North’s ethnic minorities overlooked in sectarian obsession, watchdog claims

Racism and lack of diversity in Stormont, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee finds

The North’s obsession with its sectarian schism has plunged it into the “dark ages” in looking after its soaring minority ethnic population, a damning report by a Westminster watchdog has found.

Despite a more than doubling of ethnic minorities in the region between 2001 and 2011 – the figures from a decade ago being the latest available – not a single elected representative in the Stormont Assembly is from an ethnic minority background, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said.

Hong Kong-born Anna Lo, an MLA for the centrist Alliance party for nine years, quit politics in 2016, because of racist abuse by loyalists and her disillusionment with continuing sectarianism.

At the time of standing down, she said: “I do not feel safe here and I know many people who feel the same.”

Three years later, according to latest official figures from 2019, only one of the North’s 462 local area councillors was from a recorded minority ethnic background.

Neither the police nor the civil service fare well when it comes to diversity, according to the committee’s report – The Experiences of Minority Ethnic and Migrant People in Northern Ireland.

During a series of witness testimonies as part of its inquiry, Andy George, president of the UK's National Black Police Association, told the committee that minority ethnic officers made up just 0.5 per cent of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

The Northern Ireland Civil Service also admitted it had some way to go to remedy its shortcomings.

Public appointments

Figures from 2017/2018 – again the most recent published by Stormont’s power-sharing Executive office – show just 24 out of 942 public appointment applications were from minority ethnic people.

Of the 183 people appointed to the civil service over the same period, “less than five” were minority ethnic applicants.

According to the last census in 2011, 32,000 people living in the North were from a minority ethnic background. However this figure – 1.8 per cent of the population – is “widely expected” to show a significant increase in upcoming data.

Despite this, there has been “no obvious policy preparedness to deal with this demographic change”, the report states.

The minority population rise is expected to be bolstered by the resettlement in the region of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution in Syria and Afghanistan. The ongoing invasion of Ukraine will "almost certainly" add to the numbers.

More than 1,800 Syrians have moved to the North since 2015.

The report noted, after an almost year-long inquiry, that the number of racially motivated hate crimes in the North has superseded reported sectarian incidents.

In the year to September 2021, 41 per cent of all hate-motivated crimes alerted to the PSNI were racist, compared to 38 per cent which were sectarian.

The figure was all the more stark “when considered in relation to the small proportion of the population from minority ethnic backgrounds”, the watchdog warned.

The PSNI told the inquiry there was “strong evidence to suggest that many other incidents go unreported to the police, meaning the true position of hate within society can be difficult to articulate”.

The North's Jewish community told the committee during its visit to the region about rising reports of anti-Semitic and Jewish-related hate incidents and crimes in Belfast, including anti-Semitic remarks made by public figures.

“We also heard during that visit of an increase in incidents of verbal abuse in the street towards the Chinese community since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as experiences of attacks on and abuse towards members of the Polish community, linked to the EU referendum,” the report states.

Anti-discrimination and hate crime laws in the North are "probably the worst on the books for the UK at the moment", Kendall Bousquet, of Migrant Centre NI, told the inquiry.

There was also evidence of “stark inequalities” in health, education and housing suffered by Irish Traveller communities in the North, with just 1 per cent of the community living to the age of 65, according to the latest decade-old figures.

Geraldine McGahey, Northern Ireland Equality Commissioner, said the absence of any form of ethnic monitoring and only out-of-date data meant diversity policies were all “flawed”, leaving the region in “in the dark ages”.

The Westminster committee – which includes MPs from the DUP, Alliance and the SDLP as well as Britain's Labour and Conservative parties – has demanded the North's Executive respond to its findings.

Tory MP Simon Hoare, committee chairman, said the preoccupation with "Green/Orange discourse" has led to other and increasingly populated communities being "overlooked".