Under the New Targeting Social Need ‘Promoting Social Inclusion’ Initiative, the idea of a racial equality strategy was first mooted around the year 2000. After several years of deliberation, a Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland was published by OFMDFM in July 2005 as a sister document of ‘A shared future’. The 5-year strategy sets out the following vision:
‘A society in which racial diversity is supported, understood, valued and respected, where racism in any of its forms is not tolerated and where we live together as a society and enjoy equality of opportunity and equal protection.’
The Strategy has 6 aims which are:
Elimination of Racial Inequality
Equality of Service Provision
building Capacity within minority ethnic communities
The Racial Equality Strategy is the first government policy acknowledging the changing cultural diversity in Northern Ireland and the need to tackle racism, ‘fostering an attitude of “zero tolerance” towards racism in all its forms’. However, the delay in publishing the strategy, given the dramatic increase in inward migration in NI over the last few years has caused concerns that the strategy is already out of date. There was disappointment too that the Strategy only commits government departments and not all statutory bodies and the wider community including the business sector to maximise the effect of the strategy in promoting racial equality.
The implementation of the Strategy therefore relies heavily on government departments to produce annual action plans to achieve the aims of the strategy. The first annual action plan was published in April 2006 and we are awaiting the publication of the second plan for this year.
No doubt, the Strategy offers the potential to make Northern Ireland a better place for minority ethnic communities. However, last year’s Action Plan as a first attempt was criticised by many as merely a mapping exercise by departments to list their existing initiatives, many of which were commitments that amount to minimum requirements in respect of duties under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.
Many of the 200 actions in the plan were process orientated rather than outcome focused with measurable targets so there was the concern that even accumulatively, the actions put forward would not effect change.
Several departments agreed during a piece of academic research I conducted that the process in formulating the plans was mechanical and although they say race equality is important but many still have a limited understanding of the depth of change required. However, many departments stated that in future they need to engage with minority ethnic communities to identify needs and to ‘do more’.
It is therefore important that the next Action Plans should have a radically reduced number of actions focussing on improving service provision and dialogue with communities, matched with appropriate funding for capacity building minority ethnic groups.
The Race Equality Forum which was established to develop and monitor the Strategy has been welcomed and supported by minority ethnic groups. However, it has grown in size to include all government departments, minority ethnic communities, Equality and Human Rights Commissions, the voluntary sector, churches and the trade unions. While the wider involvement is appreciated, it has become far too big a forum for members to engage meaningfully and to exercise fully its role in monitoring implementation. Moreover, information provided by the Forum in the past is insufficient to enable members to adequately scrutinise progress. I appreciate that OFMDFM is reviewing the Forum and I urge that the department take these concerns into consideration.
Northern Ireland is a divided society which had been dominated for decades by the conflict and politics of two major traditions where anyone who is non-white, non-Christian or non-English speaking can feel excluded in public participation or public service provision.
The long-awaited Racial Equality Strategy sets out a vision for racial equality which ‘should benefit all who live in Northern Ireland’ as Lord Rooker stated in the Strategy and improve the quality of life for minority ethnic people. The realisation of the vision demands the change of hearts and minds and the strategy is the tool and it must be sharpened to be effective.