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Minority Matters: Ethnic minorities and racism in Northern Ireland

30 September 1998

By Paul Hainsworth

Northern Ireland politics and society are commonly portrayed as an arena dominated by the tensions between two communities – a majority Ulster/British unionist and a minority Irish nationalist. Indeed, the troubles of the last 30 years have been focused around this major fault line. However, a reductionist concentration on this societal aspect alone tends to understate the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland and the other means by which identity is expressed. In short, there are other voices to be heard and other stories to be told.

Ethnic minorities

The Belfast-based Multi-Cultural Resource Centre lists the presence of at least 60 ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. Calculating the size of their populations is difficult because, regrettably, the census report covering Northern Ireland has so far failed to include a question on ethnicity. It is hoped that this deficiency will be corrected in the next census report in 2001. Various unofficial studies estimate that the small ethnic minority communities represent 1 to 1.5 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland. By far the largest of these communities is the Chinese, estimated by the Chinese Welfare Association (CWA) (Northern Ireland) to amount to 8,000. The second largest group are the Travellers, constituting about 1,200 to 1,400 individuals. The Indian community is c.1,000, with Afro-Caribbean, Jewish and Pakistani communities smaller still.

The Chinese/South-East Asian communities

The majority of Northern Irelands Chinese residents originate from the rural area of Hong Kong, with smaller contingents from mainland China. There are also communities from South-East Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam) who are generally, if not necessarily accurately referred to as `Chinese`.

The Chinese/South-East Asian populations are principally a post-war phenomenon, with migration taking place especially in the 1960s. Recent research indicates that over 40 per cent of these communities live in Belfast and that, overall, these are distinctly young and expanding communities compared with the rest of the population. Many work in the catering trade. The Pakistani community (many of whom originate from villages in the Punjab) is also involved in catering, as well as in the retailing and clothing businesses. The (predominantly Hindu) Indian community shares these employment characteristics, but is also well represented in commerce and the professions – notably in medicine.

One of the main problems facing the Chinese/South-East Asian communities is the lack of interpreting and translating services. This results in social exclusion, including restricted access to social, health, welfare and educational services. Research carried out by Barnardos in 1995 revealed that 90 per cent of Chinese interviewees pointed to the language barrier as the main impediment to integration with the wider community. Only relatively recently have the relevant health and social services providers in Northern Ireland begun to put some limited resources into translating and interpreting facilities in order to promote a more equitable access to services.

A further problem is racial harassment, which has often been ignored or denied in Northern Ireland and severely under-resourced in terms of police monitoring, detection and prosecution. Ethnic minority support organizations, such as the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and the CWA, have devoted a great deal of time to raising awareness about racism and racial harassment. The latter is by no means a new development and the CWA, which operates its own monitoring system, records a catalogue of violent and other incidents – which might otherwise have gone unreported.

The Travellers

Traditionally, the Traveller community has been characterized by its commitment to nomadism as a central element of its cultural identity. Hostility from the sedentary community towards nomadism and Travellers lifestyles is widespread, while the concomitant scarcity of adequately serviced and suitably constructed caravan halting sites means that the Traveller community suffers acute accommodation problems. The difficulty is that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which is the main provider of public sector housing, is not empowered or obliged to take responsibility for Travellers accommodation. Also, the local councils appear less than forthcoming in making use of available funding to redress this deficit. Additionally, on a whole range of indicators, the Travellers come out as the most deprived community in Northern Ireland: lower life expectancy, lower educational achievement, higher rates of hospitalization for preventable diseases, stereotypically negative representations by the media, widespread racism, denial of Travellers? culture, and so on.

The Traveller community is particularly blighted by high rates of unemployment – above 70 per cent. Historically, they were characterized as a self-employed community, mainly engaged in agricultural work, chimney cleaning, horse trading, selling domestic wares, and tin-smithing. However, the trend towards urbanization, mass production and distribution of foods, and rural depopulation, etc. has had an effect on their working patterns. Increasingly urbanized (about 30 to 40 per cent live in Belfast), Travellers turned to employment opportunities in carpet selling, scrap dealing etc. However, due to competition and lack of openings, social security benefits have now become the main or only source of income for the majority of Travellers.

