Brow-raising figures released by the PSNI have shown a pronounced spike in racist incidents reported in the Mid & East Antrim council area.
The data, accessible on the PSNI website, has shown that a race motive was recorded in 109 calls to police within the borough between October 2018 and September 2019, a second consecutive year in which figures have risen in the area.
Stats released show that in 12 months spanning 2016/17, 66 such incidents were recorded, whilst in 2017/18, there were 86 incidences that were defined as racially motivated.
Latest figures indicate a sizeable 65% rise over the three years, with local constabulary now dealing with the most incidents of the type in the country outside Belfast.
Based on the latest population figures for the district, there was one such incident recorded for every 1275 people living in the borough, again lying only second to the Northern Irish capital in terms of incidents per capita.
At the heart of the district lies Ballymena. The county’s biggest town and centre of employment, the past decade has been a tumultuous one.
Many of the 2000 people who moved to the area in that time are of Balkan origin, who sought work with companies such as construction moguls Patten Group, in car-tyre giant Michelin’s factory on the outskirt of town or at cigarette producer JTI Gallagher’s.
The irony that all three of these firm folded between November 2012 and November 2015, with the loss of 2000 jobs is hard to overlook.
So too, the national context of the time. A Brexit, fought very much with immigration issues front and centre, was won with the help of a fervent Leave majority in Mid & East Antrim, ramping tensions up further.
Sisters Terry and Daire Wilson spent the 2010s as typical teenagers within the town, attending St Louis’ Grammar. Typical in every sense, apart from one.
Whilst mum Bronwyn is Ballymena born and bred, father Larry is from south-east Mississippi – a black man.
The girls have never reported any racial incidents to authorities, but perhaps they and many like them are witnesses to the real story. The racism that goes unreported.
“There’s certainly a range when it comes to things we’ve experienced”, says Terry, 21.
“I can’t recall anything too sinister whilst we were at school, other than a bit of teasing now and again, but all kids get teased over something”.
But as young adults, they have noticed a shift.
Daire, 20, recalls a particularly nasty incident at the bar where the two girls work.
“It was just one of those every day bar scenes. The place was packed and I was collecting glasses. A guy was standing at the zoned off area where we set the glasses and his frustration at not being served was probably not helped by me asking him to move away from that side of the bar.
“But then he made a ridiculous comment about me taking the decision not to serve him because he was white, before coming out with a token “you people” comment when Terry tried to back me up.
“It mightn’t always be on display, but you can’t help but feel that it’s bubbling not too far away under the surface in some situations. It’s sad how quick it goes there.”
But whilst tension remains, others work to integrate newcomers into communities.
Amongst those assisting foreign nationals are the Inter-Ethnic Forum. The William Street-based non-profit work to provide a liaison between minorities, statutory bodies and locals.
Ivy Goddard headed up an outreach event at the end of last month, encouraging members of the public to make positive contributions to the Hate Crime Legislation Review.
“We certainly have had problems over the past couple of years as the figures indicate, but to focus solely on that casts a distinctly bleak shadow that isn’t always a fair representation of real life.
“In the past few weeks since the Coronavirus outbreak, we have seen all communities across Mid & East Antrim pull together. We’ve had donations of £2000 offered to food banks in the past few days from local people concerned for their neighbours, who maybe find themselves far from home at such testing times.
“That is a positive story.”