The latest race attacks in Northern Ireland are as depressing as they are predictable. Isolated families in loyalist areas having their homes ransacked, their belongings destroyed and their lives threatened is a phenomenon now occurring with sickening regularity.
In the latest incidents, a mob attacked two homes in the loyalist Village area of south Belfast and in Whiteabbey, cars belonging to Filipino and Indian families were burned. The attacks come a year after a hundred Roma people were forced to flee Northern Ireland after racist petrol bombings, also in south Belfast.
I was born in Belfast and I am black. I endured a barrage of racist abuse over decades from British soldiers and the police. With a Falls Road upbringing in a republican family and a seven-year jail term spent in the H-Blocks during the 1990s, I’d have thought my bona fides as an Irishman were pretty impeccable. To this day, though, the question I hear most is: "Where are you from?"
When I tell people I’m from Belfast, they invariably throw in the supplementary: "Where are you really from?" There’s no way an Irish person could possibly be black is the unspoken subtext.
However, Northern Ireland is changing, slowly. Two major factors have been responsible: the first was the IRA ceasefire in 1994, and the second was the influx of EU citizens, especially from the accession states such as Poland. Foreign nationals from the Philippines, west Africa and elsewhere also arrived here in numbers for work or to study.
The rate of change has been alarming for some people and some communities including, in particular, the working-class loyalist communities in greater Belfast. The middle-class and economically active Protestants have fled to the satellite towns around the city, vacating houses in the process. Migrants, especially Poles, have filled these homes, leaving an ill-equipped, under-resourced Protestant community feeling abandoned.
Other old certainties (and sources of employment) – their shipyards and major engineering works – have closed, and their security forces have been reduced in number and thrown open to Catholic recruits. On TV, unionists see Sinn Féin in government and their sense of grievance is palpable.
It was only a matter of time before someone lashed out and, as ever, ethnic minorities make easy scapegoats. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before someone gets killed. The BNP has been recruiting disaffected young loyalists who, in previous years, might have joined the UDA or UVF to attack nationalists. Many suspect that loyalists either orchestrate or acquiesce in many of the attacks.
The response from wider civic society, the police and the media has been patchy. Ever mindful of votes, unionist politicians have been slow in condemning some of the attacks. They have also indulged the worst excesses of the complaining loyalists.
The media response is often well-meaning but, occasionally, appalling. Phone-in presenters refer to migrant workers and foreign nationals as "these people".
My own nationalist and republican community has a healthier attitude. More progressive and open-minded, I would suggest, but by no means is it unblemished.
The picture of me was taken on the Falls Road a few years back at a wall adorned with republican and other leftwing murals. On the wall, two terraced houses are depicted. One is described as "London 1968" and bears the infamous legend: "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish". The second part of the mural shows a Belfast terrace in 2005 with the rather complacent claim: "Belfast 2005. No Racism, No prejudice, No Bigotry".
I asked some activists in which part of Belfast this multicultural idyll was to be found, as I’d certainly never spotted it. I didn’t get a credible response.
Education and political leadership are needed to address the racists. In a recent TV interview, the presenter asked me if Irish people needed to show a little more "tolerance" to migrants and blacks in their midst. My response was unapologetic: "I’m not here to be tolerated."