In any other city in the UK the prospect of a racist march through an area with a significant ethnic minority population would have provoked widespread condemnation. But not in Belfast. Here the Lord Mayor, whose role is supposedly to offer civic leadership, actually voices support for it.
This was the response of the UUP’s Jim Rodgers to the Parades Commission determination that a loyalist march against the north’s sole MLA from an ethnic minority background (the Alliance Party’s Anna Lo) could not proceed along Donegall Pass. The origins of the march lie in a complaint the MLA made on behalf of a constituent who was held up by a band parade on her way to work at the Ulster Hospital. Anna Lo was provided with the name and address of the parade organiser by the PSNI and sent him a letter outlining her constituent’s concerns. In response, George Spence of the Pride of the Raven FB issued a press release to the local media condemning her and announcing that loyalists planned to stage a protest march through the city centre and part of south Belfast. The route of the march was to include the Donegall Pass area in which a significant number of the city’s Chinese population live and work.
The organisers denied there was any connection between Anna Lo being Chinese and their march taking this route. A claim that many bandsmen enjoyed a Chinese meal was offered as evidence of their anti-racist credentials. However, an examination of the facts demonstrates clearly the racist motivation of the march. There is no link between Doneagll Pass and the incident that provoked the initial complaint. That happened in east Belfast; also the name and address of the parade organiser were provided by police at Strandtown PSNI station in east Belfast. The organisers also claimed that they thought Anna Lo had her office in Donegall Pass. But this is wrong. The Chinese Welfare Association, for which Lo had worked before being elected, had an office there in the past but moved a number of years ago. That the organisers should think of targeting such an organisation is more evidence of their racist intent. The only reason to route a march through Donegall Pass is to intimidate the Chinese population who live and work there. They were going to pay the price for Anna Lo daring to question a loyalist display of sectarian supremacy.
Of course the racists themselves recognised this straight away. That is why the march won the fulsome endorsement of the BNP; an endorsement the organisers did not reject. The unionists also recognise this. However, they frame their prejudices in terms of community rights. While they do not overtly endorse racism, they defend loyalists “right” to march and to intimidate anyone who dares challenge them. Jim Rodgers could therefore ring his hands over the “big disappointment” of the Parades Commission decision and assure everyone that the organisers of the parade were “very respectable” and not “trying to cause offence”. He even offered some friendly advice to the organisers, urging them to move the parade to after Christmas so as not to disrupt the business of city centre traders. Obviously, the Lord Mayor is more concerned with the profits of high street stores than the victims of racist intimidation.
While this episode is sickening it is not unique. Over the last number of years loyalists have regularly engaged in acts of racist violence and intimidation, always accompanied by justifications from unionists. However, because of the imperatives of the peace process which demand that every prejudice be accepted as some form legitimate community expression, racism goes largely unchallenged.