Our elected representatives show leadership


Having caught a little of Thursday’s NIC-ICTU rally against racism at City Hall – work commitments meant I couldn’t stick around very long – it looked terribly disappointing. It was depressingly small, and there didn’t look to be much there beyond the usual suspects. Some union officials. Some fulltime Nice People from the grantocracy. A sprinkling of far-left activists with papers and collection buckets. The gentlemen of the press, looking desperately for a story. And once again, a no-show from our ethnic communities, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this sort of thing.

Luckily, the numbers were boosted by the UDA. There would have been even less to see if Jackie McDonald and several of his satraps hadn’t put in an appearance.

But if the rally was a bust, last week’s Assembly debate on racism wasn’t much better. There were of course some examples of the right attitudes being struck. A little prelude was had in ministerial questions, with Martin McGuinness doing his heart-on-my-sleeve bit:

As I held Fernanda, the baby who was born in Belfast, in my arms when she was five days old, I knew that her mother and father were about to take her away from her birthplace because of a despicable hate crime. I also met a young woman called Maria who came here a few months ago without a word of English. She is a lovely person who taught herself and her two children English. Maria was able to act as interpreter between us and the rest of the Roma community. That shows clearly how hard those people were trying to build new lives.

We need to face up to all the problems that are out there. All of us need to do more, and there is a particular responsibility on people to recognise that perhaps not enough was done by the system as a whole. It was very interesting to see that Assistant Chief Constable Finlay effectively threw up his hands in relation to how he thought the police handled the situation. Effectively, they did not know what was happening in the Roma community. That accusation could also be levelled at us. We all have lessons to learn and, as we go forward, the type of document to which the Member referred needs to be very thorough and proactive in relation to facing down racism and sectarianism in our society.

Well, yes. Later we got to the debate, wherein Alex Maskey (PSF, South Belfast) tabled the following motion:

That this Assembly condemns unreservedly all racist and sectarian attacks; calls for the rights and entitlements of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable communities to be protected; commends all those voluntary and statutory agencies which assisted in the recent upheaval inflicted upon members of the Roma community in Belfast; and calls on all Departments to respond appropriately and on all political leaders to display leadership and unity of purpose in tackling all manifestations of hate crime.

There’s not much you can take issue with there. One thing that does come to mind, though, is that, in political discourse in the north, racism is the new sectarianism. It’s become fashionable to view sectarianism as just a manifestation of racism, or of bad attitudes held by bad people. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that sectarianism is the basic feature of our society, and the outbreak of racist incidents over recent years is simply the addition of new targets by people who would have been involved in sectarian incidents in the past. Alex sort of touched on this:

In the aftermath of the killing of Kevin McDaid, people who comment on such matters, including those in the media, speculated on who might have been involved, the purpose of the killing and why it happened. Some of the remarks, commentaries and observations made in the media and through public discourse were shameful and sought, in my view, to either justify or minimise and explain away what happened on the day on which Mr McDaid was brutally killed. That is in contrast to how they responded to the treatment of the Roma families and suggests that an awful lot of people in this society find it much easier and are more comfortable to deal with the issue of racism than the issue of sectarianism. Sectarianism is the elephant in the room. I am struck by the fact that many people in our communities are able to tackle the issue of racism much easier and more comfortably than the issue of sectarianism.

I think that’s true. Nobody will openly defend racism – even the BNP are cagey about doing that these days. Besides, it’s a lot easier to condemn racism when we’re talking about the plight of relatively small numbers of people. In that sense, it doesn’t pose the same questions as sectarianism.

Following that, Naomi Long (Alliance, East Belfast) reflected on the racist attacks, when she had been on the scene in her capacity of Lord Mayor, and talked about the need for the Executive to produce a cohesion strategy, which would make me feel happier if I didn’t think it was just going to be another glossy booklet. Then we had an intervention from friend of this blog Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford) in characteristically forthright terms:

We er weel kent as tha wee kintrie wi’ a’ big hairt, an oor guid naem o’ waremth an feelin is bein ruinet bi’ thugs hoo irnie representative o’ tha lerge majority in tha Proavince. We hae haud sum kinserns in oor kumunity an sum metters sic as yin in Kummer laust yeer, but that wus a yin-afff an haesnae bin repeetet. Whut hooiniver is cleer ther er fowk whau er fed up wi’ tha woarl in general an takk it oot oan fowk in pertikuler; unfoartunately, it seems tae be that it’s aieser tae pikk oan tha yins that hae nae supoart netwoarks.

Yes, well, you can’t say fairer than that. What was more interesting was that Jim took the opportunity to talk about the migration of Protestants out of border areas, and of opposition to Orange parades. In his view, these were to be identified with the racist attacks in Belfast. There was to be some more of this.

We then had Danny Kennedy (UCUNF, Newry/Armagh), Carmel Hanna (SDLP, South Belfast) and Jimmy Spratt (DUP, South Belfast) all adding their condemnation of the attacks. Everybody was offering condemnation.

Unfortunately, this love-in was brought to an abrupt close by Martina Anderson (PSF, Foyle), who said:

Those attacks were the outworkings of a warped mindset that has never tolerated anything but itself. It is a mindset that for years has been ignored and even encouraged by some in the Establishment. Some of the most so-called Christian of places have been underpinned by a culture of intolerance. We have all heard the Pope being described from the pulpit as the Antichrist. Whether the targets are Romanian or Roman Catholic, the bigotry that they face is the same.

The motion calls for political leadership and unity of purpose in tackling all manifestations of hate crime. The sad fact is that it must be said that unionist Members have been found wanting in that regard. Time and time again, we have failed, and they have failed to confront hate crime, particularly sectarianism that emanates from within their community.

Before anyone gets the wrong impression, I am not suggesting for one second that all intolerance emanates from within the unionist community. I will repeat that: I am not suggesting for one second that all intolerance emanates from the unionist community. However, the difference is that my party has always confronted those issues head on in our own community.

We have gone toe to toe with those responsible and we have let them know in no uncertain terms that no such behaviour will be tolerated or accepted. We have had a vigil in the Bogside area of Derry after attacks in the Fountain; we have been involved in forums with residents trying to address that. We have challenged and confronted, head on, attacks that have emanated from within our community, but we do not see the same level of confrontation within the unionist community.

There’s some element of truth to that. It was noticeable during the episode with the Roma that unionist reps were prepared to say the right thing if a microphone or reporters’ notebook was stuck in their face, but it was people like Martin McGuinness and Naomi Long who were doing the touchy-feely stuff. Actually, Jackie McDonald was more proactive than unionist politicians, and that can’t be a good thing.

But this then led to splenetic responses from Robin Newton (DUP, East Belfast) and Tom Elliott (UCUNF, Fermanagh/South Tyrone), who banged on at some length about the oppression of border Protestants, the unaccountable reluctance of Catholics to have Orange parades on their doorsteps, and how Martina Anderson should apologise for everything republicans had ever done before she got to speak about intolerance. Peter Robinson then remarked:

I regret that the Member for Foyle Ms Anderson engaged in the blame game; we learned that when one points the finger, three point back at one. The responses thereafter showed that.

Yes, it’s much easier to not point fingers at all. It is in fact true that DUP representatives in the Coleraine area were remarkably understanding about the McDaid murder, but it just doesn’t do to point fingers.

Now let’s just bring this to a close with Anna Lo (Alliance, South Belfast), who actually knows something about racism:

I am very heartened by the response from all Members and parties today. I particularly welcome the First Minister’s strong words and his sincerity and commitment to deal with the problem of sectarianism and racism. However, I am also saddened by some of the comments, which seemed to me to be defensive and to stereotype our ethnic minority communities. There are good and bad apples in all communities, and we have to take that into account. Where there are large numbers of new populations, there will, of course, be some people who will misbehave, but that is no cause for racist attacks.

We must address racism and hate crimes of all types in our society. I have lived here for 35 years, and I do not believe that Northern Ireland is a racist society, but a small minority can bring us all down in the eyes of the world. We must be very careful about that.

I believe that racism is on the increase. Last year, there were nearly 1,000 incidents, but I have no doubt that the figure for this year will rocket. In the past few months, more than 80 Polish people have been intimidated, and more than 40 of them have moved out of their homes as a result of that intimidation.

Following that, Hungarian women were forced out of their homes. Next, 115 Romanian families were forced to leave their homes. Only three of those families have stayed in Northern Ireland; the remainder left last week.

The Indian community was targeted last week. Over the weekend and today, a large number of people from ethnic minorities, including myself, received serious threats to our safety. I have never seen the ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland so fearful…

We need leadership from the Government, but we also need Government action. Many public services are not geared to meet the needs of ethnic minority communities. Over the past two weeks, the Government’s response to meeting the needs of the Romanian community has been inadequate. Children were moving from place to place clutching their teddy bears, their pillows and blankets, and we could not do a thing. We had to put them in a church for one night and shift them somewhere else the next night. What on earth are we doing? We are a large, wealthy population. Why can we not deal with such a situation?

Quite. It’s all very well to get the Assembly to unanimously agree a motion condemning racism, but maybe more profitable to ask the practical questions. Going by the NICEM statement quoted by the BBC, they were as unimpressed as I was.

That was Monday. On Tuesday, our esteemed representatives were back to the normal knockabout while discussing post-primary education and the 11+. Some highlights:

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members must allow the Minister to answer. I am hearing everything in quadraphonic sound. Perhaps the Minister would respond to the question.

Later on it got better:

Mr McCallister: In my brief time on the Education Committee, the one thing that has become clear is that we do not have clarity on anything. The Western Education and Library Board, for example, estimates that up to 8,000 pupils who would be entitled to free school meals do not claim them. In addition, there are issues about the capital value of farms. Adding that to the fact that her own equality impact assessment concludes that the criteria discriminate against those in rural and Protestant working-class areas, and given that so much of the policy is based on free school meal entitlement, how does the Minister propose to make any of her plans fit for purpose?

The Minister of Education: I believe that the Member has been on the Education Committee for only two hours. Nevertheless, I welcome him, and I am sure that he will receive copious notes on this subject from my Department.

And it didn’t get any less ill-tempered:

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Storey): I am glad that the Assembly does not have a sports day at the end of term, because the Minister of Education could not win even the egg-and-spoon race.

As Chairperson of the Education Committee, I want to inform the House that the Education Minister has bypassed the Committee. Members will remember that when she published the sustainable schools policy, she did it by —

Mr O’Dowd: Speech.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: Mr Deputy Speaker, am I to be continually interrupted by a Shinner?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The words “pot”, “kettle” and “black” come to mind, Mr Storey. However, Mr Storey should be allowed to continue. It is questions to the Minister on her statement, and I await the question.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: The Minister published her sustainable schools policy by putting on her education balaclava and doing it at night. When she decided to publish transfer 2010 guidance, she did not come to the Education Committee, despite the important fact that in a letter to the Education Committee dated 5 May —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Storey, as Chairperson of the Committee, you are given a certain amount of leniency in respect of what you can say, but the time for a question to the Minister on her statement has long passed.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: The Education Minister has ignored the Education Committee. Will the Education Minister tell the people and the parents of Northern Ireland today, first, that she has failed in relation to the abolition of academic criteria, and, secondly, when she will heed the numerous calls that have been made to her? We will have to come back to the issue of transfer. We will have to establish an agreed way to transfer our children from primary school to post-primary school rather than go down the ideological cul-de-sac that she, as Education Minister, has created and exist in the confusion over which she is happy to preside.

The Minister of Education: Go raibh maith agat. Mr Storey raised a point about sports days. Last night, I met all the GAA coaches who are part of the sports programme in P1 and P2. Members will know that we have a good sports programme with the GAA and the IFA. It might be useful for the a Cheann Comhairle, the Chairperson, of the Education Committee to have a discussion with the GAA and the IFA, because one of the issues that we discussed was ways in which sports days can be made more participative. It is not about winning or about the two or three children who win all the medals; it is about interaction. I commend the GAA and the IFA for making sports days more interesting in the primary schools in which they are working, and for training the teachers. I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to the IFA and the GAA.

I urge the Chairperson of the Education Committee not to resort to personal insults. It is better to deal with the educational arguments. It is often the case that people resort to insults when they have nothing or little to say.

And yet more from the education debate:

Mr Deputy Speaker: I must say that Members are providing a fine example to the very children about whom they are talking.

Mr Poots: Does the Minister agree that there is a number of very important and key elements missing from her statement, such as: “Ruane makes amazing comeback to win Wimbledon ladies’ singles”; “Newry City win Champions League”; “Elvis spotted sunbathing in Warrenpoint”; and “They all lived happily ever after”?

I recommend that the Minister take a long holiday, because, when she returns, examinations will still be taking place. Furthermore, the privatised transfers that she has initiated, for which there will actually be more testing, and which will make it more difficult for children from socially challenged backgrounds to get into grammar schools, will still be in place. Is that the system that the Minister set out to create, for that is what she has created?

The Minister of Education: It is interesting to hear sporting analogies as Wimbledon takes place, and I am glad that Mr Poots has provided the House with some very good ones. I look forward to seeing Newry City win the Champions League, and all the rest.

You realise, of course, that a lot of these characters are school governors? I think, to conclude by raising the tone, we should hear what Jim Shannon had to say on the Budget Bill:

Aa’ hae tae sae Mr Speeker that Aa’ hae a feelin that this haes aw happent’ afoar aboot muckle debates in this Hoos regerdin metters aboot mony. We heer iver an iver again, aboot tha need fer a new Budget proasess , an fer soon reasins o’ giein oot mony tae this area an that. But theim that iver an iver agin caw fer this hae iver an iver agin fawed far shoart o’ spellin oot whor they wud takk tha mony fae. It is aw quare an weel tae oarder an deman mare fundin, but we canny awaes roab Peter tae pay Paul. Tha quarterly takkin in tae acoont roons, whuch er aften tauked aboot bi’ sum Memers, oaffer a reel guid soartin oot wae o’ brinnin aboot muckle changes tae tha Budget as it noo stauns. Aa’ unnerstaun that weel iver yin billyin poon o’ allocated an reduced needs hae bin maed throo tha takkin intae acoont roons iver these paust twau yeer.

And if that doesn’t hit the nail on the head, I don’t know what does.


  1. Madam Miaow said,

    July 6, 2009 at 8:55 am

    It is very sad that the NI Chinese community doesn’t involve itself with its own defence and it’s left to Anna Lo to do that, as well as speak up for other minorities. Although if the left there is anything like here on the mainland, there may be good reason why they keep their distance. The Chinese need to engage with politics — it’s their world too.

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 6, 2009 at 11:23 am

    That’s an eye opener splintered about the level of discourse in the Assembly. It’s one thing to know that it ain’t great, quite different to see it in print. More please… 🙂 or should that be 😦 as regards the level of debate.

  3. Garibaldy said,

    July 6, 2009 at 11:41 am

    At least they were speaking in complete sentences which is a definite improvement.

  4. Liam said,

    July 6, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    “We er weel kent as tha wee kintrie wi’ a’ big hairt….” This has defeated the web based tranlsation services that I’m acquainted with.

    Has anyone yet received a grant to start working on an Ulster Scots translator? If not, I’m willing to give it a go if the British taxpayer can be persuaded to give me £500 000 for a two year pilot project.

    I promise that if I’m given the money I’ll not attack any ethnic minorities while the funding lasts and will consider putting my arsenal beyond use when circumstances allow.

  5. Doloras said,

    July 6, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    “We er weel kent as tha wee kintrie wi’ a’ big hairt….” = “We are well known as the little country with the big heart.” As a foreigner to both parts of Ireland, I can say for a fact that that is not how the Six Counties are “weel kent”.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 6, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Hansard really is a satirical goldmine. I doubt this overview will be a yin-aff.

