Anna Lo: “Sectarian politics gets votes in Northern Ireland, and yet sectarian politics continues to fail Northern Ireland over and over again”

Earlier this year, Alliance party MLA Anna Lo, hit the headlines for some of the racist treatment she had recieved. Writing for Slugger, Anna criticises the progress being made on the Racial Equality Strategy and argues for people to embrace different diffierent cultures in Northern Ireland.

Sectarian politics gets votes in Northern Ireland, and yet sectarian politics continues to fail Northern Ireland over and over again.

It is disappointing to see the draft Racial Equality Strategy, after being in the deep freeze for seven years and published under public pressure, was such a weak document offering no assurance to those from ethnic minority communities. I sometimes wonder if our conflicted history has made us accustomed to discrimination, with sectarianism and racism two sides of the same coin – a currency that is only kept in circulation for political gain.

Racism across Northern Ireland has come under the spotlight this year, from the tactless remarks from First Minister Peter Robinson, to the shameful intimidation of Michael Abiona, or the disgraceful erection of a KKK flag in East Belfast, it is glaringly obvious that we need to do more.

Between 2013 and 2014 there has been a 43% increase in racially-motivated offences, 70% of these occurring in Belfast. During the present reporting period, the PSNI has noted that racially motivated crimes in Northern Ireland have risen by more than 50%. As these are only the incidents recorded you can be sure the actual figures are much higher, with many BMEs (Black Minority Ethnic) choosing not to report attacks for fear of reprisals or lack of confidence in the police actually getting the perpetrators given the lack of success in prosecution.

I believe the PSNI is taking its responsibility seriously. There have been 13 arrests linked to race-hate attacks in Greater Belfast since the start of May – but we need more collective action if we are to tackle the root causes of racism. A robust Racial Equality Strategy with co-ordinated actions is the key to do just that.

A high level strategy to set a zero tolerance to both sectarianism and racism will lay out the expected behaviour for society from government to citizens. While Curry-My-Yoghurt-gate was laughable to some – to me it was indicative of the lack of sensitivity and tolerance with which Stormont is blighted. We live in a society where people are targeted for their cultural difference, so we need responsible political leadership to set a good example.

MLAs excel at condemnation – but we are not so good at finding solutions. A RE strategy with proper funding to enable community capacity building work in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds is essential to enable authentic and meaningful experience with and of each other. Token ‘multi-cultural’ events do not substitute real inter-cultural and interdependent exchanges. Work to raise awareness of hate crime and challenge attitudes towards it needs to happen particularly in areas where frequent racist incidents occur. The recent ‘Challenging Racism: Ending Hate’ report certainly helped contradict myths about immigration but we need to go further; we must encourage reporting, supporting victims in a way which demonstrates care and sensitivity and ensure that perpetrators of hate crimes are brought to justice and face the full weight of the law.

The summer months were difficult for those in the ethnic minority community, as they lived in fear of rising tension. We need proper engagement with BMEs, meaningful department actions, proper resourcing, targets and monitoring of outcomes. The Racial Equality Strategy, if amended to include a clear timetable for implementation and an action plan for activities to address racism could have real potential to deliver improved racial equality in Northern Ireland. The document fails to recognise the contribution which ethnic minorities make to the NI economy and cultural diversity which is deeply regrettable. Society is all the richer when people can hold open, mixed and multiple identities; when we can open our minds and experience different cultures.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.