‘Get out of our Queen’s country before our bonfire night and parade day, other than that your building will be blown up.’ The message was sent to Muslim, Polish and Indian community centres in Belfast at the start of July. Having driven more than a hundred Romanians from the Queen’s country the previous month, Belfast’s Aryan fraternity must have felt they were on a roll. And why wouldn’t they be pleased with themselves after attracting the international media to town and even prompting Esther Rantzen to offer her thoughts on the matter?

‘They are addicted to hatred,’ the prospective Independent candidate for Luton South told the press. ‘They are addicted to violence as if it gives them some kind of exhilaration.’ Anyone who has observed the response to mass immigration in France, Germany or Britain itself over the last couple of decades would find the attacks on Romanian families easy enough to understand. For once, there’s nothing exceptional about Northern Ireland: the statelet has recently become a net importer of human beings after long years when its turbulent image discouraged anyone from trying their hand in the local job market. About 30,000 people have arrived from the new EU member states since 2004.

It’s always a lot easier for racism and xenophobia to find an outlet when there are real foreigners to hassle, and respectable politicians happy to provide cover. Sammy Wilson of the DUP weighed in this January: ‘When it comes to a downturn, I think if jobs are becoming vacant . . . preference should be given to people from Northern Ireland.’ Wilson’s colleague Jeffrey Donaldson backed him up: ‘We’re not talking about discrimination, we’re talking about economic reality.’ As ministers in the power-sharing administration at Stormont, Wilson and Donaldson must be aware that such economic realism would be illegal. But, having perfected the art of dog-whistle politics long before the term itself was coined, they could hardly be expected to resist the appeal of such a tempting opportunity.

An influx of foreign workers, politicians giving the wink to racism, ugly spasms of violence: as one local blogger suggested, ‘it fits easily into an established narrative that the British media (and elsewhere) can relate to, and helps them think that Northern Ireland is as British as – if not Finchley, at least Burnley.’ Channel 4’s Jon Snow drew on that narrative when he attacked Northern Ireland’s assistant chief constable for his failure to protect the Romanians: ‘It really does seem as if the PSNI’ – the heir of the RUC – ‘has learned absolutely nothing from the murder of Stephen Lawrence, they know nothing about the Macpherson Rules or any of the recommendations.’

The previous month Kevin McDaid, a middle-aged community worker, was beaten to death in Coleraine by a Loyalist mob that had charged into a Catholic area after Rangers clinched victory in the Scottish football championship. His murder didn’t attract as much coverage, but it is a lot more difficult to comprehend if you are used to looking at Northern Ireland with the peace process orthodoxy in mind. The first challenge it poses is to the doctrine of even-handedness. Sectarianism hasn’t been ignored over the past decade, but it has been routinely presented as a vice that afflicts everyone, something that ‘both communities’ need to address, which glosses over the uncomfortable fact that it is not an equal-opportunities employer: unlike the repackaged police force, sectarianism does not recruit equally from both sides of the communal divide.

It is difficult to say this without being accused of cherishing sentimental fantasies about the decency and goodwill of Catholic nationalists in the North. Nationalists are far from possessing any special quality that makes them immune to sectarian prejudice, and there is plenty of reason to question the theory and practice of Catholic nationalism in Ireland. Yet it is obtuse to deny that the gravest manifestations of communal bigotry tend to emerge from within Unionism. This has nothing to do with the innate characteristics of either tribe: it’s a question of structural factors. There is no nationalist organisation that claims the right to march through Protestant areas every summer in order to show who’s in charge. The SDLP does not have intimate links with a body defined by its virulent hostility to the Protestant faith, and there are no senior members of Sinn Féin whose theological convictions anticipate a speedy passage to hell for every Protestant who continues to follow the path of the Antichrist.

