Around 4,000 people took part in a rally against racism and Islamophobia in front of Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoon.
The ‘Emergency Rally Against Racism’ was organised by Aisling Gallagher and Lorcan Mullen to protest a marked increase in hate crimes and racist attacks in Northern Ireland, which had culminated in the announcement that Anna Lo MLA – the UK’s first parliamentarian from the Chinese community – no longer felt safe in Belfast and would be resigning from politics.
The rally also followed comments by Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, who described Islam as “satanic” and a “doctrine spawned in hell”, comments which were later defended by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson. Robinson said that he would not trust Muslims devoted to Sharia law for spiritual guidance, but would “trust them to to go to the shops” for him.
There has been a significant increase in hate crimes in Northern Ireland in recent months, especially vandalism and assaults targeted at migrant communities. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) says many attacks on foreign nationals in South and East Belfast are thought to have been orchestrated by the UVF, a unionist paramilitary group.
Talking about the attacks and the growing anti-migrant sentiment, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said: “It’s very insidious, it’s unacceptable, we need to wake up to it and accept that is a problem for us and we need to do something about it quickly so we provide a long-term resolution to this issue.”
Mr Kerr also told the Policing Board that the increase in racist attacks had contributed to a 70% overall increase in hate crime in the city.
The levels of racism became national news, however, when Pastor James McConnell – Senior Pastor of one of Belfast’s largest churches – gave a sermon about the growth of Islamic communities in the UK, comparing “cells of Muslims” to the IRA and describing them as a “new evil”.
The comments have been seen as offensive and Islamophobic, including by Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre, who condemned the “inflammatory language” and said he would hold Pastor McConnell “responsible” for any further attacks on Muslims in Northern Ireland.
The Muslim Association of Britain said that the sermon “promoted hatred and bigotry against all Muslims in the UK”. The police are currently investigating a “hate crime motive” in the pastor’s comments following formal complaints.
But Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, defended Pastor McConnell and said there was not “an ounce of hatred in his bones”.
His defence has been slammed, with Green Party NI leader Steven Agnew MLA saying Robinson “has sent out a message to the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is a closed and unwelcoming society”.
David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party and Justice Minister in Stormont’s power-sharing executive, compared Robinson and McConnell’s language to that used in “South Africa a few years ago or the southern parts of the United States half a century ago”.
Anna Lo said that racist abuse had influenced her decision not to seek re-election in 2016. She said that she “does not feel safe” in Belfast and that the First Minister’s comments could “escalate even more of the racist tension”.
Her comments launched efforts on Thursday to organise Saturday’s emergency antiracist rally at the City Hall.
Speakers at the rally included Mohammed Samaana, a member of Belfast’s Muslim community who called on the First Minister to apologise and condemn McConnell’s sermon, and the new Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nichola Mallon, who promised to represent the full diversity of Belfast in office.
Anna Lo also addressed the crowd, thanking people for their support while urging them to “stand up against racism”. She also vowed that she was “not going to go away”, confirming that she will leave politics but remain in Belfast.
Many placards at the rally expressed clear support for Anna Lo, with slogans like ‘Don’t Go, Anna Lo’ and ‘Aim High, Don’t Go’ – a play on her election slogan of ‘Aim High, Vote Lo’. Other placards called on the First Minister to step down, with protesters holding boards proclaiming “I’m shopping for Peter” in reference to his remarks.
Amnesty International and trade unions have organised an additional anti-racist march for Saturday 7 June, which will meet at Writers Square, Belfast at 2pm.