Roma gypsy families in Northern Ireland have been forced to leave their homes after racist attacks that are being blamed on rightwing elements of the pro-British loyalist community.
About 100 people, who local politicians say are members of the ethnic Roma community, were on Wednesday preparing to spend their first night in a Belfast leisure centre. They arrived under police escort after attacks on homes in south Belfast on Monday night, when bricks were thrown by a crowd shouting slogans of the hard-right Combat 18 group.
Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Féin deputy first minister, told Irish radio: “There is no doubt that the people responsible for this emanate from the loyalist community but I wouldn’t make the allegation, at this stage anyway, that they are part of any paramilitary group. I think the likelihood is they’re not.”
There has been a steady increase in racist incidents in Northern Ireland since civil conflict ended there, with several involving attacks on local Chinese, the largest ethnic minority.
But the latest incidents mark a new low in race relations in a region that for 30 years was plagued by sectarian violence between rival Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.
Tensions have been rising in recent months between locals and other immigrant groups who have settled in Belfast since 2004 when the UK, along with Ireland and Sweden, lifted restrictions on workers from eastern and central Europe.
The economic slowdown has led to tension over competition for jobs, and resentment that Poles and others were entitled to welfare and housing benefits. However, local politicians point out immigrants from Romania do not have the same economic rights as earlier European Union arrivals.
Evelyn Collins, of the province’s Equality Commission, said: “The attacks over the past few days are a grim reflection of the persistence of racial prejudice within our society.”
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