The death of George Floyd, while in the custody of the Minneapolis police department, has re-ignited the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and rightly sparked global outrage and indignation.
While racism in the United States has become the focus of international scrutiny, it should not be allowed to prevent examinations closer to home.
18th century Ireland had an honourable record of opposition to racism, prejudice and slavery. The Belfast Women’s Anti-Slavery League was established by Mary Ann McCracken and Martha McTier in the 1780’s. The moral case against slavery, racism and exploitation was set out in articles by Saintfield born philosopher Francis Hutcheson several decades earlier.
The strength of opposition to slavery and racism in those days can be found in an editorial in the Belfast Newsletter of 1796 which read, using the language of the time:
‘That the Africans are an inferior link in the grand chain of nature is a prejudice, which has been indulged in and propagated by Europeans, especially in modern times, from considerations peculiarly sordid and contemptible; the fact is that the mental faculties of the negroes are by no means of a subordinate description to those of any other men.’
However, sections of Belfast’s commercial and industrial base made vast fortunes out of the exploitation of slaves during the same period, at one stage even planning to set up a slave company in the city.
Less progressive and more racist
Modern day Northern Ireland is arguably less progressive and more racist than it was three hundred years ago.
A Life and Times survey conducted in 2017 found that 36% of people here wouldn’t accept an Eastern European as a close friend, 52% wouldn’t accept an Irish Traveller as a close friend and 47% wouldn’t accept a Muslim as a close friend. The overall figures were significantly higher in the 18 -24 year age group
A third of 18 – 24 year olds in the same survey said they wouldn’t even accept a Muslim as a neighbour in their local area.
At the time, Patrick Corrigan, the Northern Ireland Programme Director for Amnesty International, said “This scale of racial prejudice… should shock us to our core”.
The outworking of those levels of prejudice can be seen in the verbal abuse and racist attacks on ethnic minorities across the community. Cultural change, education and awareness are all necessary elements in overcoming racism, but so too is a strong legal framework.
Racist hate crime in Northern Ireland is not adequately or appropriately framed by legislation and we still don’t have a single Equality Act. Nor have we adopted the recommendations of reports like the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
In 2017, of the 1,062 racist incidents reported to the PSNI, 83% did not result in prosecution or even a warning. Every day that year, a citizen from an ethnic minority had their house attacked or they themselves were assaulted.
Three hundred years on from the founding of the Belfast Women’s Anti-Slavery League and the campaigning of progressive forces at the time, this is the reality of racism in Northern Ireland today: a reality that has been reinforced by the European Union’s ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality and a social system based on exploitation which places profit before equality.
Racism needs to be exposed, confronted and eradicated – at home as well as abroad, and that struggle is inseparable from the struggle for a united working class.