For the rest of the world, Northern Ireland already has a notorious reputation for religious intolerance and sectarian hatred. This well-worn yarn tells of ancient enmities dividing Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants. Despite the 1998 peace accord to end 30 years of violent conflict, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, and the appearance of intense residential segregation, separate schooling, and low levels of mixed marriage are a serious problem.
But Northern Ireland has now put in a bid to be seen as a haven for equal opportunity bigots, demonstrating its capacity to broaden the local sphere of intolerance to embrace groups outside of the traditional Catholic/Protestant dualism.
First, a leading Protestant preacher announced that “Islam is Satanic.” The pastor’s reputation was defended by the leader of Northern Ireland’s government, Peter Robinson. Robinson added, somewhat peculiarly, that while he doesn’t trust Muslims who practice Sharia law, he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him.
Then, Anna Lo—a local Northern Irish politician originally from Hong Kong—threatened to leave politics after experiencing racist threats and abuse.
The preacher’s comments and Anna Lo’s experience are not altogether surprising. In 2004, Belfast was awarded the dubious honor of “Europe’s race hate capital” after a series of racist attacks. In 2009, around 20 Roma families were forced to flee their homes in Belfast in the aftermath of sustained racist attacks from local gangs.
Recent research notes increasing numbers of attacks against ethnic minorities. Sexual minorities are also the targets of hate crime in Northern Ireland. In 2013, there were 246 homophobic incidents reported to the police, the highest number of incidents ever recorded. In June that year, Northern Ireland’s biggest political party used its power of veto to block the legalization of same-sex marriage.
A trend can be identified. While trust between Catholics and Protestants remains largely poor, public attitudes reveal a shift of antagonism. This trend points to prejudice moving away from the traditional Catholic/Protestant cleavage to outsider groups such as migrants, Travellers, and sexual minorities. For example, evidence from the 2012 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey demonstrates that only 20 percent of those surveyed object to inter-marriage between Catholics and Protestants, a decrease of 19 percentage points since 1989.
But when people were asked whether they “would accept an ethnic minority as a relative by way of marriage to a close member of my family,” higher rates of intolerance were exposed: some 54 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t accept a Muslim and 53 percent said they would not accept someone from a Traveller background. Two-fifths of the public would not accept a marriage by a relative with a member of the Chinese or Asian community.
These shifts in intolerance demand an explanation. A dual-track analysis is needed here. One part focuses on the nature of so-called post-conflict transition. In this analysis, as part of the peace process, a number of policies have emerged designed to make sectarianism socially unacceptable. At the same time, given that these policies have done little to tackle the legacy of sectarian divisions, the groups have refocused their intolerance onto other groups who are not so well covered by the legislation of the peace agreement.
Sitting alongside this is the wider-context of growing racist and xenophobic attitudes across Britain recently highlighted by survey evidence. Rising hostility to migrants and a groundswell of Islamophobia is witnessed across the UK. Northern Ireland is not immune to such a worrying trend.
While Northern Ireland’s “new prejudice” requires specific measures to address it, it cannot be completely divorced from a society in which communal antagonism has generated extreme conflict. A vision is required by Northern Ireland’s political class to create policies aimed at a more sharing and cohesive society. This aims to ensure that separation and distrust are eliminated across all sectors of society. Such a vision is sadly lacking by politicians that seek to serve only the narrow interests of their own ethnic or religious communities.
But there are grounds for optimism. Northern Ireland’s strong trade union movement has long taken a leading stance against sectarianism, racism, and homophobia. Similarly, the region’s impressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groupings have been at the forefront of promoting diversity and tolerance, including initiating major policy changes.
Yet the opportunity for hardline sentiments to flourish is obvious. The dream of many cosmopolitans of a truly non-sectarian political force in Northern Ireland that attracts both Protestants and Catholics could take on a nightmarish quality. This would see a successful political entity that unites people across “the divide” in their anti-migrant sentiments.