Far right groups are taking advantage of paramilitary intimidation of ethnic minorities to gain a foothold in Northern Ireland, it was claimed today.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is holding an inquiry into hate crimes, is examining the role of extremist groups from Great Britain.
Committee member Tony Clarke MP said it was clear that some of the racist attacks were fuelled by paramilitaries engaged in protection rackets.
“One of the key issues for us is there are those taking advantage of some of that activity to infiltrate Northern Ireland society.
“We are trying to find out who is operating there.”
The committee was taking evidence from representatives of ethnic minority groups in the province.
It also met with the Chief Constable Hugh Orde to ask about the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s response to the growing problem of racism.
Mr Clarke said members of the committee were distressed to hear Northern Ireland being described as the “race hate capital of Europe”.
He said: “The figures suggest this is accurate in as much as nowhere else in Europe has seen such high increases in crimes related to race.
“We intend to look carefully at the reasons behind this. It is quite clear that there has been involvement of paramilitaries in some of these race-hate crimes.”
Last month, criminal justice minister John Spellar introduced new legislation aimed at giving tougher sentences to those involved in attacks on people because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
Mr Clarke said the committee welcomed the legislation but added it was important to tackle the reasons behind the increase in hate crimes in Northern Ireland.
One of those, who met the committee today was Jamal Iweida, President of the Belfast Islamic Centre.
Mr Iweida, who has been living in Northern Ireland for 14 years, was forced to leave his home two years ago because of intimidation.
“I welcome this inquiry but I believe it should have happened a long time ago,” he said. “We have had a chance to speak to policy makers and MPs who will hopefully be able to change what is happening.”
Mr Iweida believes the last three years has seen a big increase in the incidence of racism in Northern Ireland.
“I think the problem wasn’t tackled strongly enough from the beginning. It isn’t unusual for me to be abused at least twice or three times in a day.”