Until recently most people here believed that we did not have a racism problem. Racism was a scourge that affected places like inner-city England, the southern states of the USA, or South Africa.
However, in recent years in South Belfast there has been a number of worrying incidents. Attacks on Chinese and Muslim members of our community have become almost commonplace. Add to this the local mosque being attacked, the appearance of swastikas on local murals, and the announcement by the British National Party that they intend to contest South Belfast in the upcoming Assembly elections, and it would seem that the problem of racism is no longer a distant concern but a very present threat.
Police figures back up the anecdotal evidence. In 1996 there were 26 racial incidents across Northern Ireland, rising to 104 in 1998 and at least 245 in 2000. It is clear that not only is sectarianism a major problem in our society at this time, but intolerance and bigotry are now being turned against members of our community from different racial backgrounds.
Over the past thirty years, Alliance has stood almost alone in challenging the religious intolerance that permeates our society. Whilst attention has focussed understandably on our opposition to this religious bigotry, the Party has always worked hard to create a tolerant, diverse and prosperous society where all people are free to live and work without fear of intimidation and terror. For us “all people” includes not only those who belong to the main political and religious traditions but also those who do not, regardless of colour, gender, ethnic grouping, sexual orientation or social background.
All of our lives have been enriched by the presence of people from a range of different backgrounds living and working in South Belfast. We are fortunate that people have chosen Belfast as home at a time when many saw no hope here, and they have studied and worked as part of our community to make this a better place. We have benefited from the opportunity to experience something of the richness of being a member of the most ethnically diverse community in Northern Ireland. Yet all of this could be destroyed by racism and hatred.
I have been working with my Party colleagues in developing practical ways to tackle racial hatred and racially motivated crime. While racism, just like sectarianism, can not be tackled solely through criminal legislation, the introduction of new laws has a major role to play in the process.
When an individual is either assaulted or their personal property is attacked simply because of their race or sexual orientation, then we believe that it should be described in law as a Hate Crime. In the same way, crimes motivated purely by sectarianism, including pipe-bombings, arson attacks on churches, Orange Halls and GAA facilities should also be classified in this way. All of these attacks have a common theme – a motive of prejudice and hatred.
We all recognise that such crimes are not simply intended as attacks upon the individual, but are calculated to intimidate their family, friends and indeed the entire community. They are attacks on all of us who wish to be part of a shared, multi-cultural society and sentencing should reflect this.
This type of legislation would mean that those proven to have committed Hate Crimes would face longer sentences than the equivalent current criminal offence provides. For example, a maximum five-year term for a particular offence could become a seven-year term if the offence was racially motivated.
In North America, Hate Crime laws have been developed to tackle racist and homophobic attacks and they have also been introduced in Britain to a limited degree through the Crime and Disorder Act (1998) to tackle problems of a racist nature. In Northern Ireland, however, there are no Hate Crime laws – even the limited legislation introduced in Britain does not apply here.
The introduction of Hate Crime legislation would send out a clear message to the bigots, racists and homophobes in our society that attacks on members of our community will not be tolerated.
Last year, Alliance tabled a paper to the Government calling for the introduction of Hate Crimes legislation in Northern Ireland and we are hopeful that they will make a positive response in the autumn.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, when our community is still trying to rid itself of sectarianism it is vital that we are not afflicted by another form of intolerance. Alliance is confident that the introduction of Hate Crime laws would be a positive step in the right direction.