Racism in Northern Ireland
Today and tomorrow members of the United Nations are meeting to discuss the issue of racism, and look at progress made since 2001, when the Durban Declaration was agreed. From a Northern Irish perspective, it is important that Ireland and the UK endorse the draft text, based upon much compromise, to ensure institutional commitments are made to combat an increasing problem.
Events surrounding the recent Northern Ireland v Poland football match have been illustrating the need for action to combat racism. Since the riots on the day itself, a campaign against ethnic minorities in the Village area of Belfast, close to the original trouble, has led to over forty people leaving their homes. Five have left Northern Ireland outright.
The reaction has been, in some quarters, denial. Ulster Unionist Bobby Stoker challenged the figures by understating the number of people who had presented themselves as homeless to the Housing Executive. He failed to condemn without qualification the campaign of racial violence, mirroring Sinn Féin’s years of failure to condemn sectarian violence.
A worrying aspect of the trouble was the perceived identification of Polish migrants with the republican “enemy”, a word still used by the First Minister, Peter Robinson. This development raises institutional segregation of loyalist and immigrant communities.
As most Polish immigrants claim Catholic heritage, their children will be educated separately from Protestant Northern Irish children. The contribution of separation to creating an ‘other’, thus increasing the incidence of violence should not be underestimated. The sectarianism that was allowed to thrive in segregated education should not be permitted to evolve into racial hatred. Nor should the fact that most racist crime takes place in loyalist areas exclude republicans from promoting full participation in society.
This conflagration also impacts upon the response of the justice system to racially-motivated hate crime. The most recent figures show that only a third of members of a minority group considered the PSNI not to be racist; more worryingly, those who had had contact with the PSNI were more likely to consider it racist than those who had not. As the number of incidents recorded as racially-motivated rose from 226 in 02/03 to 976 in 07/08, it is essential that everyone has confidence in the PSNI to deal with racism as effectively as possible.
Bearing in mind the 976 racist incidents recorded, in the same period the Public Prosecution Service received 114 files from the PSNI which it considered to have been aggravated by racial hostility. This led to 77 summary prosecutions and 11 indictable prosecutions. There are, inexcusably, no figures available for convictions.
Race relations in Northern Ireland are in the remit of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Neither have commented on increasing race problems in recent times. In 2006, there was an annual plan for implementation of the Racial Equality Strategy – nothing has been published since devolution was restored to Stormont. In July 2007, a debate was held on the issue, proposed by the single Member of ethnic minority origins, Anna Lo. Closing, a Sinn Féin MLA said “Direct rule Ministers, although talking about this issue, may not have delivered much”, and the Assembly agreed on “urgent action.” Thus the issue was closed until the present day, not even registering in the evolution of the Shared Future Strategy into the Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration for a Shared and Better Future, clearly named to capture the attention of the public and journalists alike.
There was a good report published in January by the Equality Commission.
There is a lack of confidence that the police is not racist. The justice system fails to prosecute the vast majority of racist criminals. Ministers, when not suggesting discrimination against foreigners, have little interest in the issue. Yet, in 07/08. there were three quarters as many racial crimes as sectarian crimes. The nature of hate crime is shifting and the institutions are not keeping pace. We can only hope that, once again, the population is ahead of its leaders.