Northern Ireland immigrants (Metro Éireann)

NI immigrants on the political margins in a society divided by tribes

Robert Carry (Metro Éireann)
21 April 2006

Northern Ireland’s non-indigenous population now numbers in the tens of thousands but is conspicuously absent from the North’s political landscape. Voter turnout is low in immigrant communities where there is little participation in any of the North’s main political parties and a clear reluctance to get involved independently at an electoral level.

The Chinese community is the North’s largest ethnic minority group but according to Anna Lo, chairperson of the Chinese Welfare Association (CWA), many Chinese are not registered to vote. Of those who are fewer than 50 per cent turn out at election time. The broader community boasts 60 to 70 per cent voter turnout.

La believes there are many reasons why the Chinese community is not more fully involved but for her one in particular stands out: “It is because of the nature of politics here. As long as it remains tribal the Chinese community will not get involved.”

SDLP (Social, Democratic and Labour Party) Equality spokesperson Patricia Lewsley believes there are further reasons why participation is at its current level: “Most immigrants who come here tend to do so with the specific aim of finding employment and working to support their families. Political involvement tends to be a long way down on their list of priorities.”

The negative side of Northern Ireland politics, often so prominent in media coverage, has also acted as a deterrent for those who might otherwise have gotten involved. Lewsley accepts that “more work needs to be done, particularly in Loyalist areas where there have been a lot of racist attacks” but adds that “more must also be done in places like West Belfast. Non-nationals have been told by republicans (who don’t yet recognise the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNl) as legitimate), that they can contact the police if they have to for insurance reasons, but other than that, they’re not to bring police into the area. Not only is this intimidation, but it also stops non­nationals from reporting crimes perpetrated against them.”

The last Westminster election left the UUP with a just one MP, Sylvia Hermon. According to a UUP spokesperson, the defeat prompted the party to examine new ways of expanding their vote-share and the minority vote has been singled-out as a means of clawing back lost ground. This process was started before the last election when David Trimble initiated contact with the sizeable Portuguese community in his Upper Bann constituency. He called on those not registered to vote to get their names on the electoral register, and asked individuals who were registered to use their vote. He also had his election literature, which highlighted the party’s support for a multicultural Northern Ireland, translated into Portuguese.

Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), has a poor record on minority groups. DUP councillor Maurice Mills recently attacked the media for not drawing attention to the fact that hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans two days before an annual gay festival was due to be held. “Surely,” he said, “this is a warning to nations where such wickedness is increasingly promoted and practised.”

Mills also highlighted his belief SDLP’s Patricia Lewsley that “Asia was hit by the tsunami because of the continent’s people not being Christian. God had marked their cards”, Mills is not the only member of the DUP to hold such views. The party also defended local opposition to the proposed construction of a Chinese community resource centre in the Donegal Pass area of South Belfast.

Uniquely, the Alliance Party has an immigrant as its General Secretary, Allan Leonard from the US. They too have worked on issues relating to non-nationals, most notably, on hate crime legislation. Alliance campaigned for years for its introduction and finally succeeded when it was brought into effect in September of last year. Sinn Fein has also been vocal on issues relating to immigration. The party was prominently involved in events such as last year’s anti-racism march in Belfast and in the anti-deportation rallies held in the south. However, there is a belief among some that parties’ involvements in these initiatives have often been more about electioneering than helping immigrants.

The SDLP’s Patricia Lewsley accepts that although much still needs to be done her party is working on building relations with immigrant communities through various projects: “I’ve been involved in setting-up the Zimbabwe solidarity campaign, which helped asylum-seekers and raised awareness of conditions awaiting deportees in Zimbabwe.

We’ve also taken part in projects that involve sending welcome packs (which provide information like where the nearest hospitals, schools or bus stops are) to newly arrived immigrants. As a result of projects like these, we are starting to enjoy quite a high level of support from the immigrant community.”

The cross-community ethos of the Alliance Party makes it the natural home for members of minority groups looking to side-step the constitutional issue whilst staying within existing parties. While Allan Leonard accepts that other parties have done some good work on behalf of immigrants, he believes his party’s strategy of trying to move away from what could be perceived as token gestures will have more solid results. “We want to try to be seen to be taking the lead in the fight against discrimination. If that is something that voters find appealing, whether they be from minority groups or otherwise, that’s great, but we’re not going to try to single-out minority groups in pursuit of votes.”

Despite the often divisive nature of Northern Ireland politics, Lo believes there is consensus within her community on some of the issues that split the North and she and her community are very much in favour of a return to devolved government. With the assembly suspended the focus is on tribal politics in this environment it is difficult for minorities to find a role.

The restoration of devolution would see the focus shift back onto bread-and-butter issues and it would be easier for minorities to make their mark.

Lo also believes the prospect of a united Ireland – the single most divisive issue in Northern Ireland today – doesn’t necessarily have to be a cause for concern. “The Chinese are a very pragmatic people who want to see peace and prosperity. Once there is consensus, generally, we wouldn’t mind whether this is achieved as part of Britain or within a united Ireland.”

Ironically, although the tribal nature of Northern politics has deterred immigrants from playing a fuller role in public life their involvement has the potential to help divert attention away from constitutional issues. The prospect of immigrant minorities taking a greater role in politics and the moderating effect it could have, is something Allan Leonard and the Alliance Party are looking forward to: “It’s something I would be very excited about, not only because it would help further the aims of the Alliance Party, but because it would help to make the people of Northern Ireland appreciate and respect diversity. It’s something which would be to the benefit of everyone.”

With the armed conflict now all but finished, the competing sets of national aspirations in Northern Ireland are largely irrelevant in the minds of newly arrived immigrants.

Bread-and-butter issues, painfully absent from the lexicon of so many of Northern Ireland’s
political leaders, are all-pervading for the North’s migrants. Northern Ireland politics is in need of a moderating influence – its growing immigrant communities have the potential to be just that.

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