Getting beyond Belfast’s politics of ‘the biggest bastards always win’…

However you mark it as racism, sectarianism or anti social behaviour, the running out of over 100 Roma from an area just outside The Village area of Belfast has to be one of the largest single mass migrations within Belfast since the early days of the Troubles. But like the Northern Bank robbery, it is the scale not the fact of what actually happened that’s remarkable. As the Daily Mail notes, it’s certainly not racist or even sectarian (via Mike Power) when it has happened to white, presumably UK citizens, who grew up in The Village (and the same applies in dozens of other working class areas, nationalist as well as unionist)…

In The Village, people are taking the law into their own hands. There are countless derelict, boarded-up homes after people have been ‘put out’ – slang for driven from the area. But it’s not just immigrants: many white Northern Irish families have been sent packing as well; anyone, in fact, caught indulging in ‘ antisocial behaviour’ – from having late-night parties to stealing or dealing in drugs.

Back at the Loyalist ‘den’ on wasteland, the youths say they are simply doing what their communities have done for years: policing and punishing the criminals among them. ‘Putting them out of their homes’ can even involve petrol bombs being thrown through the windows.

‘We see them [Roma] sneaking about, looking in our dad’s car windows and eyeing up our bikes,’ said one of the youths, none of whom would give their names. ‘There were fights with some of them a few weeks back. ‘We just can’t be having them doing these sorts of things. We need to stand up and be counted.’

This has become the Belfast way of dealing with ‘people we don’t like’… And it has continued unabated for several generations. The Police response (up until now) has been that it is too politically dangerous to confront the perpetrators. They dutifully do what they have to to get the victims out, sending a clear message to the paramilitaries that this arrangement somehow has the blessing of Northern Ireland’s wider society.

Yet none of us has ever been asked whether we offer that blessing or not. As Newton Emerson notes, our political classes tend to flee at first sight of any substantive policy issue that offers no overtly sectarian or tribal angle.

The Alliance Party’s European candidate Ian Parsley on his own blog notes:

The fact is that too many communities in Northern Ireland are totally ignored – by the media, by our political leaders, by our “influential” classes – until they do something which impacts upon those who do not have to live in them. It is no surprise, therefore, that sectarianism and racism continue to be so poisonous – and it is those shouting loudest about them who need to remember they have the toughest choices to make to stop the contamination. [Emphasis added]

That this story broke just as the Loyalist paramilitaries appear to be disarming serves to emphasise the truth that it is not the presence of guns that is the greatest scourge of such communities, but the idea (a toxic residue of compromises once deemed crucial to the safe working of the Peace Process) that they continue to usurp the role of Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system and policing service with utter impunity.

For now there is no sign that the political powers nor those wider “influential classes” are even prepared to acknowledge that problem, never mind begin to deal with it.

Esther Rantzen’s may just have been ranting on Thursday night when she said of the people Northern Ireland, “it’s as if they don’t know who they are unless they know who they hate…” but until Belfast politics gets beyond “the biggest bastards always win” schtick, and begin to offer some form of civic politics rather than this muted version of the tribal para-politics of old, don’t expect the people of The Village or dozens of other ‘single identity’ communities across Northern Ireland to do anything but continue to put their own needs (real and perceived) first and everyone else’s afterwards.

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