The recent treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters by the PSNI laid bare the institutional racism of the ‘New Northern Ireland’. In a piece which takes stock of the inaction of Stormont over more than a decade, Rebel exposes the depth of the problem.
On Tuesday 9 June 2020, Justice Minister Naomi Long addressed the Stormont Assembly to defend the policing of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests as ‘proportionate’. It’s very telling that on the same day, the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne attended a meeting in Derry with Black and migrant community representatives, hurriedly-called, in an attempt to crisis manage the damage caused by the PSNI to Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community confidence in the policing and justice system.
The protests had been expertly socially distanced and set a benchmark for how demonstrations against injustice could go ahead safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The regulations which allowed the PSNI to go in with fines and cautions were passed quite literally at the eleventh hour the night before the protests – 11pm on a Friday evening. It could not be clearer that they were aimed at the BLM protests, despite claims to the contrary from establishment politicians.
Since then, a number of prominent BAME-led organisations have refused to engage with the PSNI Chief Constable until the fines are withdrawn, the Public Prosecution Office case is dropped, and an apology is issued.
Though the Justice Minister’s own Alliance Party colleague Anna Lo quit political office in 2014 over her disillusionment with the institutional racism of Stormont, Long does not seem attuned to the idea that the state cannot be perceived to be a neutral arbiter of justice, or an advocate of racial equality, when people in positions of power act do not act accordingly.
Indeed, she displayed shoulder-shrugging indifference when responding to questions about the PSNI facilitating a far-right protest exactly one week after the Black Lives Matter protest. Attendees such as disgraced former Belfast City Councillor and racist Jolene Bunting and British fascist-organiser Jayda Fransen were barely approached by the police, and no fines were issued.
Naomi Long dismissed the blatant double-standard by tweeting that people could make a complaint to the Police Ombudsman if they believed they were treated unfairly. The Police Ombudsman is indeed investigating, though not many complainants hold out hope that this will be much different to a student marking their own homework.
It was a ‘lip-service with no follow through’ approach to anti-racism which saw Anna Lo—the only ethnic-minority MLA ever elected here and the first Chinese-born person to be elected in Europe—leave behind establishment politics in the North of Ireland. Despite hurried meetings in Derry, it appears no amount of the same lip service can smooth over the damage which has been done by the PSNI and political establishment in recent months.
History tells us that there isn’t likely to be much follow through, either.
In 2014 Lo cited the failure of the NI Executive to vigorously implement racial equality at a structural level as evidence of the insincerity of the institutions. This point was reiterated in June 2020 by the Equality Commission who appealed to the NI Executive to urgently progress their racial equality commitments – saying not enough significant work is being done to tackle institutional racism here despite the commendable efforts of BAME-led organisations who can be credited that any progress has happened at all.
The stalling of a robust racial equality strategy by successive NI Executives is proof of how deep institutional racism runs in the north of Ireland.
A strategy to address racial inequality was stalled from 2007 until its publication in December 2015 – a whole eight years – despite rising rates of racial violence. The most notable of these was the infamous pogrom of over 100 Romanian and Roma residents in South Belfast in 2009, where all but two of the displaced victims fled the north of Ireland due to the state’s refusal to relocate them for their safety.
Even after its publication, elements of the current Racial Equality Strategy (2015-2025) were much weaker than initially envisaged, until the involvement of experienced civil society stakeholders. Five years on from its publication, we are yet to see concrete action on many pressing fundamental questions of racial inequality beyond performative and gestural grandstanding.
Moreover, Northern Ireland remains the only place in the UK without a specific legal definition of hate crime, while the largest category of hate crime offences committed are racially-motivated – more than half. On average, 1,000 racist hate incidents have been reported to the PSNI every year since 2014, while just over 100 cases result in convictions annually.
Despite the exigency to take to task a failing policing and justice system with a mere 13.5% success rate, an independent review of hate crime legislation did not commence until June 2019 and Minister Long has confirmed it is highly unlikely to be brought to the Assembly before May 2022.
It seems that ethnic minority citizens who have faced increased violence since the Good Friday Agreement are expected to tolerate the ‘peace process in reverse’.1 In the meantime, endless appeals for ‘good relations’ by the state and a political class are to be taken as a sufficient substitute to actually doing something tangible about unlawful efforts to segregate communities for the benefit of ‘locals only’.
NI is also the only part of the UK without a Refugee Integration Strategy. The Racial Equality Unit at the Stormont Executive Office assures that this, too, is in the pipeline. The first draft will go out to consultation in December 2020 – almost exactly five years after the first Syrian refugees arrived here under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS).
Some will be quick to point out that we have accepted more Syrian refugees as a share of population than anywhere else in the UK – easily countered as the majority of the north of Ireland’s MPs voted for a British bombing campaign in Syrian, making the resettlement of 2,000 stateless Syrians a common courtesy at best.
Indeed, it would be remiss not to caution against self-celebrating our fabled hospitality, given reports that Syrian refugees here have been living in housing conditions that fall well below basic standards – finding recourse only by escalating it to the attention of activists.
Not that having the issue elevated publicly is guaranteed to produce any concrete recourse from Stormont. In 2018 the Equality Commission wrote an update on progress towards improving the situation and experiences of Travellers. In it they detail that ‘persistent inequalities have continued to be periodically documented over the last twenty or more years’ and note their concern that little has been done to alleviate these inequalities.
