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FROM BIGOTRY TO BALTI

19-06-2009

The recent outburst of racism directed towards Romanian immigrants in Belfast prompts Dr David Nicholl to ponder how much has changed in the years since he left Northern Ireland.

The tragic tale of the Romanian families being forced out of their homes in Belfast struck a nerve with me - not just that this was an appalling tale of outright racism, but that it happened in my home town in the very streets that I grew up in - I went to school in the very next street to where they were stoned out of their houses and my parents still live nearby.

I love Northern Ireland - it is truly a beautiful place and people are amazingly friendly, but at times like this, I just feel sick of my own country and also remember why I left.

Despite ‘the Troubles’, Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s was not a bad place to be if you were middle class and didn’t look too far, but I can still remember the moment aged 17 looking down my classmates in that very same school where I could pick out the ones who would stay and would probably never move.

I always knew I was going to go and get away from the stifling conservatism of Northern Ireland as fast as my little legs would take me. What can you say about a place like Belfast in the 1980s when Ian “Save Ulster from Sodomy” Paisley was around and even “The Life of Brian” was banned?

How can you put into words how significant numbers of two, allegedly Christian communities, were doing their level best to annihilate each other? It was madness and time to get out of town.

I headed to Birmingham, for one equally bizarre reason. My elder brother was at Birmingham University, I came over and went for a balti on the Ladypool road…this was very different from Belfast, so I guess I’ll put Birmingham at the top of my UCCA form. Strange to say that balti was the reason this particular migrant ended up in Brum.

Maybe I am being harsh, the Good Friday process has happened, the Troubles are over, aren’t they? Yet as recently as 2005, I happened to be in Belfast the Sunday after Pope John Paul II had died and was at my parents Presbyterian church barely a bigot’s stones throw from where those poor Romanians were attacked.

I was staggered when the vicar did not mention once how we should pray for those affected by the Pope’s death - the main religious leader for a significant section of the Northern Irish community.

So yes, Northern Ireland (and Ian Paisley) has come a long way from the Ulster of my youth, but it does have a long way to go. Unless we can recognize the hurt in our neighbours community, whoever our neighbour is, we are on a slippery slope.

That is equally true in Belfast, Bromsgrove or Birmingham. In many senses, racism is the new sectarianism, but isn’t bigotry always bigotry however you name it?

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