Newry convention hears call for action to uproot racism as economic downturn demands increased vigilance

Convention Against Racism in NewryCoordinated action sustained over time provides the best prospect of uprooting racism and ensuring it doesn’t re-emerge more strongly during the recession. That was the key message delivered to 100 delegates attending a Convention Against Racism in Newry today (Tuesday, March 22).

Supported by the European Union’s PEACE III Programme managed by the Special EU Programmes Body and organised as part of the Challenge of Change programme, the convention is being addressed by speakers drawn from a range of sectors in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Cllr Mick Murphy, Mayor of Newry & Mourne, spoke in his opening remarks of the “exciting changes” that have already taken place. “Who would have thought 15 years ago that this part of Ireland would be a destination of choice for people from so many different countries? You only have to walk the streets of our towns and villages to hear the variety of accents and languages that now enrich our community. Migrant workers also continue to contribute a great deal to our economy. In Newry and Mourne, we want our area to be a place where everybody – irrespective of their religion or ethnic origin – can feel welcome and live their lives as they choose, free from discrimination.”

Dr James McCammick MBE, Joint Chair, PEACE III Southern Partnership (www.southernpartnership.com), added: “We are dealing with a very serious subject at the Convention Against Racism. Research has shown minority ethnic communities experience a range of challenges impacting on their wellbeing and everyday lives. Barriers exist around language; information deficits; poor awareness of rights and entitlements; isolation; abuse in an employment context; difficulties in accessing services; harassment; prejudice and racial discrimination.”

Convention Against Racism in NewryBefore introducing ‘One Tribe’, a drama commissioned by Challenge of Change for post-primary schools, Justyna McCabe, Project Coordinator, Challenge of Change said the Convention Against Racism is well timed as there is an ever-present risk of slippage on the progress that has been made to tackle racism. “Vigilance is the key to uprooting racism and – just as importantly – making sure that the inroads that have been made on tackling racism are sustained and built on. One of the particular challenges in the current economic climate is that there is always a danger of scapegoating aimed at newcomers to our communities.

“One of the big values we see from the event is that it is allowing delegates to hear in a single day from people who work in policing; local government; the Travelling community; the trade union movement; migrant rights and community development. There is also real value in the networking that takes place on the margins of an event like this.”

Ken Fraser, Head of the Racial Equality Unit at the Office of the First Minister & Deputy First Minister set the Convention Against Racism in context by outlining some of the wider work underway to achieve equality.

The morning keynote speaker was civil and human rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey who is director of STEP (South Tyrone Empowerment Programme), a not-for-profit community development organisation based in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. In examining the history and forms of racism in Ireland, citing US President Barack Obama’s Irish roots, Bernadette McAliskey said “there is part of us that thinks we are better – genetically and historically – than people who’ve come here more recently. We assume we know what’s best for everywhere – recalling ‘didn’t we go out and civilise them?’”

Ms McAliskey added that the current period of flux provides huge opportunities for positive change. “We were never in as fluid a position as now. The only way is up – the best thing is we’re no longer stagnant, inwardlooking, myopic and selfish. There was never a better time to make this island a beacon of hope.” She also highlighted linkages between racism and sectarianism, saying “Ireland has racism to such a fine art that we can tell a person’s faith by their first name.”

Other morning speakers included Siobhán O’Donoghue, Director, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland; Kasia Garbal, Migrant Workers Project Officer, Irish Congress of Trade Unions; Martin Donahue, An Munia Tober and Martin Collins, Asst Director, Pavee Point.

The afternoon keynote speaker, Catherine Lynch, Ireland Coordinator, European Network Against Racism (ENAR), spoke of the importance of reporting racism and the need for standard frameworks to be used to record and monitor racist and sectarian incidents. Ms Lynch said the main forms of racism witnessed in Ireland include racially-motivated violence and crime as well as discrimination in the provision of goods and services and in an employment context.

“Reliable data is very valuable in dealing with racism and reliable reporting provides an evidence base for policy and practice responses as it gives direction to the work being done.

“Reporting provides information not only on the extent of racism but on any particular problem areas (including hotspots). It also makes it more straightforward to provide redress and support for people experiencing racism. Many forms of racism are against the law and sanctions can only be triggered with reporting. Racism undermines our democracy and cannot be tolerated. The importance of standardising how we report and monitor racism arises from the need to ensure that the data gathered is comparable, credible and comprehensive.”

Other speakers at the one-day convention include Gerry Folan, Office for Integration, Dublin City Council; Darren Ferguson, Unite Against Hate and Brian Killoran, Information & Referral Coordinator, Immigrant Council of Ireland.