It seems that the Loyalist racists have finally gotten their way and have driven the Roma out of Northern Ireland. Despite claims by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that the violence directed against the Romanian families wasn't sectarian, the latest round of Combat18 text and e-mails doing the rounds on the Loyalist estates prove different.
The Roma are a people that have survived centuries of persecution across Europe and have been subjected to numerous pogroms especially in Romania. That they have now chosen to return to a land where they have always been treated as second (if not third) class citizens, rather than remain in Belfast and continue to face the racist violence of recent months, says much about the state of Ulster society.
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the demise of the Communist governments that had largely kept the lid on the centuries-old endemic anti-Roma racism, an upsurge in racist persecution in the 80's and 90's drove large numbers of the Roma community into Western Europe. In the UK they faced widespread hostility and long waits for their asylum applications to be processed (s19D of the Race Relations Act 1976 specifically allowed discrimination against Roma in the asylum process that continued to exist until the 2000 Act was passed) but following Romania's accession to the EU in January 2007, they became European citizens and therefore had a legal right to remain.*
Many chose Northern Ireland and, with the sectarian troubles in the province, the right-wing bigots in the Loyalist groups had their hands too full hating the Fenians to bother with the Roma. But the end of the 'Troubles' put an end to that and the racists had to look for new more 'acceptable' targets. In 2004 there were estimated to be around 450 race hate crimes in the country. In the past 12 months this has risen to 1,000.
In April this year Poles were driven from their homes in Belfast in a series of coordinated attacks by Loyalist youths times to coincide with a Northern Ireland-Poland World Cup football match. This follows attacks against the Chinese and Slovak communities in the preceding years. Now it is the Roma and, with the electoral successes of the BNP and the growth of far-right splinter groups, it can only get worse.
*In Italy for example, the Roma have also come under increasing attack and the Berlusconi regime has introduced blatantly racist legislation, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of the Blackshirts.