We have Brendan O’Neill from Spiked! guesting with us again… This time to document and comment upon the tide of critical comment often stereotyping the Northern Irish as people who simply cannot get over their own inherited hatreds… In fact, he goes on to argue, that the divide and rule nature of the state(let)’s administration is what has allowed hatred to breed down the generations…By Brendan O’Neill
The attacks on Romanian families by bottle-throwing gangs in south Belfast were shocking. But so has been the response to the attacks. Political observers are treating this, not as a rare instance of violence carried out by a small minority, but as evidence that the people of Northern Ireland are addicted to hatred and enslaved by a culture of intolerance. Reading some of the commentary, it is clear that many now see working-class communities in Northern Ireland, especially the Protestant ones, as a truly alien presence in the United Kingdom.
During the conflict from 1969 to 1994, many British commentators fancied themselves as anthropologists more than reporters in Northern Ireland, seeking to work out why this part of the world was so warped. They treated us to column inch after column inch of cod-psychology on the deeply ingrained hatreds, the voices of history, the mental delusion of republicans who were in thrall to the power of arms, blood sacrifice and dead children to bring a united Ireland into being. This failure of political analysis, in favour of Joseph Conrad-style handwringing about Northern Irelands heart of darkness, is making a comeback in relation to the Romanian story.
Everyone seems to agree that there is a free-floating culture of hate in Northern Ireland, which attaches itself to different people at different times. Neil Jarman of the Institute of Conflict Research says the attacks on Romanians can be seen as a legacy of sectarianism, which created a sub-culture in which anyone slightly different becomes a target for intimidation. The Times says Northern Ireland has a culture of intolerance, linking the attacks on Romanians with Northern Irelands home-grown brand of racism (sectarianism) and the spectrum of emotions – from antipathy to hatred – that has existed for centuries between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
In newspaper editorials and statements from the PSNI, the phrase racism is the new sectarianism pops up again and again – the implication being that, gutted the exciting sectarian conflict has fizzled out, people are now applying their hatred to other groups. With not a hint of irony, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP – a party that did more than its fair share to stoke sectarian tensions during the Troubles – said that just as sectarianism has been responsible for violence in the past we have to be equally clear that racism cannot become the new sectarianism. The idea is that people are seeking a new outlet for their subcultural intolerance, and the authorities – the police, the DUP – must stop them.
This outlook was taken to its logical conclusion in a demented outburst by possible parliamentary candidate Esther Rantzen on BBC Question Time last night. She described Northern Ireland as a nation that had been riven by racial loathing, [with] the two populations hating each other, and said now there erupts a new racism, as if theyre addicted to hatred, as if theyre addicted to violence, as if it gives them an exhilaration and a sense of identity. One grisly episode in south Belfast is used to depict everyone in Northern Ireland as hateful automatons, despite the fact that many people have taken a stand against the attacks on Romanians.
Meanwhile, in keeping with mainstream ideas of a new sectarianism, newspaper discussion threads have been stuffed with the kind of comments on Northern Ireland most of us thought had died out in the early 1990s. One online discussant says the small-minded knuckle-scrapers of Belfast are looking for a new bogeyman to vent their frustrations at.
This kind of commentary, the argument that the old sectarianism has simply mutated into a new kind of racism, obscures any serious understanding of both the past and the present: it overlooks the political factors that created and sustained sectarian tensions in recent decades, and overlooks the fact that anti-immigrant attacks today are mercifully rare. The sectarianism that existed for much of the twentieth century was not the product of some historically-embedded, irrational, free-floating animosity between Catholics and Protestants; rather it was the creation of the British-Unionist policy of divide and rule in a self-defined sectarian state that explicitly pitted one community against the other. And for all the shrill claims about people in Northern Ireland still being addicted to hatred, the truth is that, while recorded racist incidents may have risen in real terms, they are falling relative to the number of migrants.
Perhaps worst of all, the discussion of a new outburst of natural hatred has allowed those who were responsible both for stoking sectarianism in the past and for consigning Romanian migrants to overcrowded housing today – the authorities of Northern Ireland – to pose now as enlightened warriors against ordinary peoples hateful ways.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty