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Bad times in Belfast, great day for Burnley, odd statement from Ed Balls

Posted on 18 June 2009 | 10:06am

A changed, more peaceful Northern Ireland is one of Labour’s proudest achievements. It has been wonderful, in recent times, to visit the place and find yourself talking to people about the weather, football, books, house prices, not the bombings and hatreds that defined Northern Ireland for so long.

So there is something really depressing about the spate of attacks on Romanians in Belfast which has caused them to flee their homes and seek emergency accomodation. There were pictures yesterday of children looking hurt, confused, scared, a bit like Northern Ireland children used to look when the bombs were going off.

I remember Tony Blair once saying we would know we had made real progress in Northern Ireland when the police were more occupied with ‘ordinary crime’ than terrorism. I don’t know whether racially motivated crime falls into ‘ordinary crime’ – I think he had burglaries and car crime in mind – but such crimes have doubled in the last five years, from 453 to over 1,000. This is relatively high given Northern Ireland has a smaller immigrant population than most parts of the UK. Poles and Slovaks have also been subject to racist attacks, but it is the Romanians who are getting hit hardest.

It could be that these attacks are just another signal that economic problems have an impact beyond the obvious, which is why the authorities are right to be so concerned, particularly in the light of more bad news on the employment front. But I was struck by a remark from Neil Jarman, from the Institute for Conflict Research in Belfast, who has made several studies of racism in Northern Ireland. He said that one of the legacies of years of sectarianism was a ‘sub-culture’, in which anyone who seemed different was liable to be intimidated.

As the Romanian consul general meeets NI ministers today, this is now a test for political leadership. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and Democratic Unionist minister Jeffrey Donaldson stood side by side in condemnation of what McGuinness called ‘racist criminals.’ I have been privy to some pretty explosive differences between those two in the past, so it was good to see them coming together over this.

… to Rupert Murdoch’s summer party last night. Lots of politicians, business people and media having lots of short conversations. It was really good to see former Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar, with his wife and daughter. Even she was aware of, and excited about, Burnley’s heroics. It is extraordinary how the Burnley success story, and our promotion to the Premiership, has touched people. Even people who knew next to nothing about football – I think Peter Mandelson won’t be offended if I put him in this category – are aware something quite special has happened.

Just how special became apparent when the fixtures came out yesterday, and we were paired with four of the top five in the first five games of the season. Now we know why Ronaldo fled Britain – he must have known United’s first away game was at Burnley. Deportiva La Coruna probably seems easier for him.

I had a brief chat with Ed Balls, unaware that he had said on TV yesterday morning that his ‘personal’ view was that the Iraq inquiry should have been more open than the one announced by Gordon Brown. As I said here the other day, the question of whether the inquiry is private or public is not as simple and straightforward as GB’s critics are making out. But what is strange is that a member of the Cabinet, and one so close to the PM, should not be supporting him, totally, one hundred per cent, at this time, on a contentious issue. He must have heard GB’s arguments in the Commons. 

Ed Balls has been at the front of the queue in calling for unity around GB, and was always quick to get on the phone in the days when I was in Number 10, if anyone said anything on the economy that veered from the GB view, so this seemed a very odd intervention. If it was a deliberate move related to positioning or garnering support, it is worse than that.

  • dr_whom

    I see you neatly side-stepped the issue of Burnley’s opening day game against the mighty Potters. I was pleased we got your lot, you should bring a decent following (in good voice I hope), it’ll be a chance to re-live the CCC days of yore and, let’s face it, it’s an easy three points for us. COME ON STOKE!

  • Butler

    Is anyone watching the drama on BBC1 called The Occupation? Final Part tonight. Is Mr Campbell watching it?

  • Andy

    Hi Alastair

    As a Wolves supporter I can understand your pride and excitement!

    One tiny matter with which I’d like to take issue, and that is the seeming airbrushing-out of John Major’s in the developing history of the NI peace process. I do not begrudge Tony Blair the credit for his tenacity and courage to see it all through: definitely not! It’s probably the thing I respect him most for. But never is their any mention of Major’s part: yet it was on his watch that the IRA announced 2 ceasefires, the latter of which was never broken; the Downing Street declaration was made; the Framework documents issued and the Mitchell report on decommissioning issued. It toook great personal courage from Major to so clearly reverse the Government’s attitude to the IRA and Sinn Fein. Please don’t get me wrong – TB should feel immensely proud of what he achieved. I just begrudge labour commentators writing as though nothing had been achieved in NI until TB came into power.

  • Michael Taylor

    The first fixture most of you lot looked for was against Blackburn Rovers. With five games to go, the game at the Turf could have a special significance.

  • uberpikey1889

    It’s interesting to see that Neil Jarman says that racism is a legacy of sectarianism. I think the attacks on the Poles at the recent European qualifier and the recent spate of attacks against the Romanians is blatant sectarianism. It’s not a coincidence that the violence was carried out by protestants on Catholic immigrants. It is interesting to note that the Chinese and Vietnamese populations of Northern Ireland have never been targeted in the same way.
    However no-one will call them sectarian as it could potentially drag us back to the tit-for-tat days of religious bloodshed.

