Urgent Reform of Race Relations Legislation Required

The rise in racial incidents and crimes in Northern Ireland has been well documented.  Our last Racial Equality Strategy expired in 2010; and although work on the latest strategy started in 2007, the result—entitled A Sense of Belonging—was not launched by OFMDFM until June of this year.  Despite clear evidence that racism is affecting many communities, OFMDFM has neglected its responsibility to promote equality and protect individuals from discrimination by delaying the strategy’s publication.

To succeed, any Racial Equality Strategy must clearly identify the steps that local and central government must take to end inequality and racism, whilst ensuring that there are adequate resources for its implementation and built-in accountability measures to prevent the strategy becoming an afterthought.

The stated aims of A Sense of Belonging are to:

  • Tackle racial inequalities and to open up opportunity for all;
  • Eradicate racism and hate crime; and
  • Promote good race relations and social cohesion along with Together: Building a United Community  (the OFMDFM strategy for improving community relations and building a shared and united society).

After such a long delay you could be forgiven for assuming that the strategy would be well equipped to achieve these laudable goals.  And of course, we’re still within the consultation period which has been provided to fine-tune the details. (It ends on October 10, 2014.)  However, a variety of groups have already raised a number of concerns,  suggesting that the strategy fails to address many of the key issues, to the extent that the proposals may, in fact, be considered as weaker than the previous Racial Equality Strategy.

The Racial Equality proposals have been widely criticised

Key amongst the critics is the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), which has gone so far as to state that A Sense of Belonging “is unlikely in its current format to deliver racial equality in Northern Ireland.”  The Council highlights that the proposals:

  • Lack accountability and governance mechanisms, action plans and clear objectives;
  • Have a weak evidence base for racial inequality that is unreflective of the current context;
  • Don’t take account of cross-cutting departmental issues and issues of intersectional identities; and
  • With respect to the benefits of racial diversity, fail to recognise the contribution that ethnic minorities make to the Northern Ireland economy and society more broadly.

Critically, A Sense of Belonging does not consider relevant research, relying instead on outdated OFMDFM research from 2002.  Nor does it require each department to have a civil servant responsible for monitoring progress and ensuring accountability.

The Community Relations Council (CRC) has produced an important response paper, which has been endorsed by over 20 stakeholders.  The Common Platform laments the proposals’ lack of ambition, particularly the absence of a clear action plan to ensure delivery of the key aims.  It also recommends recognition of the contribution that Black and Minority Ethnic communities make to society.

CRC Chairman Peter Osborne has called for policies that are more ambitious and far reaching “so that government and civic leaders can deliver actions and services within communities that will make a real difference.

What’s needed is race relations legislative reform …

A recurrent theme of the public responses is the importance of addressing race relations legislation.  Currently, Northern Ireland has a tangled web of legislation, including leftovers from Direct Rule, EU directives and some home-grown fare.  There were attempts through the now side-lined Single Equality Bill to consolidate these disparate measures; but the consolidation effort held back race relations reform, and it now seems that all momentum has been lost.

Gaps in the current regime leave individuals vulnerable to inequality and discrimination.  There is less legal protection for victims of discrimination on the basis of colour and nationality than for other forms of discrimination.  These failings have not gone unnoticed: Northern Ireland has been criticised for its racial equality regime (or lack thereof) by a number of European bodies.

… And such reform must be a priority

Unfortunately, the current welfare reform standoff and Executive budget crisis distract from the business of government, the improving and streamlining of legislation.  Even though the First Minister has now learned to condemn racial incidents, the Executive must sort out the legislative jumble and oversee the implementation of a Racial Equality Strategy that robustly defends the rights of all members of our society and promotes excellent community relations.  This would be an important and much-needed first step towards addressing the rise of racism at the governmental level.

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