The news that a deliberate fire has practically destroyed the Belfast Multicultural building in South Belfast should bring shame to us all. The centre is a vital space for Northern Ireland’s many minority groupings to come together.
The fact that Muhammed Atif from the Belfast Multi Cultural Association now says that this attack will prevent them opening a community centre at the building demonstrates clearly that this is an attack on the entire community, not just those minority groups using the centre.
The PSNI and political representatives in the area must be asked if more could have been done to protect the centre, given the regular racist and Islamophobic incidents that the centre and its users have been subjected to. All hate crime – whether it is racism, sectarian, homophobic or any other – is completely unacceptable and we all must stand in solidarity with the centre users and those managing this space in what must be an extremely worrying and distressing time.
The people involved in this hateful attack offer nothing to the people of Northern Ireland, and do not speak for us.
Education and legislation
It is time for empty condolences to end. Hate crime is on the rise and Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without specific hate crime laws – this must be rectified immediately. Scotland, for example, has recently introduced new robust hate crime law which allows stricter sentencing for those involved in hate crimes. The bill also allows prosecution of those who intend to ‘stir up hatred’. While the specifics of that term continue to be ironed out by the Scottish Government, there is no doubt it would have been useful here in Northern Ireland, given the campaign of racism that many ethnic minorities suffer, including the Multicultural Association.
Along with a wider public education plan around bigotry and hatred, stricter laws would be a vital tool in preventing further crime.
Real hate crime figures
In the last PSNI annual report on hate crime from October 2019 to September 2020, there were 881 hate related incidents or crimes. This is a completely shameful number of incidents. PSNI and other police forces also accept that reporting numbers in hate related crimes is low, so the true number is likely to be much higher than this. Much of the reason for this is due to distrust of the criminal justice system, given the lower conviction rates for hate crimes, compared to other crime.
Rebuild and relocate
It is also vital that the executive takes the lead on publicly proving its opposition to Hate Crime. The Department of Communities should immediately step in to secure funding for a rebuild of the Belfast Multicultural hub, and in the meantime, alternative premises should be secured to allow the Multicultural Association to continue its work.
This is not the time for words of condemnation, that are not followed up by robust and clear actions. We must all show very clearly that we are strongly opposed to any form of hatred and come together with all victims of hate crime.
All parties in the executive must unequivocally condemn those involved in this fire, and tell them loud and clear that neither hatred nor bigotry is welcome in Northern Ireland.
Sign the statement of support for the Belfast Multicultural Association