Anti-racist message is muted because of the Northern peace process
Racism is a blight spreading across the terrain
First Minister Peter Robinson with members of Muslim community during his visit to the Belfast Islamic Centre where made a public apology for any offence caused to Muslims by his defence of a controversial preacher. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye /PA
In an opinion piece in the Guardian on Tuesday, Alliance MLA Anna Lo declared: “It is now more urgent than ever that the First Minister should publish the long-awaited revised racial equality strategy that has been promised for seven years.”
By lunchtime, the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister had announced that the seven-year hitch was at an end: the strategy document would be published “within the next few days”.
The announcement is unlikely to have made Lo feel her ordeal has been worthwhile. The incident that drew an apology from Peter Robinson on Tuesday was not a once-off but part of a pattern.
Since her election in 2007, Lo has been the target of jeers and abuse from a number (not all) of unionist MLAs, as ready to insult her gender as her ethnicity.
When she recently suggested that the Northern state was a left-behind relic of colonialism, they had three strikes against her: Chinese, a woman and a united Irelander. Nobody in Northern Ireland politics has ever ticked so many boxes for bigotry.
Lo has welcomed publication of the proposed strategy, but she will be wearily aware that this has been another case of the Executive being seized with paralysis when confronted with an issue that either of the dominant parties finds difficult to deal with.
Under the rules of the game, one cannot move without the other, so they remain lashed together, immobilised, until something unexpected leaps out to bite them on the backside and send them scampering for a plausible, or even implausible, plan of action.
Abortion guidelinesIn March last year, DUP Minister for Health Edwin Poots circulated a 30-page document setting out proposed guidelines on abortion. This was three years after a previous draft had been withdrawn in face of a legal challenge from a “pro-life” group.
In the interim, the Family Planning Association, Alliance for Choice and MLAs including Lo had repeatedly been rebuffed when pressing for a date for a new document.
The Family Planning Association was on the steps of the High Court looking for an order compelling Poots to come clean on his proposals, when his department asked for the action to be withdrawn – promising to produce guidelines “within a week”.
Of course, this took more than a week and the issue has by no means been settled.
What’s relevant is that, left to his own devices, Poots would still be fobbing the women’s organisations off.
Similarly, the need for measures to deal with racist violence was clear prior to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
In the previous year, the University of Ulster had published the first major piece of research into the experience of ethnic minorities in the North.
Verbal abuseThis found that, considered together, the minority communities were steadily growing, that 44 per cent of individuals had suffered verbal abuse, while more than 50 per cent of Chinese people had been victims of criminal damage to their property.
The study also found that at a time of swelling optimism about the prospects for a peaceful future, “half of those questioned felt that these ceasefires, and the consequent changes, will make things worse for their community”. And so it has turned out.
Police figures show a rising trend of racist incidents between 1997 and 2012. Some of this is explained by new systems for gathering data. There may also have been a rise in the rate of reporting.
But the figures leave no room for doubt that in absolute terms, racism and racist violence are steeply on the increase. Although people in the North are still more likely to experience sectarian violence, racist attacks are catching up.
The period between April and November last year saw a 36.3 per cent rise in sectarian incidents in the Belfast area compared to April-November 2012. Over the same period, incidents of race hatred rose by 89.9 per cent.
The Institute of Race Relations reports that Belfast saw more incidents of race hatred in 2013 than there had been in the whole of Northern Ireland in 2003.
Most virulentRacism is a blight spreading across the terrain. It is at its most virulent in loyalist working-class areas – for reasons it is not possible to explore here. But it exists in nationalist areas, too.
An exercise in consultation on a strategy is better than nothing but it won’t make a significant difference. Action has to start at the top.
As Lo put it on Tuesday, if Robinson did not withdraw his remarks and apologise without equivocation, “then he must resign. Politicians in mainstream politics in the UK have resigned for less.”
And there’s the rub. No Executive party leader has called for Robinson’s resignation. To do so would destabilise the rickety institutions. So even the most outraged of MLAs ( Lo apart) feels a need to pull punches. The anti-racist message is muted, in the interests of the peace process.
“The issue here is that, with the Good Friday Agreement, we are talking about the two communities only,” says Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. “That is the trouble all the time.”