Adding colours to the Orange and Green: Race relations in Northern Ireland
by Ronan KIRBY
26 March 2021
A diverse panel of guests shared their varied experiences and stories of race relations in Northern Ireland, during an Imagine! Festival event.
When it comes to issues of identity in Northern Ireland, the dominant narrative is that of Protestants and Catholics. This divide seeps its way into politics, education, and business throughout Northern Ireland. From the point of view of a person from outside Northern Ireland, one could easily get the impression that Orange and Green are the only two communities that occupy the country. Few headlines are devoted to ethnic minorities such as migrants, asylum seekers, and travellers. That being said, these groups have a growing population, whose voices are gradually being heard in Northern Ireland, especially in the last year.
2020 saw the Black Lives Matter movement grab the attention of the world, and inspired people to stop being silent on important issues such as racial inequality and discrimination. This was no different in Northern Ireland. In 2021, researchers from the Migrant and Minority Ethnic Council (MMEC) spoke to people from a range of communities, to gather their perspectives on the history of interaction, engagement, contribution, and exchange of migrant and ethnic communities on this island.
At the online event were a range of civil society organisations representatives, politicians, and researchers, all of whom share the goal of improving race relations in Northern Ireland. The event began with a screening of a short film on race relations in Northern Ireland, which acted as a teaser for a forthcoming series. The film revolved around interviews with representatives of different ethnic backgrounds. The event granted an opportunity to meet the majority of those who spoke in the film.
Firstly, we met Leo Brown, a 20-year-old footballer who owns his own computer building business and is currently obtaining a degree in accounting and business management at the Open University. Next was Ola Sobieraj, a Polish woman who has lived in Northern Ireland for the last 20 years. She works on an EU Settlement Scheme support project for the Stronger Together network, whilst running wellbeing workshops. Then, Drew Mikhael introduced himself as a Lebanese-Northern Irish research fellow at Queens University, whose current research is looking at new arrivals and how to create a welcoming society in Northern Ireland. Tunde Adeosun, an accountant, spoke next. He helps people of African and Carribean backgrounds set up their own businesses.
In addition, there was former politician in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Anna Lo, who came to Belfast during the height of the Troubles in 1974. She retired from politics in 2017, and has since been involved in an environmental organisation, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful. Finally, Nisha Tandon, who, similar to Lo, came to Northern Ireland in 1977. Her work with ArtsEkta strives to empower the ethnic communities in the art and cultural fields, to provide them a platform to flourish. She works with refugees and asylum seekers.
In regard to age, gender, areas of expertise and ethnic background, the panel of guests provided a wide range of experiences of race relations in Northern Ireland. Their varied experiences and stories made for an interesting and informative discussion.
The event was hosted by Maurice Macartney, an MMEC board member who has a keen interest in sustainability issues and in issues of social justice, and is an amateur musician and documentary film-maker.
Nisha Tandon spoke of how, when she came to Belfast in the 1970, it was a very monocultural community; by 2019, “it was a whole different story”. She said how it was a long, difficult journey to get to where we are today. Her determination and passion for work made her strive to show minority communities can deliver a vibrant society. “The dream”, as she called it, has come true, as minority ethnic communities have come together and taken ownership, and can now showcase the cultures they bring to Northern Ireland.
Anna Lo spoke briefly on how she got into politics: “Instead of constantly trying to get politicians to do stuff, I decided to take initiative and join politics myself.” She uses an apt word to describe politics in Northern Ireland — “tribal” — and described how this makes people of ethnic backgrounds feel unwelcomed: “Until we have more progressive politics, you won’t have the other [ethnic minorities] wanting to get involved.” Lo made it a point to say that she, personally, hasn’t witnessed racism towards her during her time in government. However, there is a fear from ethnic minorities to become involved, as well-known politicians have publicly made racist remarks.
Drew Mikhael carried forward this issue of inclusive politics: “Lack of outreach by political parties is a significant problem. The narrative over Catholics and Protestants, unionists and nationalists, completely frowns upon newcomers, in terms of ethnic minorities.” In another iteration of “tribal politics”, Mikhael explained a dilemma of party choice, whereby choosing one party can be construed as being complicit in the Orange-Green divide.
“There has to be a culture of recognition of all societies, not just the two communities (Catholics and Protestants), but all involved, both politically and socially in Northern Ireland, which can lead to a flourishing in society through positive contributions,” Mikhael argued.
These positive contributions to society are precisely where Tunde Adeosun’s work comes into the fold. He spoke about how his work strives towards enabling ethnic minorities to make a positive contribution, through the economy.
Leo Brown is a prime example of the kind of people that Adeosun is trying to help, being a business owner himself. Brown’s inspiration for his computer building business came through his love for gaming. However, he said, in terms of setting up a business, he hasn’t experienced racial discrimination. It was the football aspect of his life where it was highlighted for him, where he spoke of suffering an identity crisis in his early footballing days, as he was surrounded by all white people. “Every other game you would get racial abuse”, Brown explained. He does not put all the blame on those who abused him, and talked about taking into consideration that many of these working-class people have never left their communities and live in a relatively sheltered world.
When Ola Sobieraj first arrived in Northern Ireland in 2001, she was the only local Polish girl, and the community seemed to have more of a curiosity towards her. They welcomed her. However, attitudes changed and became increasingly hostile as more Polish began to move into the community. Just like the sentiment shared by Brown, she too chalked it up to lack of education and a basic fear of the unusual. This is what has inspired her to work tirelessly towards mainstreaming ethnicities into society, as she said herself, “adding to the orange and green with numerous colours”.
Macartney asked the speakers about their feelings on Brexit. Sobieraj and Tandon both shared a similar feeling, that it almost felt personal and certainly got in the way of the integration of society. Tandon spoke about how if ethnic minorities play such a big role in the hospitality sector, “Why are they saying they don’t want us?”
From the online audience was an intriguing question: “What can the local [white] community do to stop racism?” Here, Lo mentioned the importance of the Black Lives Matter protest, seeing the racial mix of people “an intensely positive image to promote anti-racism”. She wants this to be seen in the media, and most importantly, in politics.
The importance of school integration emerged as a theme from the event’s dialogue. Tandon said, “Integrated education is the key to everything, so that kids can learn from each other.” Adeosun agreed and said, “People need to get behind Nisha and her type of work.” Sobierag asked rhetorically, “How do you expect people to get along at the age of 20, when they are separated at the age of three?”
The final question posed to the group was: “What would you do if you were Prime minister for the day?”
All of the answers given, in some way, revolved around integration of all cultures in society. Lo’s response was comprehensive: “Changing attitudes takes a long time, public policy and law needs to change. All government departments need to redouble their efforts in racial equality strategies and strengthening the anti-racism laws to make this place safer and more inclusive.”
You can view the event recording and a series of additional videos at the Migrant and Minority Ethnic Council’s YouTube channel.