Anna Lo speech on Assembly debate on racist attacks

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.

I urge the Minister to publish the draft cohesion, sharing and integration strategy as soon as possible to assure the entire community that the Assembly is serious about addressing sectarianism and racism. The Minister referred to a number of very good organisations. However, those organisations must be resourced to enable them to bring those new and established communities together so that they can work together to promote mutual understanding and break down barriers and fears on all sides.

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?

The draft cohesion, sharing and integration strategy must be published immediately and must include strategies to deal with those situations. It is shameful that we cannot look after such a small minority. Those 115 families were attacked night after night and they were absolutely petrified. The deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, saw how frightened the women and children were; we all saw that they were fearful for their lives. It is not good for our image, it is bad for investment and it is bad for people who want to come here to live, study or work.

This is a lovely country and we need to defend our name, but how can we? We need action on the ground and action from all Departments. The voluntary sector and the grass-roots sector must work together. It is important to show that we can treat ethnic minorities well and, in doing so, we can show people that we have equality, human rights and good community relations.

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