Until recently we had a focus on Community Relations strategies that address the divisions between Protestant and Catholic communities. The term Good Relations has been applied to dealing positively with all forms of different identity including nationality or ethnicity.
The Belfast Agreement of 1998 refers to equality and parity of esteem for people from different social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. This has been given legal backing. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 obliges public bodies to promote equality of opportunity between different groups of people, including ‘racial groups’. They must also promote good relations between people of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group. Public bodies are obliged to have Equality Schemes and to submit their policies to Equality Impact Assessments that are open to public scrutiny.
Our race relations legislation has lagged decades behind that in Great Britain but under the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 it was already unlawful to discriminate either directly or indirectly on racial grounds, in terms of employment and training; education; provision of goods and services; and the disposal and management of premises and advertisements. The Human Rights Act 1998 gave people rights to protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. A Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission have been set up to ensure that existing legislation and practice protect and uphold human rights and equality. They also have an advisory role on these issues.
There is frustration in the voluntary sector that a Single Equality Act has not been achieved here in order to provide more consistency in the protection of rights and equalities. There have also been concerns that rights bodies here may come under threat from the Executive. In July 2009 Finance Minister Sammy Wilson attacked the ‘wasteful equality industry’ and reiterated DUP policy that bodies such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner should be merged in order to save money. Following racist incidents in South Belfast he accused groups of exaggerating the race problem in order to sustain public funding. Patrick Yu of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities responded that he was playing into the hands of racists, that the number of incidents can be seen from PSNI figures, and that many anti-racism groups received no public funding.
The UK Government published A Shared Future Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland in 2005 It carried the aspiration that, through time, we will achieve, ‘a normal civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals’ … ‘A society where there is equity, respect for diversity and recognition of our interdependence.’ The first policy objective flowing from this is to ‘eliminate sectarianism, racism and all forms of prejudice and to enable people to live and work without fear or intimidation’. Northern Ireland was seen no longer as a bipolar society but one that is enriched by being more culturally diverse. It was also recognised however, that racism had emerged as a problem. The Shared Futurestrategyrecognised the role that churches and other faith-based organisations have to play in developing good relations at local level.
Government set up an inter-departmental Good Relations Panel to shape policies and institutions. It included faith representatives. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has a policy role and is responsible for challenging racism, undertaking research and monitoring progress. The 2007 ministerial pledge of office included the words ‘and will promote a shared future’. OFMDFM announced in January 2008 that it would bring forward detailed proposals for a ‘programme of cohesion and integration for a shared and better future’. The draft Cohesion Sharing and Integration (CSI) programme was published in 2010 and consultation closed in October of that year.
In 2013 the strategy document Together: Building a United Community (TBUC) was published, reflecting the Executive’s commitment to ‘improving community relations and building a united and shared society.’
The vision is of
a united community, based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation – one which is strengthened by its diversity, where cultural expression is celebrated and embraced and where everyone can live, learn, work and socialise together, free from prejudice, hate and intolerance.
It contains plans to replace the existing Equality Commission and the Community Relations Council with a single Equality and Good Relations Commission.
TBUC should complement a new Racial Equality Strategy.