Minorities Are Feeling Left out of the Political Arena; This Week, DEBORAH DUNDAS Has Been Examining the History, Culture and Challenges Facing Ethnic Minorities in Northern Ireland. Today She Looks at Their Representation within the Political Arena at Stormont

Article excerpt

WE MAY be seeing more ethnic faces in the media, on the streets - even in recruitment advertisements for the Northern Ireland Police Service. But one place that remains staunchly white is the political arena.

Almost all political parties in Northern Ireland have some sort of policy on ethnic integration - at the very least, they don't exclude ethnic minorities. And, encouragingly, at least one political party, the Alliance Party, has members from ethnic minorities.

But still, the lack of ethnic minorities in formal politics is disturbing. The population in Northern Ireland is between 25,000 and 30,000 according to estimates by the Northern Ireland Council on Ethnic Minorities. But creating a new life in a country can be an alienating experience. And a lack of public representation prevents people from becoming an integral part of the community.

"You often find that the sectarian divide of politics in Northern Ireland is a total turn-off to them," says Dawn Purvis, of the Progressive Unionist Party. Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council on Ethnic Minorities, confirms Purvis' point. "Because of the Troubles it's more difficult to participate because they won't see you as an ethnic minority - you have to be Protestant or Catholic."

While nobody will argue the importance of bridging the divide between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, this focus means that people who come from a different ethnic background - are left without an official voice or official representation.

There are a number of different ways of looking at this dilemma.

"The reaction of people in Northern Ireland is that we don't have a race problem because we don't have races," says Dean Lee. But he points out that "the opposite is true. Since there are so few, their needs are that much greater since their experience has been that much more isolated and their views are that much more hidden".

Just as importantly, inclusion makes people better citizens because it provides people with a vested interest in their society - something the women's movement and many different civil rights movements have recognized and fought for over the years.

As the ethnic population within Northern Ireland has grown, a different way of being heard has evolved.

Organizations such as the Chinese Welfare Association and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, both founded in the mid-1980s, have become organizations that support their community with internal programmes, but also support their community by becoming involved in politics. The strength of their organizations lies in their ability to be heard by both the political parties and the law-makers. …