The risks of racial profiling need to be addressed in the interests of a diverse society

Fri, Apr 11, 2014, 01:01

Ireland is no longer a monocultural society. But our institutions and public services do not reflect that reality. This has contributed to prejudice, misunderstanding and social friction. Recession and fiscal shortfalls brought an end to ambitious anti-racism plans and funding for special services. Now the economy is recovering, the Government should adopt a robust approach to the needs of immigrant families and ethnic and religious groups.

In supporting integration some years ago, former President Mary McAleese insisted: “Ireland has no excuse for getting it wrong.” Unfortunately, a funding excuse emerged and Ireland is now in danger of repeating the mistakes of other countries. Reports from European agencies have expressed concern about racial profiling by State agencies and by the Garda Síochána. People from sub-Saharan Africa were twice as likely to be stopped by the police than other members of the public. People from Eastern Europe were also affected. The children of immigrants found it difficult to access education. And complaints of discrimination in the workplace have grown.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has warned Garda superintendents against the dangers of racial profiling and of “jumping to conclusions”. This is a belated acknowledgment of an unpalatable reality. Weeks earlier, the Minister had dismissed such claims in relation to the inclusion of Traveller children within the Garda Pulse system. Earlier, a high-profile case emerged where children were temporarily taken from a Roma family because their eye and hair colour differed from their parents.

Prejudice and intolerance cannot be eradicated. But they must be challenged and minimised. That is why legislation outlawing racist behaviour and promoting equality was passed. But much more needs to be done. For so long as membership of the Oireachtas, the judiciary, State agencies and other bodies fail to reflect the composition of a multicultural society, racial profiling and discrimination will continue. That is why recruitment to the Garda Síochána and to other agencies should be as broadly based as possible. Not only would such an approach address inherent prejudices, it would improve effectiveness within the organisation and enhance public acceptance.

Ireland is, as Mr Shatter said, changing rapidly. One in eight people working here was born elsewhere. Some 70,000 of those have taken Irish citizenship. Many have put down roots raising young families. An understanding of the backgrounds and cultures of these diverse groups represents a vital element of balanced policing and in relations involving health, education and welfare agencies. Prejudices based on sweeping assumptions, ethnic origins, religious beliefs or skin colour should have no place in Irish society.