By Councillor Tom Ekin
Lord Mayor of Belfast
I recently came across a quote from David McKittrick, the Independent’s Shankill-born Ireland correspondent, which neatly summed up the state of Belfast 10 years on from the first paramilitary ceasefire.
He wrote: “Belfast is no longer a metaphor for the intractable but an example of how, slowly and painfully, the unthinkable can eventually become possible.”
One of the “unthinkables” about Belfast a decade ago was that it could ever become a pluralist society. Now, as the city’s population shrinks, we are seeing people from minority ethnic communities move in.
Slowly but surely, Belfast is changing – and for the better. Recently I had the pleasure of attending the wonderfully tasteful Indian Mela in Botanic Gardens, an ethnic awareness day at the Olympia Community Centre – where I experienced many different types of music and food – and Zimbabwean support day, for people who are escaping the horrors of the Mugabe regime.
It is estimated that the number of people from ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland has grown to somewhere between 25-30,000. No longer are we living in a bi-ethnic, bi-cultural state.
This presents many challenges to a society emerging from conflict. Belfast, of course, is not my first experience of a divided society trying to come to terms with itself. I spent seven years in Johannesburg, South Africa, where life can bear some startling similarities to Northern Ireland. Both cities are trying to overcome old divisions, although violence, crime and prejudice continue to hamper progress. Both have former enemies and men of violence now seeking to work together in a peaceful and democratic society. Both have wealth and poverty side by side in abundance, are becoming more metropolitan, and are currently attracting thousands of workers and tourists from all over their respective continents – surely a sign of success.
It’s a pity that only one has gold seams running through it, but I guess we can’t have everything.
One other unfortunate parallel is the problem of prejudice. Sadly, this year has seen a dramatic upsurge in serious racist attacks, and it is an issue we need to get to grips with quickly. As Belfast’s minority ethnic population grows, so the attacks have increased.
In an effort to combat this, Hate Crime laws have just been introduced, which allow for stiffer sentences for crimes motivated by hatred. They also send out the message that crimes motivated by racism and other forms of prejudice will be punished properly.
But this good news is tempered by the fact it is four years since Alliance called on the Government to get this legislation passed. It is now three years ago that I proposed a motion to Belfast City Council calling for Hate Crime measures to be introduced.
My motion was passed unanimously, yet in the time it has taken the Government to pass legislation here, hundreds of people from minority ethnic communities have been subject to countless attacks.
It is now up to the PSNI and courts to ensure that those who have been behind the vicious attacks in Belfast, Armagh, Dungannon, Cullybackey, Lisburn and elsewhere motivated by sheer prejudice and hatred are caught and convicted. They have much to prove, if they want to regain the confidence of minority ethnic communities.
With the changes in our society must come adaptation, responsibility and leadership, which has been lacking. It would be a shame if new divisions were created while we were trying to break down barriers between the two main traditions. We now have other established traditions here, the Chinese community being the most prominent. They stuck with us through the ‘Troubles’ when few others would, and that is why I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them at a time when they have been experiencing prejudice and rejection in their long struggle for a community resource centre. Where there is diversity, prosperity often follows, and the minority of extremists whose hostility led to plans for a Chinese community centre in Donegall Pass being dropped may eventually regret their actions.
I would pay tribute to all those – Chinese, African, Muslim, Jew and everyone else – who have come to Belfast. You are very welcome. It is important to note that these people are not “stealing our jobs” and not “living at the tax payers expense”. The vast majority are great contributors to our culture, our society and our economy.
How unsure of their own identity some people must be to petrol bomb the homes of families from other cultures, because they believe they somehow threaten their own culture. These thugs and the myths they create about other cultures must be opposed and exposed, and certain elected representatives need to challenge racist attitudes and quit excusing them.
After meeting Senator Hilary Clinton on her recent visit to Belfast, I reflected on the two mottos of Belfast and America – ‘Pro Tanto Quid’ and ‘E Pluribus Unum’. I am reliably informed that these roughly translate as ‘In return for so much, what shall we give back?’ and ‘From many, one’. These are worth remembering, as people from Northern Ireland have emigrated all over the world for centuries, sometimes fleeing persecution themselves. We have been warmly welcomed around the globe, and I believe now is the time to return the compliment and unite, not in some manufactured, bland ‘one-size-fits-all’ culture, but as a confident community that celebrates diversity and respects difference.