The Equality Commission has received consistent complaints of racial discrimination within workplaces in recent years – facilitated in no small way by the reduced legal protections for the disproportionate number of BAME agency workers here. It should be welcome news that a final report laying out the rationale for potential amendments to employment legislation is due soon, but it is 15 years since the need was officially identified. 15 years.
Establishment parties may claim that anti-racism matters greatly to them, but they are the same political class responsible for the stalling and hindering of progress. They are the same political class seldom seen countering far-right mobilisations in Belfast city, leaving it up to the combined effort of the BAME community, anti-fascist and anti-racist activists in groups like United Against Racism, human rights campaigners, and those aligned to the labour movement – the same assemblage who received fines at the June 6 BLM protest. Fines which the political class allowed for and then stood over.
There is, however, nothing new about the flexibility with which politicians here ease, seemingly unscathed, between declaring themselves allies to ethnic minorities, and shifting gears into open hostility towards their organisations when challenged.
Starved of funding
Indeed, preceding publication of the racial equality strategy, the DUP was busy denouncing high-profile anti-racism bodies for repeatedly “raising the issue” of racism in the north. Former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson made the unforgivable accusation that frontline “organisations like the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) make charges of racism… while holding out their hand for more money [as a] way of perpetuating their own existence.”
For context, NICEM was the leading anti-racism umbrella organisation in NI for over 20 years, whose existence predated the Good Friday Agreement.
In the same year of the consultation on racial equality, NICEM revealed that only 12 out of reported 14,000 racially motivated hate crimes between 2009 and 2014 had resulted in successful prosecutions.
In solidarity with ethnic minority communities enduring what was described, by the PSNI themselves, as an “ethnic cleansing” campaign by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), ICTU and Amnesty International swiftly joined NICEM in co-organising the largest and most ethnically diverse anti-racism demonstration ever witnessed in the north, with almost 10,000 marchers on the streets of Belfast.
Within a month of the public demonstration demanding racial equality, NICEM had its application to deliver ongoing interpretative services for victims of racial hate crime and discrimination rejected by the NI Department for Justice, leading to its insolvency.
Some will say it’s coincidence but as Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International lambasted, “for the NI Executive to allow the closure of NICEM, at a time of widespread racism and other huge challenges for the BAME community, is an utter disgrace.”
The following year, the PSNI raised a hate crime investigation against NICEM Director Patrick Yu. He had warned against relocating BAME pupils to a school in another area, before a risk assessment was carried out. The new location was known for affiliation with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Yu urged the risk assessment could avoid putting ethnic minority schoolchildren in danger of racial harassment, at a time when attacks had almost doubled across Belfast city.
The then South Belfast DUP MLA Jimmy Spratt called for Yu’s resignation, disregarding altogether that Yu’s concerns were based on the fact that the BAME children, a third of whom were Muslim, would be forced to walk through an area which had seen a 19% increase in racist attacks – Spratt’s own constituency.
Since the loss of NICEM, the phenomenon of starving anti-racism groups of funding has not abated.
In 2018, Anna Lo briefly returned to the public eye to draw attention to the ongoing funding crisis within BAME-led organisations after a number of prominent and longstanding groups had their funding applications rejected by Stormont’s Minority Ethnic Development Fund (MEDF) in favour of associations that were not set up specifically to support minority and ethnic communities.
While the former MLA complained that the MEDF was flawed because it allocated funding on a year-to-year basis rather than apportion core funding for years at a time to allow BAME-groups to plan ahead and develop, she was clear that “if you have those organisations going to the wall [due to termination of funding contracts then] there is going to be no-one to speak up for them.”
Whereas a ‘Culture Night’ project was successful in receiving MEDF funding, the NI Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) lost funding – an organisation which sits on the Racial Equality Strategy Subgroup at Stormont.
Official appeals against the decision were also rejected, with the Executive Office stating “integration is a two-way procedure and the fund will reflect that.” One can read between the lines of that statement. At present, the MEDF has terminated the application process for 2020/2021, citing the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
None of the above even touches on the overt racism featured on the election literature, and indeed spouted from the mouths, of Stormont Ministers and MLAs. It was as recently as 2014 that the then First Minister Peter Robinson said he would deign to ‘trust a Muslim to go to the shop for him‘ and much more recently, a DUP election candidates pamphlet featured the phrase ‘local homes for local people‘.
The past few months shouldn’t surprise anyone who is well versed in the overtly racist record of such Stormont politicians, bu it should be a cause for concern to everyone that as the international struggle for racial equality re-emerges, following the murderous police brutality inflicted on George Floyd, the Stormont Executive chooses to defend police for their differential and discriminatory actions towards Black Lives Matter protestors on 6 June 2020.
They chose to de-radicalise and de-mobilise a cross-community multiracial working class movement, while simultaneously downplaying how the problem of racism locally goes right to the heart of government, from the top down.
Neither the parties who profess to stand in the tradition of civil rights, nor those in Sinn Féin who claim to oppose state repression, have made a political challenge to the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters. It has been left to just one MLA—Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit—to delineate the deficiencies and take a principled stand by being the only elected representative to vote against the policing powers granted by the Assembly to harass ethnic minority activists and their supporters.
Indeed, “what is so exceptional in Northern Ireland is not the depth of its institutional racism, frightening though it is, but the depth of its denial.”
As Black and migrant organisers face down prosecution, we need to redouble our efforts to develop a growing movement, from below, against institutional racism by strengthening alliances between BAME-led organisations, anti-racist political parties, trade unions, human rights groups, and conscious legal practitioners. If there is any court case to be had, let us put the state in the dock.