Loyalist communities could be forgiven for feeling rather confused these days. The Conservative and Labour parties are outdoing one another in their proposals to control immigration. Both are saying that they failed to recognise the problems created by uncontrolled immigration, particularly for working class communities. The Labour Party in particular has criticised recruitment agencies which have recruited almost exclusively from Eastern European countries.
However Loyalist communities have been widely criticised for complaining about the pressures arising from trying to integrate minority ethnic newcomers. In certain quarters (including some media outlets who should know better) loyalist communities have been vilified as institutionally racist. The ‘hate capital of Europe’ being the most lurid and exaggerated epithet thrown in their direction.
There are two wrongs contained in this narrative. The first is racism and, let’s be clear, this is not just wrong but destructive and pernicious. The second is that Loyalist communities are endemically racist. I know from first hand experience that working class communities from both the main traditions have done excellent work welcoming, supporting and integrating newcomers.
That is not to deny that racism exists; regrettably it does and racist crimes occur but they are not endorsed or supported by the wider community. We should do more to challenge racist views and the myths that purport to justify them. The recently published document ‘I’m not a racist but…‘ convincingly contradicts many of these myths but statistics can mislead and conceal genuine inequalities. We need to recognise that the burden of welcoming, supporting and integrating newcomers is not spread evenly across our society. While only 3% of primary school children are newcomers the percentage is much higher in some schools which are, in some cases, already struggling to cope. The burden is disproportionately borne by working class communities; those who have least are being asked to make the greatest contribution to this task. The communities which have been hardest hit by the economic downturn and austerity measures are being asked to shoulder the lion’s share of this challenge. The areas where there is a shortage of social housing, under performing schools and high unemployment are the areas which have to assimilate new cultures, languages and practices. They need help.
The Creating Cohesive Community Project in the Lower Ormeau and Botanic areas is an excellent example of how communities can accommodate newcomers and embrace difference. But it did not just happen. It required talented and motivated people, funding and a multi-agency approach to achieve its goals.
There are proposals for a similar project in East Belfast. The community has responded to recent racist incidents by putting together a very comprehensive and achievable strategy. These measures do not require huge sums of money but with talk of cutbacks it seems they are being ignored. The Executive must take this task seriously and give it priority.
Furthermore, rather than criticise communities because of their struggle to integrate ethnic minorities, our better off middle class constituents who are much less affected by the newcomers should consider how they can share the burden.
A pressing need is for more social housing. There is an unacceptably high number of voids- social housing units unoccupied and needing refurbishment. If we are serious about relieving housing pressure then why not increase domestic rates to create a fund for refurbished rental accommodation?
Primary schools which are already coping with high numbers of children with special needs could benefit from extra support to help children whose first language is not English. The education budget should be apportioned to recognise this challenge or increased to meet it.
We will never completely eradicate racism but more support from our better off citizens could make a huge difference to relieving the pressure on already stressed and financially stretched communities. This is acting in the common good, and what’s more it’s only fair.