Last week I went with my father, who has dementia, to have his eyes tested. He was seen to by an outstanding optician, who went well beyond the call of duty, all the time managing to maintain some sort of dialogue with my father (no easy task these days, it has to be said). As it happens, the optician was from the Indian sub-continent.
Thus it was that I took news of an attack on a Pakistani family in North Belfast just a few days particularly hard. It is a complete outrage that the optician who had done so much for my father could be a victim of an attack purely for his colour. And we do have to ask the straightforward question: did the First Minister’s comments heighten or reduce the likelihood of such attacks occurring?
Of course, his “public apology” was nothing of the sort – he has still expressed no regret for saying what he said. As I noted yesterday, at the heart of this is the notion that this is “our” country and that “we” therefore deserve preferential treatment (to the extent that if “we” don’t get it, “we” are entitled to go even as far as violence to enforce it). In the case of the DUP, “we” happen to be “Protestants/Unionists”; but this does apply to others – in Sinn Fein’s case “we” happen to be “Republicans” (though Sinn Fein has at least now worked out that violence of any form is a non-starter).
Underlying all of this is perhaps a fundamental insecurity. Neither “side” believes it could compete on merit, so it seeks artificially to gain preferential treatment for itself above anyone else – hence sectarianism and ultimately also racism become accepted to a higher degree (and higher up society) than would ordinarily be accepted in a civilised country.
To be clear, racism is rife across the globe – only last week Justin Bieber was caught out, and in past weeks the Metropolitan Police has come in for criticism of its “institutional racism”.
However, this fundamental insecurity is to me what sets Northern Ireland further apart. It is taken as read by too many that we are inferior – after all, nominally at least, our whole conflict is about who else gets to govern us (rather than how we should govern ourselves). There remains a widespread and instinctive view that Direct Rule ministers (i.e. politicians in Great Britain) are innately superior; that any Northern Ireland achievement (in sport or business or whatever) is to be greeted with a mixture of amazement and cynicism; and that Northern Ireland should seek no better economic future than to be utterly financially subservient to someone else. As a result, instead of trying to better ourselves to compete on a level playing field, we seek to make the playing field uneven in our favour – both by bizarre demands for a favourable economic settlement for Northern Ireland from the Treasury; and by internal demands that our “side” should have preferential treatment to anyone else (be it in allocation of housing, commitment of leisure resources, location of jobs or whatever).
If we were more secure (and, frankly, better educated) we would not sense such fear every time someone from outwith our “side” came into view. If we were more secure and took education more seriously, our attitude towards the outsider would not be one of fear leading too frequently to hatred and even violence aimed at ostracising them and forcing them out, but rather one of genuine interest leading to assisting their integration to contribute to our society.
Here are a few practical steps which, I believe, may lead to a more secure and thus less instinctively ostracising (and thus racist/sectarian) society:
- improved education, including with reference to civics and global awareness;
- vastly greater community relations funding (NB: an entire funding cycle for the Community Relations Council costs less than half what it costs to police a single riot);
- more positive media coverage – focusing at least as much on what we do well as what we do badly (improved cancer survival, golfing exploits, screen industries growth, etc);
- promotion of a “Northern Irish” civic identity highlighting what we have in common (including the fact that our diversity is something we have in common); and
- a Racial Equality Strategy, fully and adequately resourced and including statutory obligations on businesses and charities operating in Northern Ireland.
I do not know if this would help, of if I have even diagnosed the problem correctly; but I do know that we need to take more care about diagnosing the problem, and I do know that it will take far more than a political resignation (rather, it will take a huge programme of determined social change) to make a real difference.
And it bears repeating that I am one of many who are delighted and privileged that Northern Ireland is, increasingly, somewhere people from other parts of the world choose to make and call home. Long may that number increase.