their Belfast homes and are in hiding under armed police protection after a series of coordinated racist attacks. These attacks, coming just weeks after a racist riot in Luton, demonstrate worsening threats of racist violence.
The Romanian families had been living in a predominantly Loyalist area of the city, the working class “Village” community close to Queens University. Earlier this year Polish nationals were attacked in the same area and forced from their homes. It seems that a process of “ethnic cleansing” is underway.
The blame for these attacks, however, does not lie directly with traditional Loyalist activists or their paramilitary organisations. They claim not to have directed and have condemned the attacks. But decades of communal sectarianism and the historical links between Loyalist organisations and racism cannot be ignored, must have contributed to the levels of racism is Northern Ireland, Belfast in particular. The numerically significant Chinese population, along with other groups, have long been targets of racial hatred.
Those who coordinated the attacks appear to have links to fascist organisations, or are at least adopting fascist slogans and symbols for their own ends. A group calling itself “Loyalist Combat 18” (“18” standing for AH, the initials of Adolf Hitler) has claimed responsibility and according to the Observer on 21 June, has been coordinating attacks and sending threats via text messages.
Combat 18 was formed in the early 1990s by members of the BNP’s “security team” who left the party in opposition to its electoral focus. For a time C18 posed a significant threat to minority groups and the left, claiming responsibility for a series of brutal attacks. In recent years it has shrivelled after many members were arrested.
In Northern Ireland C18 members have worked to support Loyalist violence but their main public activity has been racist graffiti and attacks on the graves of Republicans. The ethnic cleansing of the “Village”, assuming C18 are responsible, marks a significant and worrying departure from their previous patterns of organisation and action.
The rise of racist violence in Northern Ireland is linked to a number of things: the fallout of the economic crisis, rise in unemployment and changes in the established political parties. But there are other factors.
With Loyalist paramilitaries decommissioning their weapons and presumably downgrading their organisational activities, many hundreds of young people schooled in sectarian hatred — people who would have been recruited into paramilitary organisations — have nowhere to go. The British National Party, which has announced its desire to expand in Northern Ireland, could be a focus. The BNP has recently opened an office and “call-centre” in Northern Ireland. Just as in England, there will be a substantial cross-over between membership of C18 and groups like the BNP.
Anti-racist and community groups have demonstrated in Belfast against the attacks. Such a rally is a good starting point for what will have to be a consistent, mass campaign against both C18’s violence and attempts by the BNP to gain a foot-hold. Such a campaign will have to coordinate self-defence and take direct action against the racist thugs — the police service has already shown itself incapable of responding effectively. But it will also have to debate political alternatives that can address both the worsening economic crisis and the sectarian legacy of Northern Ireland.