Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Look back in anger?

Question Mark from Emdashes.com's flickr account

As my head settled on the pillow, it was one of the last questions I expected to be asked.

When historians and commentators look back on life in Northern Ireland in twenty or fifty years time, what will they remark on? What will they draw attention to and criticise?

Today, people would look back and comment on the sectarianism and violence of the past thirty or more years that has so cruelly hurt our current society, and shaped the political playing field that now occupies our MLAs up at Stormont.

But what is there in today’s society that will stand out like a sore and irritating thumb in twenty, thirty or fifty years time? It’s a bit more serious than the usual AIB post, but why not?

Leave your ideas as comments, and I’ll come back to this topic in a week or so.

My starter for ten would centre around our lack of respect, fear and reaction to newcomers (even second or third generation ones) and outsiders. Western society stands against slavery and sweat shops, but are we consistent in our welcome to and treatment of immigrants and foreign workers within our own shores?

Without wanting to labour the point, here’s a few examples to back up my observation.

  • Have we not created a class of jobs in Northern Ireland that “locals would never do”. While newspapers like the Belfast Telegraph have been sold from pull-along stands on Belfast street corners since well before I was born, eastern European men seem to be the only ones willing to work as roadside distributors, standing at traffic lights in all weather to sell papers to queueing motorists for minimal reward.

  • The Chinese community have a long and successful association with Belfast. Aside from running many fine Chinese takeaways and restaurants, generations have settled into local life, schools and culture, using their skills and talent to successfully move beyond catering and hospitality into other areas of the community too. Even politics! (Topical this week!) But as NI’s religious tensions wane ever so slightly, the Chinese community’s success seems to have marked them out as a target for racism and intimidation. Take the struggle over the last three or more years to get plans approved and local support in place to build a Chinese community centre in the Donegal Pass area ... despite having jumped through the big hurdle of securing Lottery funding. Instead, leaflets were distributed claiming that the Chinese community “undermines the [Donegal Pass] community’s Britishness”. It might be a tiny minority standing in their way, but it’s still wrong.

  • Sunday morning’s Radio Ulster news carried a story about Frank Kakopa, who arrived at Belfast City Airport along with his wife and family on a flight from Liverpool (where he was working) “on a trip to visit the Giant's Causeway and the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge”. Immigration Service officials (who were at a heightened state of alertness due to an ongoing exercise) didn’t accept his valid papers, questioned him, detained him, strip searched him, and locked him up in Maghaberry Prision for two days. Isolated from his family who were left behind at the airport. And a solicitor specialising in NI immigration commented on the radio on the way home from work on Monday night that this case wasn’t unusual. Arriving with valid papers and finding that the Immigration Service cancels your visa is all too common. (The solicitor recalled one visitor from Cameron being detained on the false assumption that he was from Nigeria. Wrong continent!)

While all of these situations are more complicated that the one (two?) dimensional explanation that I’m summarising in this post, there’s an injustice and a lack of grace about them. A lack of empathy with our neighbour.

They feel like examples of our society’s fear of change, and fear of foreign ideas and people. Is it an insecurity? Is it a bizarre attempt to avoid being politically incorrect? Is is an unconscious distrust? Is it racism?

Question Mark from DubSnipe's flickr account

The local blogosphere deserves a mention too. Without wanting to stir up more controversy that I can chew, some of David Vance’s posts (and the subsequent comments) over at A Tangled Web disturb me. It’s as if it’s ok to always assume the worst. To assume guilt rather than innocence. To believe the stereotype rather than seeking to get to know the individual underneath.

Where’s the grace in the post Jailed for being black (discussing the Frank Kakopa case and the Equality Commission’s intervention).

“... these race-hustlers want to create the idea that we are all institutionally racist and hence justify there [sic] own wretched positions. Personally, I would scrap the Equality Commission overnight, it is a parasitic infection.”

and suggesting ...

“... that Mr Kakopa is lucky it was not Zimbabwean security that he was dealing with or the outcome may have been [r]ather less munificent.”

Or take the post Well done Dulles Airport which first congratulates the Department of Homeland Security operatives’ decision to search and detain Shahid Malik MP, Britain’s first Muslim minister (incidentally, he’s International Development Minster in case you thought he was Minister for Muslims) for 40 minutes at the airport (not just the cursory “can I check your backpack?” I regularly get caught with at Belfast City) as he travelled home from a counter-terrorism meeting in Washington DC with the very same Department of Homeland Security. The post then goes on to appeal for an end to random searching, and to focus solely on Muslims and to ignore “elderly women, young mothers, even Nuns” (presumably unless they’re Muslim grannies, mothers and nuns).

On that basis, I conjecture the commentators (and perhaps even bloggers if such time-wasting continues long into the future) will look back on us with dismay and disappointment.

Comments welcomed, along with other suggestions for areas that will be tut tutted about in twenty or so years time.

(Thanks to Emdashes.com and Dubsnipe for the question marks.)


John Self said...

I think all you need to know about A Tangled Web's target audience is that one third of respondents to its poll on 'What political party best represents British interests?' voted for the BNP. Everything therein may be disregarded accordingly.

Alan in Belfast said...

well, no one at the Tangled Web seemed to notice my rant anyway!