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The Vacuum Issue 5 spacer Issue 5
Cause For Concern - Racism In Northern Ireland
by Paul Hainsworth
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The 1994 cease-fires were welcome moves. Whilst by no means signifying a total end to violence and sectarianism, nonetheless they were significant and necessary elements in the protracted moves towards a better future for citizens and society in Northern Ireland. However, as regards Northern Ireland's smaller ethnic minority communities, there was particular cause for concern as a result of the cease-fires. Greg Irwin and Seamus Dunn, in their survey on Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland (1997), for instance, highlighted some of the experiences of ethnic minority groups since the 1994 cease-fires. These authors found that 15 per cent of Chinese interviewees felt that crime had increased whilst 12 per cent of Travellers believed that they now attracted more (unwanted) police attention. Moreover, 57 per cent of the Chinese interviewees thought that changes brought about by the cease-fires would affect their community: 63 per cent thought that this would be for the worse and 32 per cent thought that it would be for the better.
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The main reason for this overall pessimism was that the Chinese respondents pointed to an increase in racism, including physical attacks and robbery perpetrated on members of their community. These crimes were not new, it should be stressed, but one of the effects of 'the troubles' had been the widespread tendency to ignore, minimise or marginalise the problems and concerns of ethnic minorities. They were part of 'the hidden troubles', largely squeezed out by the broader societal preoccupation with sectarianism and its manifestations. After 1994, some observers argued that sectarian conflict had given way to racist offences as new and vulnerable targets were sought. For example, writing in The Guardian (12 November 1996), Northern Ireland correspondent David Sharrock, expressed the view that 'bigots who thrived on sectarian violence turned their prejudices on minority groups'. Whatever the reason for attacks - economic gain, racism or a mixture of both - this led to ethnic minority individuals feeling vulnerable and unprotected. Unsurprisingly, their spokespersons called for an all-inclusive peace process and they warned against the prospect of sectarian attitudes feeding into aggression against ethnic minorities.
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Cause For Concern - Racism In Northern Ireland
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The picture was not totally negative though, in so far as - in the 1990s - a greater focus on the issues and concerns of ethnic minorities began to emerge. Deepa Mann-Kler, in a path-breaking 1997 report (Out of the Shadows: An Action Research Report into Families, Racism and Exclusion in Northern Ireland) even dates the cease-fires as a watershed time in this respect: 'It was only since the ceasefires that matters concerned with ethnic minorities have been deliberated in the wider public arena in Northern Ireland.' That this was possible was largely due to the pioneering and tireless efforts of ethnic minority individuals and their representative organisations, such as the Chinese Welfare Association, (CWA) the Belfast Travellers' Education and Development Group (BTEDG) and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM). Also, pressure from other elements in civil society was important, including organisations like the Committee on the Administration of Justice. An immediate concern, in the early 1990s, was catch-up - for Northern Ireland lacked the race relations' machinery that had been introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom as long ago as the 1960s. Pressure and lobbying at home and abroad (notably at Geneva before the United Nations) served to make the case here and to embarrass the British State. An official consultation process was set up in 1992 and the submissions revealed a broad discontent that the Race Relations Act had not been extended to Northern Ireland. As a result, the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, including the provision of a Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland (CRENI), duly followed. In effect, the British State was now retreating on its oft-repeated position that racism was not a problem in Northern Ireland. Further developments, of course, bound up with the peace and equality agenda ushered in via the Good Friday Agreement, resulted in the emergence of a single Equality Commission to tackle various forms of discrimination and inequalities.
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Without doubt, then, institutional development has been in evidence - notwithstanding the arguments surrounding the virtues of having single or separate equality bodies. However, cause for concern continues. Speaking at a recent seminar devoted to 'Racism in Ireland', NICEM's Executive Director Patrick Yu illustrated how racist harassment and bullying had become a common experience for a significant proportion of minority ethnic adults and children. Verbal abuse, attacks on property, physical assault (in some instances fatal) are all part of the reality of ethnic minority experience in Northern Ireland. Again, speaking to mark the International Day Against Racism (21 March), Joan Harbison (Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission) pointed to signs that racism was on the increase in Northern Ireland. She revealed too that 'the incidence of racist attacks in Northern Ireland is higher - at 16.4 per 1000 of the population - than in England and Wales, where attacks are 12.6 per 1000' (Belfast Telegraph, 21 March 2003). A comparison too was made with sectarianism: 'We know from research that people in Northern Ireland are actually more likely to be racist than sectarian. Evidence of the urgent need to confront and tackle racism in our society is staring us in the face.' A body of research and interviews conducted by Connolly and Keenan have indeed substantiated this viewpoint.
