Welcome news yesterday as OFMDFM have finally agreed to publish the long overdue and much needed Racial Equality Strategy. The consultation for the document will run until October 10th 2014 and I encourage all groups and individuals to submit a response.
However the proposals for the strategy have come at a cost, or rather it has cost us dearly not having one. I live in East Belfast in a street that has Romanian, Canadian, Nigerian and Polish families. There are other gay couples in our street along with my fiancé and I. The children from the families play together in the street, even though there may be a language barrier, and it warms my heart to see it. The recent attacks and demonisation of immigrants and foreign nationals who live in Northern Ireland and who have come here to work and live in peace, free from intimidation, do not represent the modern Belfast that I know.
The recent comments by Pastor McConnell towards Muslims repulsed me, what made my blood boil, however, was the spectacular lack of condemnation from our political ‘leadership’. Peter Robinson’s defence of Mr. McConnell’s comments were condescending and insulting to the extreme.
It is only now, after a rise in racially motivated crime, that the Assembly has taken steps to remedy the situation via the Racial Equality Strategy. Whilst this will not fix or undo the demonisation of foreign nationals we have seen through such vile avenues as UKIP, Britain First and even loyalist paramilitaries, it is a start.
We can start to properly fund and resource out ethnic minorities sector in this country and provide access to services that they need. There needs to be a concerted effort by all parties and all sections of society to tackle racism full square and give no quarter to any mealy mouthed semi-defence of racism or xenophobia. We cannot give it any oxygen to grow, only sunlight to expose it. If there is not a unanimous and definitive approach to stamping out bigotry, in all it’s forms in Northern Ireland, then we have no hope of moving forward as part of a global community and reaping the economic rewards that it will bring.
Belfast has been made stronger by people coming from the EU and further afield to live and work here. We also have a duty to provide a safe space to those who are fleeing persecution or atrocities in their own countries as we once did during World War 2.
Britain First talks of going back to British values however we are seeing those values every day in the faces of the people in the street. Diversity is a British value, tolerance and respect are British values. Freedom from fear, intimidation and harassment are British values. We should not have had to wait until Polish and Pakistani families were harassed from their homes for OFMDFM to get their finger out and do what they should have done 6 years ago.
My fear now is that the damage has already been done and Northern Ireland is now seen as a hotbed of racism, it simply isn’t true. Alliance will continue to press for greater integration within Europe and the global community, Northern Ireland cannot exist alone and we depend on foreign investment to survive. Only through welcoming the diversity of culture, knowledge, experience, skills and talent of those who want to bring those things to our shores can we sustain ourselves, and I for one welcome it.