If a group of local people were to make a man from a racial minority feel intimidated and discriminated by erecting signs reading “local housing, 4 local people” outside the home he was about to move into; most people would assume this was a racist attack.
Most people in this case it would seem, do not include the Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson.
For the DUP leader, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a goose.
There were many things that were troubling about the First Minister’s response to the protest from local residents, two days ago at the new home of Michael Abiona; a Nigerian man who has lived in Northern Ireland for four years and England for the four previous to that; and suffers from osteoarthritis.
The most significant being his inability to condemn what was clearly a racially motivated protest and to try and explain it away by claiming it was the Housing Executive’s responsibility. For all his talk about Northern Ireland’s Racial Equality Strategy, Peter Robinson has failed to back it up with real and meaningful condemnations of racism in the last month or two.
It’s hard to imagine someone like Nelson Mandella explaining away something like this. Or Martin Luther King Jr. Which is what separates good leaders from truly great ones. The courage to stand up for what is right and good and peaceful, in the face of those voices who would oppose it.
Not just to state that racism is wrong. Anyone can do that. It takes something else, as a leader of a country to actively condemn this latest incident. Peter Robinson did not do that.
More than this though, his response failed to see that just because violence was not used in this case, this was still racism. In an interview with Mark Davenport of the BBC he claimed that Michael Abiona did not feel intimidated by the protest. Really? He knows this because he has spoken to him?
Compare this with Michael’s own interview where he clearly stated his shock and sadness at what happened.
It’s a classic, “well if they don’t mind it, then it must be ok” attempt at excusing the behavior of the local residents, by making it out that just because no violence was used in this case, that it can’t have been that bad.
Except in this case, even if that was a logical argument, the person was intimidated.
In Northern Ireland, where we have history books crammed full of violence against each other, the notion that if we can ideally keep our hatred for each other to words, is wrong. Of course it is preferable to violence and death but attitudes can kill a lot more than people.
It can kill hope and a willingness to understand someone different than us.
The attitude that “they” are different and that “they” can’t be trusted is one reason why violence ensues and as we have seen this month, physical racist attacks are still a major problem.
But the attitude of the residents who protested is something that the leadership in Northern Ireland must address. It is the belief that certain areas belong to “local” people which is a crucial part of the problem. For such a small country with such a diverse population there are still territories belonging to one group of the community or another.
Since when, should someone who has lived in Northern Ireland for four years, has a disability and a son (the crux of the argument used by residents is that the homes were for those with disabilities, families and the elderly; maybe he was too young for the residents liking), be too frightened to move into a home that was specifically designed for people just like him.
When it is broken down like this it is clear that there is more motivating the protests than simply a worry over local people and housing and that “more” is race.
And for those who have claimed it is not racism, xenophobia is not too far down the road in the ugliness stakes.
An xenophobia that Peter Robinson clearly doesn’t seem an issue as he hypothesized that the same thing could happen if someone from “up country” were to try and move into a similar area. His swiftness to make this appear as normal is worrying for a first Minister who is ultimately in charge of bringing peace and reconciliation to all people.
Long gone are the days where all people in Northern Ireland simply means Protestant and Catholic.
For all the recent headlines of comments from people like Pastor James McConnell and Peter Robinson which have exposed their ignorance of others; there is some hope and light in relation to race issues in Northern Ireland.
The promised Racial Equality Consultation has finally been released.
But actions often speak louder than words and the thousands of people who have made their voices heard condemning racist attacks and attitudes at rallies in Belfast and Derry, over the last week or two, is something to gain great hope from.
Then of course there are the attitudes of those who have been wronged in these situations. The Muslim community who accepted the apology of Peter Robinson after his remarks earlier this month and now Michael Abiona, who quite remarkably and bravely, stated that he has seen enough of Northern Ireland and it’s people to know that Northern Ireland is a country worth staying in.
It is these kinds of reactions to being wronged that should give hope to everyone fighting racial injustice and hopefully will give the leaders of the country something to think about in how we treat those of a different color or religion.
It is examples of forgiveness like these that have been more absent than present in Northern Ireland.
Yet things are changing. Attitudes like these can show us all that a community as diverse as Northern Ireland has the ability to actually live together in peace. Whether they are sectarian, bigoted or racist voices; it is time for these voices to be drowned out by those who accept everyone regardless of race or religion. To the Michael Abiona’s we need to shout louder and with more consistency, that you are welcome and we are glad you are here.
This is the only way that those responsible for racist attacks and ignorance will learn that their attitudes have no place in Northern Ireland.
No one should be left behind, but those who continue to exact racist attacks will awaken to the truth that they are in a minority of their own.
And racism will soon find that it is indeed it, which will be left without a home in Northern Ireland.