From ‘troubles’ to ceasefires

Like the rest of Northern Irelands population, ethnic minority communities have had to live through the `troubles`, the persistent state of civil unrest and conflict since the 1960s. This has had certain consequences for ethnic minorities. For example, the overriding preoccupation with traditional communal strife has tended to leave little space for other agendas. A by-product of the `troubles` has been the tendency to marginalize, minimize or ignore the problems and concerns of ethnic minorities. An editorial in the (nationalist daily) Irish News (11 May 1996) expressed the view that: So blinkered have the rest of us become by our grim sectarian vision, that we have closed our eyes to the plight of our neighbours who trace their roots to other parts of the world. Moreover, in a recent report Out of the Shadows: An Action Research Report into Families, Racism and Exclusion in Northern Ireland (1997) Deepa Mann-Kler specifically dates the advent of public debate surrounding ethnic minorities: It was only since the ceasefires in 1994 that matters concerned with ethnic minorities have been deliberated in the wider public arena in Northern Ireland.

The paramilitary ceasefires and burgeoning peace and agreement process of the mid to late 1990s were also significant, because while there was an understandable, positive attitude accompanying these steps, there were also anxieties that the developments might have a downside for ethnic minorities. Greg Irwin and Seamus Dunn in their survey on `Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland` in 1997, outlined some of the experiences of ethnic minority groups since the 1994 ceasefires. They found that 12 per cent of Travellers believed that they now attracted more (unwanted) police attention, while 15 per cent of the Chinese interviewees felt that crime had increased. Moreover, 57 per cent of the Chinese respondents interviewed thought that changes brought about by the ceasefire would affect their community: 63 per cent thought this would be for the worse and 32 per cent felt it would be for the better. The main reason for this overall pessimism was that Chinese respondents pointed to an increase in racism, including physical attack and robbery on their community. Some observers noted that sectarian conflict had given way to racist offences as perpetrators looked for new, vulnerable targets. In The Guardian, 12 November 1996, David Sharrock, Northern Ireland correspondent, expressed his view of the situation as a case of `bigots who thrived on sectarian violence turned their prejudices on minority groups`. Whatever the reason for the attacks on ethnic minorities and their properties (crude economic gain, racism, or a mixture of both), this has led to ethnic minorities feeling increasingly vulnerable as the police fail to protect them and find the perpetrators. Not surprisingly, spokespeople for ethnic minorities have called for an all-inclusive peace process and warned against the danger of sectarian attitudes feeding into aggression against ethnic minorities.

The future

The problems faced by ethnic minorities were compounded for many years by the absence of race relations legislation and machinery. It was only recently that the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 was passed, setting up a Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland (CRENI) and (unlike in the equivalent legislation in Great Britain) specifically naming Travellers as a protected ethnic group. The legislation was the result of years of persistent and informed campaigning at local, national and international levels, by ethnic minority organizations, civil liberty bodies and the voluntary sector. This, undoubtedly, is a step in the right direction, but much remains to be done. First, policies relating to ethnic minorities need to be mainstreamed from the beginning through to the implementing stage. Second, the resources to deal with ethnic minority concerns such as interpreting and translating, training, monitoring and accommodation facilities (the latter notably for Travellers), need to be adequate and sustained. Third, the census must provide a reliable enumeration of the ethnic minority population. Fourth, cultural diversity needs to be continuously celebrated – since it enriches society and militates against reducing all identities to representations of the two main traditions in Northern Ireland.

Paul Hainsworth is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster. He is editor and contributor to the book Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland, published in October 1998, by Pluto Press.

This article was first published in the 52nd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on October 1, 1998.