  7. Phil said,

    July 6, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I wonder if Liam’s too late. Look at those quarterly takkin in tae acoont roons – I guess “takkin in tae acoont” is “accounting”, but it looks more like machine-translation than anything anyone would actually say. And “roons” is odd, too – if that’s ‘oo’ as in ‘acoont’ (not to mention ‘hoos’, ‘aboot’ etc) they would appear to be runes.

    No, I reckon we’re seeing the early and slightly buggy results of google.ni automatically translating into that wee langige wi’ a big credibeelity probleahm, and there’s nothing quhatsumiver we can dae aboot it.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 6, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I’ve heard of quarterly account runs. Sometimes I do them. But account runes sounds like something from the Icelandic Pixie Bank. Then again, since all those Presbyterians sank their money into Iceland, maybe that’s exactly what he does mean.

  9. Dr. X said,

    July 7, 2009 at 11:19 am

    In Iceland they’ve been known to reroute pipelines so as not to disturb the resting places of trolls, so maybe there actually is an ‘Icelandic Pixie Bank’.

  10. July 7, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    While I can understand Ulster-Scots as she is spoke, their preposterous spelling convention makes my brain hurt.

  11. Ciarán said,

    July 8, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    There are no standardised spelling conventions for Ulster-Scots, so there is a broad range of what you can find. The piece above, representing the generally most popular spelling at the minute, is sometimes referred to as “maximally differentiated Ulster-Scots” by academics – which basically means that they try to make the spelling look as distinct from English as they can get away with. The problem is that since Ulster-Scots is English, the writing ends up with as little connection to spoken Ulster-Scots as to spoken English.

  12. jc said,

    July 8, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Madam Miaow: “Anything like here on the mainland …” Shurely shome mishtake?

  13. Madam Miaow said,

    July 9, 2009 at 10:34 am

    And that’s all you have to say about my comment. Nicely illustrated, jc.

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 9, 2009 at 11:21 am

    What’s quite sad about this is that there are actually serious issues to be discussed. The racism issue is serious, whether it’s the recent outburst against the Roma or the low-level hassle that the Chinese experience. But what we get in the way of engagement isn’t exactly… well, our representatives are supposed to be in a position of leadership, but don’t really offer leadership.

    It’s very easy to make fun of our wee Mickey Mouse parliament, and I’ve obviously no objection to that. Then again, maybe our representatives aren’t that bad when you consider what the electorate is like.

  15. Ciarán said,

    July 9, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    It’s being reported that the UYM have sent threats to the Belfast Islamic Centre, the Polish Association, the Indian Community Centre and other groups, stating:

    “No sympathy for foreigners, get out of our Queen’s country before our bonfire night (July 11) and parade day (July 12).

    “Other than that your building will be blown up. Keep Northern Ireland white. Northern Ireland is only for white British.”

    It’s certainly building up to be the most interesting Orangefest ever.

  16. ejh said,

    July 10, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Talking of the season, I have the habit of singing a certain tune I once heard on the World Service, to the following words:

    Kitty’s a kitty, Kitty’s a cat
    Kitty’s a kitty, Kitty’s a cat
    Kitty’s a kitty, Kitty’s a cat
    Kitty’s a kitty, Kitty’s a cat
    Hey! The kitty
    Kitty’s so pretty
    Kitty’s so pretty
    Cause Kitty’s a cat
    Oh Kitty’s so pretty
    Yes Kitty’s so pretty
    Oh Kitty’s a kitty
    Kitty’s a cat

    Unfortunately, it being the catchiest of tunes, this leads to me whistling it repeatedly, which is not really what you want at this time of year. Well, it probably matters relatively little in a small Pyrenean town, but I used to get annoyed if I caught myself doing it in London. Might cause offence in certain other parts of the United Kindom too, I imagine.

    Have an uninteresting weekend.

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