On Wednesday last week, a story that I thought had been confined to history books made headlines here in the UK.
A Nigerian man and his child were driven out of their home in Northern Ireland because of the colour of their skin. On learning that a black man had moved into their neighbourhood the people of Knocknagoney in East Belfast went to Abiona’s house and stood outside with banners stating that local people need homes too forcing him and his son to flee.
Whilst I was still digesting this, the story took an unbelievable turn. The residents insisted that they were not racist and Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister stepped in to defend them. He argued that the the local people’s protest outside Abiona’s home was not racist and that when they said “homes for local people” they meant very local. Moreover there was a shortage of housing in Northern Ireland.
When I first heard about this, I thought it was a joke but sadly it was not, Mr Abiona was unable to take up his tenancy, for his safety and that of his three year old son.
This case is as shocking as it is disappointing.
As an Undergraduate student on a Housing Management course, I read stories about housing practices by landlords of bygone era.
These landlords were allowed to advertise their rooms with slogans such as NO IRISH, NO BLACKS, NO DOGS
But this is 2014 and all manner of Acts have been passed to prevent something like this happening, there was the Race Relations Act, then the Equal Opportunity Act and the Humana Rights Act and so on. On Paper this therefore means that Mr Abiona should not have been driven out of his home.
So why did this happen?
I don’t know. I however, have a hypothesis, which is that people behave this way because they are first and foremost ignorant of the facts and cannot be bothered or are too lazy to establish what is fact and what is fiction.
As well as the common misconception that immigrants take local jobs, the second most popular misconception is that all social housing is allocated to immigrants/new arrivals. The truth of the matter is that there is strict criteria with respect to allocating social housing and it would appear this simple fact is not common knowledge. In the absence of actual facts people fill in the gaps with whatever they want.
Before you can access social housing there are a few hoops to jump through. You have to prove that, you have a right to remain in the UK/EU, have recourse to public funds, pass the eligibility test, prove that you cannot provide your own housing due to lack of income or that you are vulnerable in some way that prevents you from providing your own housing. All of this involves providing pieces of information, telling your story and filling in forms and more.
I have over simplified what is a complex system but hopefully you get the picture and if you are really interested in the subject matter, you might find this government guide useful
The broader point I am trying to make is, that it is not that easy for immigrants to access social housing as is generally believed. Indeed many immigrants live in substandard housing and it is not uncommon for several people to share one room.
In addition, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows the public to access certain information and therefore anyone interested in establishing the facts can do so. Furthermore local authorities publish their meetings that are open to the public and these meetings provide members of the public an opportunity to learn about and or scrutinise local authority activities. This therefore means that there is no reason to remain ignorant of the facts to the extent that you drive innocent families out of their homes.
My second hypothesis is that, politicians play on the public’s ignorance of the facts especially as we head into an election year. As true as night follows day light, immigration becomes a hot topic in UK elections and it is something I regularly wrote about during the last elections . Some amongst the politicians jump on these populists issues when they could easily give the citizens the facts about jobs, allocation of housing and access to other public resources.
I therefore have to ask the question, why did Peter Robinson defend the actions of the residents Knocknagoney. Could a common man on the street interpret the actions of those residents as anything other than racist?
A wider question is the state of race relations in Northern Ireland?
Has Northern Ireland become a no go country for black people?
Your thoughts please