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Connolly and Keenan have conducted a series of research reports for the Office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) over the past few years. One of their key findings is that racial prejudice appears to be more intensely exhibited than sectarian prejudice. About twice as many interviewees were reluctant to accept and mix with members of minority ethnic communities than they would with members of the other main (Protestant or Catholic) religious traditions. Further, more than one in two persons would be unprepared to accept, through marriage, a Chinese person, a South Asian or a black African as a relative. The figure is even higher (77%) as regards Travellers, who are also very much rejected as work colleagues and residents too, as well as for their nomadism.
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Cause For Concern - Racism In Northern Ireland
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Institutional racism is deemed to be very much part of the problem. In a recent (March 2003) Spotlight television programme devoted in part to this problem, ethnic minority spokespersons pointed to the lack of trust in the police within their communities. It was felt that insufficient police resources and attention had been dedicated to solving attacks and robbery crimes against persons of ethnic minority status. Indeed, an interview during the programme, with a spokesman from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, revealed that not a single prosecution had taken place for racist crimes - again leaving the impression that the concerns of ethnic minorities had not yet been mainstreamed within policing. In short, members of the minority ethnic communities do not feel that they receive the same service, the same equality, as other members of the community. One hundred and eighty racist crimes were logged last year according to the PSNI spokesman. This is a disturbing enough number, but it is surely well below the real figure given the lack of confidence and trust in the police's willingness or ability to achieve results and prosecutions. So the strong likelihood is that many such crimes go unreported.
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Of particular concern in contemporary times is the plight of refugees coming into Northern Ireland. Many of these have been forced to flee from their homeland and are faced now with hostility and suspicion, racism and xenophobia in the countries where they seek to claim refugee status. In Northern Ireland, some of these end up in detention in Maghabery Prison and the government has resisted the call, made persuasively in Vicky Tennant's Sanctuary in a Cell report for the Law Centre, for a designated, centrally-located centre to be built or set aside for refugee detainees. Thankfully, organisations have been set up to defend the cause of refugees and asylum seekers locally - notably the Northern Ireland Committee for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) and the Refugee Action Group (RAG). Meanwhile though, the tabloid press has created an unfortunate and wide-ranging hysteria by associating asylum seekers with all kinds of problems (terrorism, scrounging, overcrowding, cultural dilution and so on). At the same time, government measures - such as section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002) - have sought to deprive asylum seekers of rights if they do not make immediate claims for status on arrival. Whilst a recent legal ruling has served to undermine this piece of legislation, there is no doubt that the government target is still to reduce drastically the number of asylum seekers. This is regardless of what their plight is and regardless of whether government policy (such as the war in Iraq) is likely to cause, according to the UN, a really serious refugee problem.
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So, what is to be done? Clearly, racism continues to be an unfortunate characteristic of society in Northern Ireland. As such, it needs to be exposed and countered as much as possible. This means countering denialism (i.e. the contention that 'racism, it's not a problem') as well. The voices and concerns of ethnic minorities need to be listened to and acted upon, and this includes the voices of refugees and asylum seekers. Anti-racism therefore needs to be mainstreamed and prioritised within society (within the State, employers, trade unions, the voluntary and community sector and so on), if it is to be effective. As indicated above, research too can play an important part in identifying some of the issues and establishing the reality behind otherwise unsubstantiated assertions - and therefore it is to be encouraged and resourced. Moreover, cultural diversity is a bonus for Northern Ireland and it needs to be celebrated continually. A noteworthy development across the border is Ireland's National Action Plan Against Racism aimed at contributing towards constructing an inclusive and intercultural society where racism is effectively addressed and cultural diversity is valued. These are worthy targets indeed.
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Cause For Concern - Racism In Northern Ireland
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