A meeting convened by the South Belfast MP to discuss anti-social issues in the area has descended into chaos and racist accusations.
The gathering, organised by Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP in the Chinese Welfare Centre on Monday night, heard calls for Romanians to be “put out” of the area by residents angry at recent criminal acts. Members of the Romanian community hit back at the “racist” remarks and spoke of their fears of a repeat of the forced evictions of 2009 which saw Romanian families forced from their homes on the Lisburn Road and Donegall Road.
Long-term residents of the Ormeau Road, Romanian immigrants and SDLP politicians - including Dr McDonnell and Fearghal McKinney - and a reporter from this paper, attended the event.
However at the start of the meeting, which was stormy from the outset, our reporter was asked to leave by the two SDLP men who described the meeting as “private”.
Our reporter’s insistence that the “rumour and counter-rumour” cited by Dr McDonnell as the reason for his exclusion would be better addressed by an impartial member of the press, was rejected by the MP who said the meeting would not continue while he remained in the room.
Speaking after the event, community sources said although there are “underlying issues” with residents in the Lower Ormeau, the style and timing of the meeting were wrong and led to a “baying crowd” looking for someone to blame for anti-social behaviour.
One source said the meeting descended into open racism at several points, with Dr McDonnell threatening to end the discussion if the tone was not mellowed.
“It was a horrible experience to witness, with constant references to “them” by audience members. One even said people in the Donegall Road and Lisburn Road had had the right idea when they put Romanians out of their community.
“People also specified a number of recent crimes here for which no-one has been arrested that they said were carried out by Romanians.
“On the other hand the sense from the Romanians there was that they have had enough of being attacked and bullied and they are ready to stick up for themselves. I wonder where we will be if that happens?”
According to a number of sources, other members of the audience shouted down several Romanians who tried to put across their own fears of being attacked.
Speaking to the SBN following the meeting, Lower Ormeau Romanian community representative Nikola Steva said several members of the audience had told the Romanians to leave the country.
“It made us feel very bad and as if 2009 was happening over again. We are good people and contribute to the community. Some people talk about the fact that there are lots of us staying in one house but that is because we are afraid of being attacked.
“There are a few bad members of the community but that should not mean we are all called bad. This meeting should not have happened as it stirred up all these feelings. I hope it doesn’t get as bad as things were in 2009 but I think it may be going that way again.”
Despite asking Dr McDonnell to respond to a series of questions in relation to the meeting he would only say in a statement that its aim was to “give the residents of the Lower Ormeau the opportunity to discuss anti-social behaviour in the community in a private and confidential setting”.
“Over 150 people attended and views were heard from all sides of the community. All agreed the aim was to arrive at a community where people could live safely and in dignity and respect with their neighbours. It was agreed there would be follow up meetings,” added the statement.