Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Belfast's shame

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home. I needed clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.

The story has been escalating in the media and public awareness since the weekend, but it’s been building up over months and years. I’m not sure there is such a thing as low level intimidation, or that what’s happened to the Romanian community living in south Belfast can be described as sporadic attacks. And shamefully, I’m sure the incidents are a lot more widespread than just the one area or the one minority community.

Belfast Romanian Flees - picture (c) 2009 BBC

Having abandoned their homes, twenty families came together in one house, hoping for safety in numbers. The police decided last night that 115 residents of Belfast (including a five day old baby) needed to be sheltered overnight somewhere safe.

And so the call was made to City Church to see if their hall could be used. By the sounds of the news reports this morning, it happened quickly.

There was no need for a church community consultation. No need for a lengthy risk assessment to evaluate the chances of damage to the fabric of the building or indeed future reprisals. No need for a meeting of office bearers to vote on whether this fitted with the church’s mission and vision statements. No need to check the hall booking spreadsheet to see if it was really free or whether the flower arranging group already had first dibs.

No. Someone simply said yes ... and then went about making it happen. (Update - City Church's Trish Morgan explained what happened in Thursday morning's Belfast Telegraph.) The words from Matthew’s Gospel above sum it up well.

With help from the church, neighbouring congregations, the local community as well as statutory and humanitarian organisations. Turns out that the local Red Cross are equipped in “first world” Northern Ireland to support displaced residents just like any other country they operate in.

Belfast’s Lord Mayor Naomi Long summed it up well on Good Morning Ulster as I drove into work. Articulating the shame she felt, Naomi went on to say:

“They have a right to be in Belfast they are part of the fabric of this city. I want to see them treated with the respect and dignity that I would demand for any other citizen.”

And the BBC’s Mark Simpson summed up what he saw last night:

“Looking at 115 Romanians huddled together on the floor of a Belfast church hall, it was possible to see the worst side of Northern Ireland - and the best - all at once.

The speed with which Pastor Malcolm Morgan and his team created a temporary home for 20 families was remarkable.

At the same time, the sight of men, women and children looking so helpless and scared was a stain on Northern Ireland's international reputation.

Many of the families came to Belfast believing that the years of prejudice and narrow-mindedness were over. However, it seems that in some parts of the city, racism is the new sectarianism.”

Looking forward, twenty families can’t live in a church hall forever, nor in the Ormeau Park’s O-Zone. Surely they need to be welcomed back into the community, shown great love and assured of their safety.

Is one of the practical solutions not that the local community, so outraged by this incident, host individual families in their own homes. What a way to show sacrificial love and solidarity, by sharing food, rooms and families. And any stones that do still get thrown while all this gets sorted out longer term will no longer just be hitting the windows of a minority.

Update - Crookedshore posted about the recent One Hundred Thousand (ways to) Welcome event, and finished with something that reminds me that God had already prepared for the eventuality that newcomers and visitors might be treated less well:

The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the Lord. (Numbers 15:15)


Grannymar said...

Will you be leading the way? Or do you just want everyone else to do it.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Oh Grannymar, you ask the hard questions!

I did think about that as I was mulling over what to post. On the one hand, we did welcome a succession of people staying in our spare room from Easter last year through to January (including one who stayed six months). So we do have a history of hospitality - though not quite in these circumstances.

If it had happened on our street, in our neighbourhood, I think we would open our doors. It is 10 miles away, and I suspect that the community who are feeling unsafe and vulnerable need to remain together as a communty and face their fears together - and not be split up across NI.

South Belfast needs to decide to love and respect its residents. In turn, Lisburn needs to sort out its own problems which have been in the news over the weekend, and perhaps work harder to integrate with the Polish community who have settled at one side of town.

Anonymous said...

with Northern Ireland's history of bigotry and sectarianism is this any surprise? What else did you expect?

Nico Fell said...


This is a great post and I totally agree with you on how to show love in the community. I think it is great that City Church stepped up to the plate and helped them. I also think it is sad that the public at large can't do anything to stop this going on.

Best and worst of community in action. For such a "religious" country, there is a lack of Christian love at times.

D.A. said...

Alan, I have to say I would agree with Grannymar's question - why ask others to do it when you can't do it yourself? (note that I didn't say you *wouldn't* do it yourself). I agree with your point though that the community needs to open its arms and its doors to these people and give them shelter. Still, I'll bet you won't see too many Malone Road residents opening their homes...

And so, on to my main point. Nothing I'm about to say changes the fact that what has happened is disgusting and a stain on the image of Northern Ireland.

It would be interesting to know if the foreign nationals who were forced out were Romanians or Roma. I am guessing the scum who did this obviously have no clue that there is any distinction, and many eejits in N.I. apparently think all Romanians are Roma who beg on the street, etc. etc. etc. All this shows is the complete insularity and lack of knowledge of the average N.I. resident.

However, if these unfortunates are in fact Roma, sadly it has to be said that even if they return to Romania, they are likely to face exactly the same, if not worse. Having lived here for 2 years, the Roma are blamed for absolutely everything (occasionally, with some justification, it has to be said), but Romania itself is just as racist, if not more so, than N.I. Some Romanians discriminate against the Hungarian community, some Hungarians discriminate against the Romanian community, everyone discriminates against the Roma, and an anti-Semitic, anti-Hungarian party gets enough votes to get two seats in the European Parliament (one of whom who is a complete crook).

