Stewart Dickson: Racism has the potential to be Northern Ireland’s greatest problem

Racism in Northern Ireland must be addressed.

No one in Northern Ireland will dispute that we are well on our way to recovery. Recovery from our past. Recovery from the financial crisis. Recovery from violence. Yet the rise of racism has barely begun to be addressed.

The reasons behind the rise in racism are disputed. Maybe racism in Northern Ireland has always been high but with greater trust in the police, reporting of hate crime has increased. Or perhaps, more disturbingly, we as a society are use to sectarian prejudice and violence and it is now being redirected towards ethnic minorities.

It has been noted with relief from some Government Ministers, that Northern Ireland did not follow the UK trend, of a marked increase in reported racist incidents following the EU referendum. Yet the figures here are still exceedingly worrying. Between July 2015 and June 2016, there were 1,133 racist incidents recorded in Northern Ireland. A majority of nearly 800 of these incidents were actually crimes, racist crimes.

Racism goes beyond just crime. It permeates society. When Minister of Justice, David Ford worked to condemn the racist attacks occurring in Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party has always worked, both in and out of government, to create truly shared spaces in Northern Ireland. Where people can live irrespective of their nationality, without fear of intimidation or attack.

Racism is in education, housing, jobs and in just about every sphere one can think of.

Northern Ireland Centre for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) research found that 75% of ethnic minority children experience derogatory name-calling in Northern Ireland. NICEM also reported that 42% of ethnic minority 16 year olds had been the subject of racist bullying or harassment. The prejudice faced by our young people is depressing and must be addressed.

Yet there is also an element of selfishness in our need to tackle racism and prejudice. Within the NHS, 30% of our doctors and 40% of nurses are born abroad. The old Department of Employment and Learning carried out a study by Oxford Economics in 2009. The Department estimated that migration had contributed an additional 40,000 jobs and £1.2 billion Gross Value Added (GVA - a measure of wages and profits) to our economy.

These are just two examples to show how Northern Ireland would be significantly worse off if it were not for immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Businesses across Northern Ireland rely heavily on migrant works. There are substantial fears for their business prospects following Brexit. The idea that Northern Ireland needs less immigrants following Brexit, rather than more, is simply wrong.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister must make good on their commitment to work with the Minister of Justice to tackle racism. Sectarianism and racism are not separate issues, they are intrinsically linked. By combatting racism we will further combat sectarianism.

We must not leave it to the government alone however. We also must be constantly challenging our own assumptions and teaching our children to be understanding and accepting of all.

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