A church took them in for protection, but the church itself was attacked, its windows smashed. Over the weekend, an anti-racist march was attacked by people making Nazi salutes and throwing stones.
I know the area of Belfast, "the Village", where the Romanians moved to. It's somewhere where I'd be very uncomfortable opening my mouth with my "southern" Irish accent, because it would be assumed that I am Catholic (I'm not). Anti-Catholicism runs deep there; it's an accepted part of life. Romanians would also be assumed to be Catholic, and therefore fair game for attack.
A number of commentators have asked why the "loyalist" (Protestant, pro-British) areas in the north of Ireland are more racist. Laurence White in the Belfast Telegraph puts forward some ideas:
"The simple fact is that there are an uncomfortable number of racists in Northern Ireland. For some reason they seem more prevalent in loyalist areas – perhaps it’s because they are just more stupid than racists in other areas and cannot hide their bigotry so well. "
"People in those areas have been told for generations that Catholics are their enemies; that Catholics want to bring down the state and drive all Protestants into an united-Ireland.
Fed such a diet of hate, it is little wonder that some people living in such areas view any outsiders as a threat. If they cannot vent their sectarian bitterness against Catholics because of lack of opportunity, then they turn on others that they view with suspicion, be they Romanians, Poles, Chinese or whatever nationality."
In the Sunday Business Post, Tim McGurk addresses this difficult issue too:
"The racist attacks on the Roma community in the Village area of Belfast will come as no surprise to those who know the place.
For years, it has been synonymous with the most extreme loyalist elements and, throughout the Troubles, was dominated by loyalist paramilitarism. During the worst days of the sectarian killings in Belfast, the Village was the headquarters for some of loyalism’s bloodiest gangs.
Situated as it is just below the Falls Road by theM1 motorway and close to Belfast city centre, it was ideally located for loyalist murder gang sorties into adjacent Catholic areas to kidnap victims."
"However, they are only the latest victims of sectarian attacks in the North, which has the highest level of hate crime in these islands. Over the years, there have been persistent attacks on the Chinese community in south Belfast, while in other places Poles and Portuguese have suffered.
The origins of the latest attacks lie in a riot around the Northern Ireland vs Poland soccer match at nearby Windsor Park in March. Given that the Polish community is mostly Catholic, it took very little to set off the violence that occurred."
The Guardian also questioned why so much of the racism in the north of Ireland is concentrated in Protestant, Loyalist areas:
"So far this year there have been 33 racist attacks recorded and 30 of these were in Protestant areas. These assaults range from petrol bombings of the houses of migrant workers to the forced evictions of black women from loyalist estates. In one incident in March this year racists smeared excrement over a Catholic Church in the Upper Newtonards Road in east Belfast, which has become a place of worship for Filipino nurses working at nearby Ulster Hospital. The latest alleged racist incident occurred last Monday at a secondary school in North Belfast. Jade Taylor, 13, was left badly shaken and bruised after she said she was assaulted by racists at Glengormley High School. "
This is the dark racist underside of the working class "White Anglo Saxon Protestant" culture which has contributed so much to Ireland (the shipyards, entrepreneurial, innovation) and to the US too. What can be done about it? When so much of identity is about the negative ("not Catholic") rather than the positive (hard-working, proud, resourceful), maybe it is no surprise there is so much hostility towards outsiders. The fact that so much religious sectarianism is accepted is also bad. If it's "OK" to hate people from another religion, it's not a big step for it to be "OK" to hate people from another race.
Hopefully there will be an anti-racist campaign which will make discussion like this a thing of the past.