It’s good to see that temporary emergency accommodation has been made available to the 115 Romanian people displaced in Belfast last night after violent intimidation. City Church Belfast – in whose cafe I spent much of the past few years – had provided shelter in the immediate aftermath; local government has now stepped in to allow breathing space for the families to decide what they want to do next. Many seem to want to return to Romania, and who could blame them? They’ve had a terrifying experience.
Lots of northern Irish people have shared the experience of displacement – I know something of this from the inside, having had to move house as a child for reasons of safety. The paradox is that while the communal memory of displacement may increase empathy for its newest victims, it may also mean that we take it less seriously than we should: it seems too much like ‘business as usual’, and so many of us may let it pass with only a wince and a conversation. Most of us don’t actually do anything about it – partly because we have seen it so often before that we feel disempowered; partly because we can blame it on a small minority (who are of course, directly responsible; but their prejudice is nurtured by social norms that ‘the rest of us’ have been content to let prevail); and partly because, quite simply, we don’t know what to do.
So here’s a suggestion:
The recently elected Alliance Party Lord Mayor of Belfast, Naomi Long, a woman with a strong track record in opposing racism and encouraging diversity, should recruit at least one city councillor from each of the parties represented on the council to offer temporary accommodation in their own homes to the families displaced last night. They should invite their consituents to offer food and employment to the people targeted; and they should organise public gatherings in their various council wards at which long-standing residents can meet their new neighbours. We northern Irish people are reputed for our hospitality. The city council could help neutralise the bigotry displayed last night, and that always simmers under the surface for some people, by turning that reputation into a new reality, starting with the most ancient of practices: offering shelter to vulnerable people.