God knows, you don’t have to go too far out of your way to find reasons to be ashamed of this place. Last week served up several more, culminating in the spectacle of our one ethnic-minority member of the Legislative Assembly, Anna Lo, fighting back tears as she spoke of the racist abuse she has suffered on the streets of Belfast.
Latest figures suggest that racially motivated attacks in Northern Ireland are up by a third on last year. In one deeply unpleasant incident at the start of May, a Roma man had a bag of excrement thrown in his face as he cycled along the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, the same road along which, in a citywide outpouring of pink, the competitors in the Giro d’Italia cycled a few days later. They cycled too past the constituency office of Anna Lo’s Alliance Party colleague Naomi Long, petrol-bombed twice in recent weeks – attacks linked, like several of the racist incidents, to the UVF.
Lo’s announcement that she would not be seeking re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was doubly dispiriting as just a few days earlier she had polled 44,432, or 7.1 per cent of first-preference votes, in the European elections, by a considerable distance the best ever showing by an Alliance candidate in Europe. Three years ago she topped the poll in her Belfast South Assembly constituency with 19.8 per cent of the vote. She is not only Northern Ireland’s but the United Kingdom’s first ethnically Chinese parliamentarian – the first indeed to have been elected anywhere in Western Europe. Her presence at Stormont, her popularity with voters at successive elections, is something we ought to be proud of. The events of last week appeared to have robbed us all of even that.
At noon on Saturday, however, a crowd of four thousand turned out in front of Belfast City Hall to demonstrate their support for Lo, and for all members of ethnic and religious minorities living here. Critics (in my experience, people who weren’t actually there) are in the habit of dismissing such rallies as ‘unrepresentative’, which is code for middle-class. All I can say is that if Saturday was unrepresentative then it was unrepresentative in the same way as, say, the rallies against the Iraq War ten years ago. The same range of trade union, anti-fascist, and leftwing banners were on display, in among the homemade placards and the customised T-shirts, like the one worn by the 12-year-old next to me: ‘I stand with Anna Lo.’
The biggest cheer of the day was, unsurprisingly, for Lo herself, who said that she was not now – as she had suggested she might be earlier in the week – thinking of leaving Northern Ireland; the second biggest was for Gerry Carroll, newly elected to Belfast City Council for the People Before Profit Alliance, who twice said: ‘This is what Belfast looks like.’ It wasn’t fanciful. Yes, there are still a shocking number of racist incidents here and, yes, there are still headlines that – even imagining for a minute you wanted to – are impossible to duck. We can, though, when we are put to it, present a very different face, or a whole lot of very different faces ranged in solidarity side by side, and reclaim a bit of pride in this place.