Fallout from the racist intimidation of Roma families living in Belgravia Avenue and Wellesley Avenue in South Belfast this June continued this week as the Northern Ireland Assembly debated a motion moved by MLA Anna Lo (South Belfast, Alliance Party) recognising the contribution of migrant workers to society in Northern Ireland and requesting that the Executive urgently review the support provided to migrant workers.
Whilst most of the families immediately affected by June’s violence returned to the Bihor region of Romania in the immediate aftermath of the attacks (pictured left), over 30,000 migrant workers from ten newest member states of the European Union remain in Northern Ireland, predominantly living in Belfast and in the large towns of Dungannon and Craigavon (although immigration is decreasing during the recession).
Having highlighted the perilous position under UK law of migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania in particular, Ms Lo argued that migrants did not receive adequate attention from the work of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and called for the re-establishment of the now moribund Racial Equality Forum.
One protectionist voice, Thomas Buchanan (DUP, West Tyrone), resisted these calls with assertions that, ‘[a] practical and sensitive approach must be taken to calls for jobs to be retained for our own local workers. Although we are aware of the immense contribution that migrant workers make, nevertheless, in the middle of a recession and in the face of increased unemployment, we must get our priorities right in securing employment for our local people.’
In relation to immigration (which under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 remains a reserved issue administered from Westminster), the tone of the debate was at times ominously studded with references to “the troubles”, with Tom Elliot (Fermanagh & South Tyrone, UUP), in particular claiming that, ‘if we are not careful, we will have constant conflict, which could become the new sectarianism of Northern Ireland, in which the traditions of locals and migrants will be pitched against each other instead of the old Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions.’
In his response to the motion, the Minister for Employment and Learning, Sir Reg Empey (East Belfast, UUP), reiterated the Executive’s commitment in their Programme for Government to deliver, ‘a peaceful, fair and prosperous society … with respect for the rule of law’. Nonetheless, he had to acknowledge that the work of the Racial Equality Forum had underpinned the Executive’s policy regarding migrant workers.
Whilst the Equality Commission is in the midst of a major report on migrant workers (due to be delivered in early 2010), it operates at arm’s length from the Executive, maintaining an oversight function. By contrast, the Racial Equality Forum, which brought together senior representatives of government departments, statutory agencies and voluntary organisations helped to direct the Northern Ireland Executive’s focus to the aims set out in A Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland.
The importance of Anna Lo’s motion lies in the fact that such consistent inculcation of human rights and the principle of equality within the executive branch remains a central plank of efforts to uphold these values.