Issues around race and immigration are making headlines in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Of course, this is nothing new, it has often been alleged that Northern Ireland stands out as a racist society. The question we face is whether this is fair comment or an exaggeration of the truth?
The answer, to me at least, is that, though the great majority of people here are repulsed by racist attacks, we are a society wherein there are fault-lines of prejudice which we have failed to address. Racism is the most recent manifestation of such deep-seated prejudice.
The debate has surfaced again in recent days. A lack of certainty around future government policy regarding immigration has allowed space for a public debate which has not only added to the uncertainty but, more significantly, has yet to afford any clear reassurance to the many migrants who have chosen to make this place their home.
In Northern Ireland we also had a situation where images, which went viral on social media, showed teenage boys apparently racially abusing a young mother on the school run in Antrim.
Positively, there was swift and strong local condemnation of this event and it now appears that both the parents of these boys and the relevant authorities will work together to ensure they will not engage in such behaviour again.
Alas, however, this was not an isolated incident and we should be in no doubt but that we have a considerable way to go before eliminating racism from this place we call home.
Recent PSNI figures from June 2016, show that racist attacks are happening all too often. In the twelve months to 30 June 2016 1,113 incidents were recorded where there was a racist motivation, of which about 700 contained one or more crimes (amounting to 785 recorded crimes in total).
Although race incidents and crimes are down from last year by 161 and 101 respectively, there are still over 3 race hate incidents notified daily.
Over many years the Equality Commission has been consistent in its call for a high level commitment in government to drive effective implementation of the Executive’s Racial Equality Strategy across all aspects of life.
This needs a detailed action plan with concrete targets and monitoring mechanisms; and it must be supported by the necessary resources.
This week we welcomed a report from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance which clearly supports our recommendations for changes to fill gaps in our race relations legislation.
This is necessary to ensure that all of our citizens benefit from the same level of legal protection against disadvantage on grounds of colour and nationality as there is on grounds of race, ethnic origin and national origin.
It is important to acknowledge that those who choose to make their homes here make a significant contribution to our economy and culture. Their presence is something to be cherished and not viewed as a threat. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to racism or racist behaviour.
The question remains….do we take this seriously as we try and build a shared and better future together? It needs a response from all of society – from all of us. We cannot enjoy the luxury of being the bystander. As we have been reminded, evil happens when good people do nothing.
So, we must continue to work with and challenge those who discriminate against others because of their race.
In order to do this successfully we need concerted action throughout our society – from individuals, civil society and with clear leadership and action from public bodies and politicians at all levels.
Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland addresses some of the current issues around race and racial prejudice in Northern Ireland.