Having said this, I am completely disgusted by what these idiots are doing in Belfast. We have been welcomed very warmly (in general) in Romania, and I wish those racist scumbags were put in a position where they had to move abroad to get work...

Anyway, I guess the local Presbyterian Churches will probably have to set up a committee to investigate whether or not they should provide shelter...

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

> Anyway, I guess the local Presbyterian Churches will probably have to set up a committee to investigate whether or not they should provide shelter...

D.A. - You might be surprised, but from Naomi Long's interview on Radio Ulster this morning, at least two PCI congreations (sounded like Fitzroy and Knock) were helping last night providing food to City Church - so the wheels must have moved pretty quickly!

D.A. said...

Fitzroy and Knock, neither of which are anywhere near the Lisburn Road. ;-)

Anyone heard anything from Malone, Fisherwick or the one up near the King's Hall (whose name I can't remember...)?

By the way, can we have Naomi Long as Mayor for at least 10 years? She's a breath of fresh air.

And if you need me to send you any Romanian recipes for when you take in your lodgers, drop me a line. ;-)

Nico Fell said...

Totally agree re: Naomi Long by the way.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Though Fitzroy is across (well, just up) the road from City Church - so it was on their doorstep last night

D.A. said...

Good point. For some reason I was thinking City Church was on the Lisburn Road.

Tuesday Kid said...

The people who did this are scum and if a few of them were to end up in hospital it would be no great shame. Just saying.

Tuesday Kid said...

I mean the nasty folk who did the attacking. Well done to the people who helped the families out.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Tuesday Kid ... not sure you're helping the problem by wishing "if a few of [the thugs] were to end up in hospital".

Anonymous said...

I have been on the receiving end of attacks like this, I know what Tuesday Kid means, but it doesn't help in the long term. The people who did this are fascists, it is about time that the press made more of the fact that these attacks are carried out by the same people who will be marching in a few weeks waving their Union Flags and pledging their loyalty - but loyal to what? They are the Ulster rump of the BNP, something which receives more than a little support in the Loyalist community here. I am not trying to claim that racism does not exist in Catholic areas, far from it. But unless the decent protestant majority in NI face this threat head on they will find themselves being tarred with the same brush in the eyes of the world.

Anonymous said...

Northern Ireland is officially the most bigoted "country" in the world, with 44% of the population stating that they would not want to live next door to

"People of different ethnicities, Muslims, Jews, immigrants or foreign workers, and homosexuals"

There may be a "decent protestant majority" in NI, but only just, if the statistics are right.

Having lived and travelled all over the world but currently find myself living in Belfast, I would say that, in my experience, the people of NI are the most narrow minded, insular, paranoid and yes, bigoted people I have ever come across.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Anonymous - can you provide more details about the survey (or a pointer to it)? Saying officially is one thing, but there has been a fair amount of discussion/contention about the "most bigoted" claim in other blogs etc.

Anonymous said...

certainly - you'll find the details here, though personal experience in professional and voluntary capacities in NI for over a decade also back up the findings.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with the other Anonymous contributor. I have lived here for many years, and it is undoubtedly the most bigoted, insular, unwelcoming society I have experienced in my long life. But it has other things which make it a beautiful place to be. Sadly, this is rarely the people in it! The face which they present to holidaymakers and visitors is usually a friendly one, especially if you have plenty of money to throw around. Once you decide to stay here, you instantly become the subject of hatred. It is a society which has never learned to share, like a spoiled child who wants to keep all of its toys to itself. There are a lot of Christians here, but very little Christianity.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Thanks for the link. It’s appalling.

Interestingly in the five categories, Northern Ireland is pretty similar to Ireland for its (above average) intolerance to different race, Muslim or Jewish neighbours. But it really gets out in front with the thought of living next door to immigrants and homosexuals.

Over a third of people surveyed wouldn't want to live next door to someone who was gay? Are there two Northern Irelands?

Anonymous said...

Are there two Northern Irelands? No, I don't think so, only one. As with all islands (and NI is an island, even if it is connected to the South) populations evolve differently, I think that's what's happening here.

Over 90% of the population live in segregated ghettos, 97% of the children are educated in segregated schools. Even the architects of Apartheid would look at NI with admiration, as we have acheived what they could not - acceptance of division.

The key thing is that this ghetto mentality is considered "normal" in NI, whilst everyone else looking in can see it as a cancerous growth at the core of society.

So many of our institutions enshrine this division:

* politics - forget party policies, just vote along sectarian lines
* religion - ministers that will not participate in ecumenical services, a moderator that will not even share a pulpit with a fellow minister (because she has different genitalia!)
* education - one half empty school for you, another for me, the UK taxpayer picks up the bill.
* the orange order - sectarianism given the run of Belfast for one day a year, massive bills for policing and tidying up the place after the bonfires - but the UK taxpayer will pay, no worries.

This is the one NI that we live in, how anyone could consider this to be "normal" is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

"a moderator that will not even share a pulpit with a fellow minister (because she has different genitalia!)"

Maybe shared genitalia would be the only way to ever get them to share a pulpit...

I'll get my coat.

Anonymous said...

Pelvis has left the building...........