It has been depressing to see racism raise its ugly head in East Belfast this week. It is important that the vast majority of us who believe that all human beings deserve the same rights and privileges stand together on this issue before Northern Ireland becomes a global by-word for bigotry, ignorance and intolerance.
Many of our people for centuries have left this place to seek their fortunes elsewhere. When they do so we have expected them to be treated fairly and not to be discriminated against.
Ireland, north and south, has traditionally been an exporter of people, because our economies have dictated that many youngsters have had to leave in order to secure jobs and prosperity. Traditional songs and stories are studded with references to emigrants, trying to build a future in a different land, often under the most difficult of circumstances.
It is part of our history, and it is a part of our present as well. Many of us have children who have left to work or study elsewhere, and we know that they will not be back.
But sadly, the Irish abroad have not always been welcomed with open arms. They have been subjected to harassment, bullying, racism and physical attack. Building a new life was often ultimately a success, but for many over the centuries who have attempted it, it was a struggle. We all know that it is part of our shared history.
There are plenty of people old enough to remember the days when boarding houses in England sometimes bore signs reading “No Irish here”. I doubt that being from Northern Ireland would provide any form of exemption from this. Nor to the “thicko” Irish jibes, and the racial characterisations. When I was at university everyone with an Irish accent, north or south was called “Paddy”
In the United States, in England and everywhere that the Irish have been, earlier generations have experienced intolerance first hand.
You would have thought that we had collectively learned from that. That the very last thing that we would want to see over here is the degree of ignorance and intolerance which sometimes greeted Irish emigrants. Like for, example mounting a picket outside someone’s house because he is “not from around here”.
Racism, which, of course, is sectarianism’s equally twisted and ugly sister, is a real and present reality in Northern Ireland and it needs to be challenged and confronted whenever it rears its head.
We need to do this in any event because justice and any sense of fair play demands it.
But we also need to be very aware of the fact that if Northern Ireland is going to see any form of economic prosperity, it will require more tourism, more inward investment and more exporting. That inevitably involves contact with people who are from different cultures and different races.
Frankly they will not want to come here or do business with us if they believe that Northern Ireland is a cold house for foreigners.
Yes, of course Northern Ireland is not 1960s South Africa or rural Kentucky. But too much more of the kind of headlines we have seen in recent weeks and the rest of the world will conclude that it is. We can’t afford that.
In recent times there has been a lot of criticism of our politicians for being so slow in producing an anti racism strategy. That partly misses the point.
The vast majority of us are very clear on the subject. We despise racism in all its forms. It is demeaning, destructive and most of all ignorant. I’m sure that our political leaders agree.
So yes, let’s have a strategy produced as soon as possible. It will do nothing but good. And in the meantime our politicians would do best by being absolutely clear and unequivocal, and united in condemning racism in all its forms, with no ifs, or buts, or qualifications.
Yes, of course racists vote too. But they should never be pandered to or appeased. No mainstream party should want racists in its ranks, or a mandate from racist votes.