Northern Ireland and the limits of the race relations framework.

Author:Gilligan, Chris


Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, there has been a significant increase in immigration to Northern Ireland from outside the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. During the same period, and linked to immigration, the issue of racism has become more prominent in the media and in public policy. (1) The relative insignificance of immigration and racism to the region in the 1990s was one of the reasons why they were not topics that were covered in the 1999 Special Issue of Capital and Class on Northern Ireland. That these matters have grown considerably in importance in the two decades since can be seen in the fact that this article has been commissioned for this Special Issue.

This article is divided into two main sections. The first section outlines the data on immigration and on recorded racist incidents. I show that the aggregate-level data for Northern Ireland indicate a correlation between immigration and racial incidents. I argue that this, however, does not mean a causal relationship between the two. I then contrast two district councils in Northern Ireland--Belfast and Mid Ulster--to show that, although the presence of an immigrant or ethnic minority person is a necessary condition for a racial incident to occur, it is not a sufficient one. Belfast has both the highest number of immigrants and the highest number of racial incidents in Northern Ireland. The proportion of the population of Mid Ulster who are immigrants, or are categorised as minority ethnic, is similar to that of Belfast. Dungannon, the largest town in, and the administrative centre of, Mid Ulster, has both experienced the most rapid growth in immigration and has the highest proportion of immigrants of any part of Northern Ireland. In Dungannon, however, the rate of racial incidents is below the Northern Ireland average and immigration is largely viewed positively in the locality. I identify various factors that explain the differences in rates of racial incidents between the two places.

In the second section, I argue that the attempt to understand and tackle racism in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland, is limited by the race relations framework that underpins official and much civil society, anti-racist theory and practice. I point out that the race relations approach attempts to manage racism, not transcend it. The race relations approach treats racism as a crime to be punished, rather than as a manifestation of contradictions within capitalism as a social system. As such, it is confined to dealing with symptoms rather than underlying causes. I also argue that the idea that skin colour is a key marker of racial difference is an implicit assumption of anti-racist theory and practice in the United Kingdom. And I argue that this assumption is the source of much confusion regarding racism in the United Kingdom today, which often takes the form of hostility towards 'white' immigrants from eastern Europe. I then go on to argue that the peace process in Northern Ireland and the GFA have operated within a race relations framework. I argue that anti-racists in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland should take a closer look at Northern Ireland as part of developing an emancipatory anti-racism.

Immigration and racism in post-GFA Northern Ireland

In 1998, Robbie McVeigh noted that in Northern Ireland there was a perception that 'there's no racism here because there are no Black people here' (McVeigh 1998: 12-13). McVeigh also noted that this perception was wrong on both counts. There was racism and there were Black people living in Northern Ireland. Prior to the signing of the GFA, some pioneering work began to sketch out the characteristics of the ethnic minority population and drew attention to racism in the region (CAJ 1992; Hainsworth 1998; Irwin & Dunn 1997; Mann-Kler 1997). There was some movement by the British state on the issue of racism, in the years immediately preceding the signing of the GFA. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) began to monitor racial incidents and crimes in 1995, and in 1997 British Race Relations legislation was extended to Northern Ireland, via the 1997 Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order (Jarman & Monaghan 2003; Lentin & McVeigh 2006: 149-151). By 1998, the British state in Northern Ireland was beginning to wake up to the issue of racism, but the issue was still vastly overshadowed by the issue of the historic conflict in the region. Within a few years of the signing of the GFA, the issue of racism had come out from under the shadow of the conflict.

Explaining racism in Northern Ireland

The RUC data showed that in the early years of the peace process the number of racial incidents was growing at an alarming rate, from 41 incidents in 1996 to 285 in 2000 (Jarman & Monaghan 2003: 19-20). (2) This increase led to Belfast being referred to as the 'race hate capital of Europe' (Chrisafis 2004). (3) As Figure 1 illustrates, the number of racist incidents recorded in the late 1990s has been dwarfed in subsequent years.

The dramatic increase in recorded incidents from 2004 onwards coincided with significant immigration to Northern Ireland, primarily from those Baltic states newly admitted to the European Union (EU). When we look at the figures for racist incidents in conjunction with the data on the (non-United Kingdom and non-Republic of Ireland) immigrant population in Northern Ireland we can see a correspondence between the two (Figure 2).

Pointing to a correlation between racist incidents and immigrant populations could be viewed as endorsing the idea that racism has increased in Northern Ireland because the immigrant population has increased. The growth of immigration from outside the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland has not caused a growth in racial incidents. It is true that there cannot be a racial incident without someone being a target of that incident. Racial incidents do require the presence of a racialised target. (4) The presence of a racialised person, however, does not necessarily lead to a racial incident. In other words, the presence of a racialised person is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for a racial incident to happen. There need to be some other factors at play. If the link was causal, we would not find any divergence between the trend line for racist incidents and the immigrant population in Figure 2.

The fact that the presence of racialised people is an insufficient condition for explaining a racist incident can also be seen in the varying rates of incidents across Northern Ireland. It is instructive to compare two districts in which there are concentrations of immigrants--Belfast and Mid Ulster. According to figures from the 2011 census, both districts have similar proportions of immigrants and other ethnic minorities--in Belfast the proportion of the population who were either born outside the United Kingdom or were born in the United Kingdom and self-identified on the census as Asian, Black, Irish Traveller or Mixed Ethnicity was 9.5%, in Mid Ulster the proportion was 9%. In Belfast, however, the proportion of racial incidents per 10,000 of population has, at least since 2007, been consistently more than twice the rate of Mid Ulster (Table 1). The rate of racial incidents is different in the two regions not because of immigrants, but because of the different contexts that immigrants have stepped into.


Much has changed in Belfast since the historic ceasefire by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared on 31 August 1994. Politically motivated deaths have declined dramatically, but other forms of violence have persisted, including intra-communal 'punishment attacks', sectarian rioting and intimidation and racially motivated violence against immigrants and ethnic minorities (Shirlow & Murtagh 2006). The Protestant population of Northern Ireland, Belfast included, has an older age profile than the Catholic population and is declining as a proportion of the overall population. This decline is particularly marked in Belfast where a combination of higher death rates due to old age and higher rates of movement from the city to suburban satellite towns has led to a decline in the Protestant population. This has had two significant effects that are relevant to our study: immigrants have disproportionately moved into 'Protestant' areas, because of greater availability of housing and Unionist political parties have lost their historic majority on Belfast City Council, which reinforces a perception of 'Protestant decline' and 'Catholic ascendency'. In December 2012 protests, including rioting, erupted when Belfast City Council voted to reduce the number of days a year on which it would fly the Union flag over City Hall (BBCNews 2014). The protestors, and those who sympathised with them, saw this decision as confirmation that Belfast is becoming either alien to Protestants or hostile to them (Byrne & INTERCOMM 2013; Halliday & Ferguson 2016; Hearty 2014).

Since 2001, Belfast has attracted more immigrants than any other part of Northern Ireland. The largest part of that increase was made up of Polish immigrants, but the number of nationalities represented in Belfast has also grown significantly (including many people from outside the EU). The majority of racist attacks in Belfast happened in Protestant majority residential areas, many of the rest have happened in areas of mixed residential housing in the city centre at the interface of Protestant majority areas. To a significant degree, these racist attacks have been driven by a perception of Protestant decline in a context where there is an existing culture of (sectarianised) territorial demarcation and defence (Connolly & Keenan 2001; Rolston 2004; Shirlow & Murtagh 2006). These racist attacks are also likely to be facilitated by a clearly discernible strand of anti-immigrant hostility in Unionist...

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