BELFAST (Reuters) - “Foreign bodies” coming from eastern Europe to take jobs are a new adversary for Alan Skey, more than a decade after Northern Ireland’s peace deal secured the former militant’s release from the Maze prison.
Standing next to the mural of a masked gunman that marks the entry to “South Belfast’s loyalist heartland,” Skey — who fought to keep the province a part of the United Kingdom — praised the peace process and revealed a new raw nerve.
“We can’t work in our own city. We didn’t take up the struggle for that,” said Skey, who spent 16 years in jail before being freed under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.
“I took up the struggle to keep that British flag flying. Now loyalists and republicans are oppressed in their own country due to foreign bodies.”
Historically, it was economic migrants from the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland who stirred up sectarian trouble in Protestant communities. The south, a “Celtic Tiger” until the credit crunch kicked in, is now the euro zone’s weakest link.
Nonetheless, the “foreign bodies” Skey refers to are workers mainly from Poland, Lithuania and Romania. His views are more radical than most, but nearly 50 percent of those polled in one survey believed migrant workers take jobs away from people born in Northern Ireland.
Of the 1,215 adults interviewed between October 1, 2008 and February 27, 2009 for the Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster, only 38 percent disagreed with that assertion: 46 percent were in favor.
Northern Ireland’s racist underbelly has been on show this summer.
Gangs of youths, some giving the Nazi salute, forced around 100 Romanians of Roma ethnicity, including a newborn baby, to flee their Belfast homes in June.
That evoked eastern European scenes of intensifying violence against the Roma, including attacks with petrol bombs, hand grenades and rifles in Hungary that have killed half a dozen people in the last 18 months, with sporadic violence elsewhere.
After rival fans clashed at a soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland in March, around 40 people were forced to leave a working class Loyalist area of Belfast due to intimidation.
The 1998 peace deal has reduced the sectarian violence that killed 3,600 people from the 1970s, and the biggest paramilitary groups on both the pro-British Protestant and pro-Irish Catholic sides have dumped their arms.
But racist attacks have become, in the words of Belfast city’s mayor Naomi Long, the province’s “stain of shame.”
“Really sectarianism and racism are very similar, twin evils of prejudice and intolerance,” said Hong Kong-born Anna Lo, the only member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from an ethnic minority, who represents the Belfast South constituency.
Unemployment in Northern Ireland at 6.7 percent in April-June, the latest period for which government figures are available, was below levels in the UK and the European Union.
However, at 51,000 the number of those claiming unemployment benefit in July had almost doubled compared with a year ago: the figures mask an artificially inflated state sector. Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of public sector workers in the UK — 30 percent of all employees in 2005 versus 20 percent or fewer across southern England.
Northern Ireland could be in for an even greater labor market shock as fiscal pressures force London to curtail the subsidies that sustain the province’s outsized bureaucracy, Belfast-based economists say.
“The next government will have to implement public expenditure cuts and Northern Ireland has never experienced that before,” Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey said.
The universities’ survey showed 22 percent of respondents would not have eastern Europeans as a close friend and even fewer welcomed them marrying a close family member.
“Most of my friends are already back in Poland as a result of attacks and the economic downturn,” said Robert Kowalski, 26, speaking in a house in North Belfast where he fled after his home was attacked following the soccer match in March.
One in five respondents in a separate survey by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland in 2008 said they felt negatively against eastern European migrants and almost a quarter said racial or ethnic minorities were the most unfairly treated groups in the province.
That compared with 5 percent who said the worst treated were Catholics, the minority whose situation was at the center of the Irish Republican Army’s earlier military campaign.
“I myself have been targeted with a telephone call to the police (saying) ... my house would have an arson attack,” Lo said.
Many of the attacks against foreigners have been perpetrated in impoverished Protestant neighborhoods such as Skey’s South Belfast. Northern Irish Catholics are generally more open to foreigners, according to the universities’ survey.
Even among Catholics, however, not much more than half would accept as a close relative a Muslim or an Irish Traveler.
The polls show the Northern Irish to be least hostile to the up to 15,000 Chinese who formed the biggest ethnic minority before EU enlargement allowed more eastern Europeans — including more than 10,000 Lithuanians — to move in.
Partick Yu, head of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, said the Chinese had traditionally focused on their businesses and quietly acquiesced in extortion by paramilitaries at the height of the sectarian conflict.
“They keep their mouths shut, they don’t make trouble, that’s why they have less problems,” said Yu, who moved to Belfast from Hong Kong and campaigned to get anti-discrimination laws applied in Northern Ireland.
These were implemented in 1997, two decades after being enforced in other parts of the UK.
Many eastern Europeans contacted by Reuters through online networks and trade unions said they still had no plans to leave, some citing discrimination and hardship against minorities such as the Roma elsewhere in eastern Europe.
“I tell everyone it’s worth coming to Belfast, it’s a really livable place,” said Bernadett Haasz, an English language teacher from Budapest who works for a Belfast broadcaster.
“One must know which neighborhoods to move into, but that’s the same in every city.”
Additional reporting by Ashley Beston in Dublin; Editing by Sara Ledwith