Police at the scene of the attack (Photo via Twitter)
At 4PM last Saturday, over 200 locals met in the centre of Waterford, a small city in Ireland's south east. They marched to the home of a local Roma family shouting "Roma Out!" Mothers with their children screamed "out, out, out!" as locals kicked in the doors and smashed the windows of the house. Gardai (police) arrived on the scene and formed a corridor before whisking the family off to safety in a paddy wagon.
The following night, a smaller group of locals gathered outside another Roma home. This time the house was empty.
Seamus O'Brien from Waterford Against Racism described the scene to me. "Women and children, generations of families outside yelling 'burn them out'," he said. "I kept telling them there was no one inside but they wouldn't listen. Finally someone went in and checked, then I heard someone 'there's another family in William Street, let's go there'. It can only be described as a racist mob."
For centuries Ireland's biggest export has been its people. Waves of emigration due to poverty, famine and war, has seen the development of a huge Irish diaspora in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. Even Obama's great-great-great grandfather was Irish, a link that a small town in the Irish midlands has desperately tried to cash in on.
Something changed in the 1990s when the Celtic Tiger roared leading to huge economic growth. Suddenly people wanted to come to Ireland. The small island on the edge of the Atlantic suddenly saw waves of immigration, the highest in the OECD at the time, along with an increase of asylum applications.
People thought little of their new neighbours from abroad, until the economy collapsed and, as often happens, people started to blame foreign people for their financial woes. What happened last week in Waterford was that ill feeling coming to a head. It ripped through the easy calm of provincial, forgotten Ireland.
Seamus who set up his anti racism group as a direct response to the growing racist atmosphere in his town, said tension has been growing since June.
"It all started over a weekend in early June. A Facebook page was created called 'Waterford against Roma'. Me and my mates saw it and were really shocked. They posted photos of kids and mothers they suspected of being involved in crime. One photograph was of an old man peeing in the street. Ask anyone, men peeing in the streets after a few in Ireland is nothing new. But that man - who by the way is a lovely guy - was targeted because he is Roma," he said.
After the fall of communism Romani people started to move to Ireland, some as asylum seekers and some - after EU expansion - as EU citizens. It is estimated that there are 11 to 12 million Roma in Europe but the number of Roma in Ireland is unknown, as the Central Statistics Offices collects data based on a person's nationality, not their ethnicity. According to a report published by the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, Roma in Ireland face ongoing discrimination, bars from access to medical services, social protection and new legislation that criminalises certain types of behaviour.
The issue of Roma integration has always been contentious. Especially in recession hit small towns where locals face high unemployment and a perceived sense of injustice. However, "John", one of the locals who helped organise the protest, told me that the media have represented what happened. "Everyone keeps talking about a Facebook page called 'Waterford Against Roma' that was shut down and another one up now called 'Waterford Against Street Crime and Organised Begging'," he said. "The stuff on those pages is racist but we didn't set them up or use them. We're not racists we're just fed up of the violence and thieving in our town."
John says violent crimes and muggings motivated the protest. "Local politicians were telling us to stand up together. The crime in Waterford is shocking and you have Roma men giving 14-year-old girls cocaine and hash, grooming them. Even during the protest one of them came out attacking us with a sword and a lead pipe. They harass old people coming out of mass and they keep robbing people. People in Waterford don't have a lot of money and we can't have the Roma robbing us before Christmas," he said.
A Facebook post by Sinn Fein Councillor John Hearne
Many have accused a local politician of goading locals into action. Sinn Fein Councillor John Hearne made comments on Facebook, since deleted, have caused outcry in Ireland. The controversial posts by Sinn Fein Councillor John Hearne include d references to "foreign criminal gangs". Hearne has denounced the protest and removed posts from his Facebook page, saying he wanted to and "bring this filth to justice".
Sinn Fein Councillor John Hearne sort of apologises for his earlier Facebook post
Waterford Sinn Fein Senator David Cullinane, a colleague of Hearne's, told me Hearne's language was inappropriate and that serious work lay ahead in the community.
"I have spoken to Councillor Hearne about his choice of language. He is passionate about supporting victims of crime and sometimes emotions get involved. The facts are Waterford is not a crime black spot, people need to step back and take a more measured approach. We need community leaders to address the issues facing victims of crime by creating forums of communication," he said.
The Facebook page Waterford Against Racism has just under 2,000 likes, yet Waterford Against Street Crime and Begging has well over 7,000. The latter doesn't make for easy reading. Posts insisting that the protests are all about crime and nothing to do with racism are interspersed with words like "dirtbag" "filth" and "junkie scum" alongside images and videos of Roma people.
Mob action and racists attacks are rare in Ireland, but incidents like the one last Saturday show that legislation needs to improved to protect the vulnerable. The only legislation at present in in Ireland that deals specifically with racially motivated behaviour is the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. This fails to define clearly both "incitement" and" hatred", making conviction difficult.
As the economy in Dublin picks up, towns like Waterford are being left behind. Ireland has had little inclination towards the far-right in the past, but with people looking for someone to blame for their economic situation, it could be that what happened in Waterford is a sign of things to come.
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