  • Tubby Hubby

    Is anyone watching the powerful drama on BBC1, The Occupation? It is on tonight. David Dimbleby is also hosting a new version of crimewatch tonight. AC what do you think about Butler recommending the Iraq enquiry should be held in public?

  • Political Football

    There are some parallels with Iraq and northern Ireland in relation to sectarianism. As a result of the occupation in Iraq sectarian tension exist between Shia and Sunni. The question is who will win that political game? Still Bloody Sunday does not come close to a Bloody Occupation. How many Iraqis died in that onslaught, do you have the exact figures Mr Campbell? Cheers

  • Pat Kelly

    Andy … I saw Alastair speaking in Northern Ireland a few months ago, and he actually did pay tribute to the work of other politicians including John Major. I was quite surprised at the time because I knew from things he had said politically that he was not his biggest fan, but he was quite fulsome in his tribute to Major, and of course Clinton and Bertie Ahern. I think today’s blog is less about the peace process than the horrible attacks on immigrants

  • Birmingham City fan

    Ronaldo will also miss the mighty Blues on day one … I can see why Barcelona and Valencia might seem better dates for his talents than us and you, but we should both take hope from the fact he has gone, and your old mate Fergie seems to think some bloke from Wigan is a replacement.

  • David Leaver

    Great day for Burnley indeed : Owen ‘God’Coyle staying, Kitty ‘Artex’ Ussher going.

  • simon

    Does Ed Balls really think he has a chance of becoming the next leader of the Labour Party? What world does he live in?

  • Sirhornet

    I cast my mind back three years to when the fixtures were announced for Watford’s season in the sun. Everton away- denied a stonewall penalty and concede a penalty when the ball hit one of our players smack in the head-West Ham at home blatant handball gives them an equaliser-Man Utd at home-poor backpass gifts Giggs a winner. and so the season went on. Enjoy it while you can, I hope you can do better than us but expect nothing from refs whilst many of your opponents will play players whose value exceeds your club. Make sure your board do not waste the money. All we have to show for a premiership season is a dilapidated stand. Sorry to be so gloomy but reality will bite

  • Patrick Marshall

    Re Ed Balls, I cast my mind back to Kim Howells letter which Alastair mentioned the other day, about the younger ones talking too much about themselves and not enough about politics and policy. Balls is a member of the Cabinet. What on earth is he doing giving his ‘personal’ view of something like this? Just as I asked why Miliband talked about how he had thought about quitting and didn’t. The one thing Blair and Alastair always seemed to do was defend things when the going was tough. This is all too bloody flaky

  • Keith P

    I love the way you weave from one unrelated issue to another and make it look like they are not unrelated at all. To get so quickly from Belfast to Balls ia Burnley – hats off. And hope you are happy about Owen Coyle’s new contract. Amazing how happy football makes people. Wish politics could do the same. I suppose it did in 97, and again with Obama but otherwise — what a bloody mess

  • Alina Palimaru

    As a Romanian citizen living abroad, it’s always sad to hear about this type of abuse. I am not too familiar with the situation of those Belfast families, but I wonder what sort of coverage local immigrant communities had received before the attacks. I don’t know about other minority groups, but let’s face it, there are Romanian immigrants (working hard, going to school, doing research in scientific laboratories) and then there are Romanian immigrants (engaged in human trafficking, having an obscene number of children, selling their kids for money, begging, spitting in the streets and destroying public places, stealing etc).

    Unfortunately, the latter part receive a disproportionate amount of coverage, so this may keep all Romanians in an unwanted spotlight. I have had my own share of suffering because of the crimes that my co-nationals have been perpetrating abroad… and I will certainly continue to suffer from this because I know the flow of Romanian criminals out of that sad little country will not stop anytime soon.

    Does this justify the type of violence we have seen in Northern Ireland, Italy or Spain? Of course not! I only hope that host countries quickly separate the bad apples from the good ones, deport the jerks back to Romania and allow the rest of us to continue with our productive lives, respectful of the hospitality of foreign countries. Finally, I hope that the media would do justice to the distinctions among immigrants that I drew above. This would help a great deal.

  • Alan Quinn

    Ed Balls, managed to give a speech as education minister at the party conference without mentioning school governors ( of which I’m one) once. Clueless idiot, another one of the romper room who has ideas beyond his ability.

  • sara

    Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants HAVE been subject to racism and violence in Northern Ireland. Cast your minds back to reports in 2003 that Chinese (and Ugandan) families were driven from their homes in the Village area of Belfast, following a wave of violent racist attacks.

  • Mark

    Interesting link to Spain. Thierry Henry would be interested in challenging Facism. What chance of a kick Racism friendly between Barca and Burnley?

  • Richard

    Dear Alastir.

    Love to know why you think you are still qualified for this stuff? Communicator? No longer. Strategist? Don’t make me laugh. Writer? Do you have anything to contribute that anybody actually wants to read?

    Time for you to take your dosh and get back to running marathons or getting pissed.