If the Northern Irish state had been based for half a century on systematic discrimination against Protestants by a dominant Catholic majority, if generations of Catholics had been assured by their political leaders that all Protestants were treacherous, disloyal and primitive, if Catholic versions of the Orange Order and the Free Presbyterian Church were doing their best to maintain such prejudices, then, no doubt, we would be talking about the need for Catholic nationalists to put their house in order. But the opposite was and is the case. The response of Unionist politicians to McDaid’s murder spoke eloquently enough. Adrian McQuillan, the local DUP councillor, explained that the mob had been ‘provoked’ by the flying of Irish flags in the area: ‘What reason can you see for there being tricolours up yesterday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon? None other than for to get a reaction from the Loyalist community and they certainly got a reaction this time, which is very sad.’

Kevin McDaid’s son Ryan accused the PSNI of failing to protect his father: ‘The police sat and watched as Dad died, they never moved. There were four police officers in a car . . . they never moved, never came, never helped . . . They saw the whole thing and did nothing.’ McDaid’s family have asked the police ombudsman to investigate the conduct of these officers. The ombudsman is also examining a claim that Loyalists in Coleraine had been sent a text message on the day of the murder by a PSNI officer, who informed them that there were tricolours flying in the town and demanded to know what they were going to do about it. This is not the first time the Coleraine police have faced scrutiny. Another local man, Daniel Kennedy, was savagely beaten by a Loyalist mob in August 2008. His complaint against the PSNI is still being considered by the ombudsman’s office.

These things are not supposed to happen in the new Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin were bitterly attacked for their reluctance to line up four-square behind the PSNI, and it was taken as proof of their enduring ambivalence towards democratic politics. Insofar as a need for policing reform was acknowledged at all (and most Unionist leaders still maintain there was nothing wrong with the RUC – 90 per cent Protestant at the beginning of the Troubles, 90 per cent Protestant 30 years later), that need was meant to have been satisfied by the changes which followed Chris Patten’s report.

Local PSNI officers say they have been trying to repair ‘community relations’ in the aftermath of McDaid’s death. But it’s far from encouraging to read that one of McDaid’s relatives was arrested barely a month after the killing on charges of ‘incitement to hatred’ and ‘behaviour likely to stir up hatred’. According to the charge sheet, Peter Neill shouted, ‘Orange bastards, you’re not wanted here, we don’t want your fucking flags,’ at a group of Loyalists who were putting up banners close to the scene of McDaid’s murder. Neill’s defence lawyer told the court that the flag party, which included some of those questioned in connection with the attack, had begun chanting ‘Kevin McDaid, Fenian bastard.’ Neill is one of six witnesses, including Ryan McDaid, who have received death threats believed to be from the UDA.

When the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, nobody imagined that communal divisions would have vanished by now. But few expected to find Northern Ireland in its current state, with more ‘peace walls’ separating Catholic and Protestant areas than at the peak of the conflict. The Derry civil rights activist Eamonn McCann made the following prediction immediately after the agreement was signed:

The allocation of the entire population into separate sectarian camps, and the institution of mechanisms for ensuring that all decisions are weighed to ensure sectarian balance, will make competition between the Catholic and Protestant communities the main dynamic for politics in the future. It will be in the direct and compelling interest of the leaderships of nationalist and unionist parties to reinforce communal loyalty as the basis of political allegiance, and to present themselves as the most forthright and uncompromising advocates of their own community’s interests vis-à-vis the interests of ‘the other side’. The possibility of abrasion at the interfaces generating new conflagration will be a permanent feature of the system.

Or, as Peter Shirlow said after McDaid’s death, ‘It’s all very well for politicians in the Northern Ireland assembly to condemn murders. But there is no serious attempt to tackle sectarianism at its roots . . . if politicians are fighting a resource war for their rival communities then it’s no wonder those communities still see the other side as the enemy.’

The London and Dublin governments have worn themselves out with talk of bright futures, new horizons and fresh pages being turned, but once you accept the argument that communal parties and politicians are incapable of resolving the sectarian divide, and will tend only to reinforce it no matter how long the guns have been silent, you are left to hope (probably in vain) for the emergence of a non-sectarian political force that can shift the focus of debate – primarily towards the questions of wealth distribution that have been utterly neglected by the peace process.

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