Haunted by racism in Northern Ireland

A decade and a half ago, racial equality and anti-racism were non-existent in Northern Ireland and important attempts have been made to address racism. But multifaceted and deep-rooted racism is manifest at the individual, institutional and state levels of Northern Ireland society.
Fiona Haughey
24 February 2012

Last week saw the conviction of a second accomplice for the murder of Marek Muszynski in 2009, a Polish man beaten to death in Newry in Northern Ireland. The case serves as a potent reminder of the most extreme outcomes of racism and demands that attention should be drawn to how the whole phenomenon is addressed and responded to, not only by the criminal justice system, but by government as well. 

Since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the UK Institute of Race Relations has documented 96 deaths ‘with a known or suspected racial element’. Two of these deaths were recorded in Northern Ireland, including the recent murder of Marek Muszynski in 2009. According to Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Talbot ‘Marek was a Polish national who came to Northern Ireland to explore the opportunities this country could offer him.’ Instead, Marek was robbed, allegedly racially taunted with 'go back to your own country, you're not wanted in Ireland,' and then subjected to a brutal attack. Last month a young man was sentenced to eleven years for the murder and weeks later a young woman was given a life sentence for the same crime. Earlier in the trial attention was brought to the racially aggravated circumstances of the murder in which one of the perpetrators admitted to racially taunting the victim. In more recent media reports, there is no mention of a racial motivation and it does not appear that racially aggravated circumstances were taken into consideration in the passing of the sentences.  

In another case in 2004, Brij Brushan Sharma was killed in the aftermath of a dispute on the street, the year in which Northern Ireland was hailed the ‘race hate capital of Europe’. However, the courts did not recognise the racially infused context of the killing. Convicted of manslaughter, one of the perpetrators was sentenced to 17 months in prison while his brother was given 100 hours of community service for intimidation. While racist remarks had been made, it was revealed in an investigation by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland that this was not taken into consideration by the prosecution, much to the dismay of the deceased’s family who were upset at the brevity of the sentence and felt that it should have reflected the fact that the killing was racially motivated. Overall a report by the Police Ombudsman revealed that the criminal justice system had made a number of errors in the investigation and prosecution of the case. The family of Brij, supported by the Northern Ireland Council of Ethnic Minorities, have since called for a public inquiry into institutional racism within the criminal justice system of Northern Ireland.

The deaths of Marek Muszynski and Brij Brushan Sharma highlight the continuing problem of racism in Northern Ireland and its most extreme outcome. At the same time, the deaths of these two men demand that attention should be placed on how the criminal justice system responds to racism and prosecutes it. Back in 2006 a report entitled ‘The Next Stephen Lawrence' by Robbie McVeigh argued that the criminal justice system, particularly the police, were inadequately responding to a growing problem of racist violence, which according to McVeigh, was tantamount to institutional racism.

Surprisingly, the police only began to record racist incidents in 1995; largely as a result of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people putting pressure on the police to recognise that racially motivated crime was a problem in Northern Ireland (White 1998). Despite BME people living in Northern Ireland for over a century, Race Relations legislation was only passed in 1997, again this was largely as a result of lobbying and campaigning by BME people in partnership with human rights’ organisations, which now meant, for the first time, individuals had legal redress for acts of racial discrimination. It has been argued that the slow move towards recognising the existence of racism was down to a combination of flagrant denial and sectarian conflict, which not only obscured the reality of racism but also meant that many issues affecting minority ethnic people living in Northern Ireland were rarely taken into consideration. This denial and focus on sectarian issues meant that agencies and policymakers displayed a lack of awareness around issues pertaining to racism and the promotion of racial equality, and as such, their policy responses were non-existent (Mann-Kler 1997).

Since then, racist incidents have increased considerably over the years. In 1996 41 incidents were recorded; by 1998, this had risen to 106 and, in the year 2009, 990 incidents were recorded (PSNI 2011). The most recent figures in 2010 reveal a slight decline whereupon figures now stand at 842 incidents. It has been suggested that the increase in race-hate crime, overall, is partially down to people being more willing to report racism, better recording practices by the police, a change in the definition of a racist incident as a result of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, and a real increase in racist incidents. Indeed, the figures could be far greater as race hate crime is usually underreported. This means that a great deal of racist hate crime falls under the radar. This was confirmed at a meeting of the All Party Group on Ethnic Minority Communities, a group that lobbies politicians on issues affecting BME communities, in which one minority ethnic representative argued that 95% of race hate crime is unreported. Consequently this issue is reflective of one of the biggest flaws with race-hate crime statistics; that is, they do not capture the true extent of racist harassment because a great deal of it remains under-reported for a variety of reasons. The most predominant factors that inhibit reporting include: fear of retaliation if the crime is reported to the police; a belief that there is no point reporting as nothing will be done; and poor experiences with the police. On a closer examination it is clear that a lack of trust in the police is a considerable problem, especially for the Travelling community. It has also been revealed that BME people who have had contact with the police, were more likely to say that the police were racist.

In relation to the police response to race hate crime, problems have been encountered by BME people in regard to an inadequate investigation of racist attacks, deficient support, at the time, or soon after reporting a racist incident, as well as poor relations between the police and minority ethnic communities. Overall, a lack of positive engagement with BME people and a lack of confidence in the police service has proved to be a consistent problem, which in the recent past, has been expressed by various regional minority ethnic organisations such as the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, the Belfast Islamic Centre, and the Chinese Welfare Association. In addition, the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities has raised concerns about the treatment of minority ethnic communities at the hands of the criminal justice system, stating that:

“Among the ethnic minority population in Northern Ireland there are strongly held beliefs, based on their daily experiences, that they are treated unequally and less favourably by the Northern Ireland criminal justice system.”

The low clearance rate for race hate crime is also problematic. In 2005-2006 the clearance rate stood at 20.5 percent. However since then the rate of clearance has fallen to 12.5 percent between 2008-2009. While some argue that such figures, alongside low prosecution figures, epitomise the inability of the criminal justice system to successfully respond to race-hate crime (McVeigh 2006), it is clear that this also sends out the message that there is no point in reporting race hate crime as a criminal prosecution is unlikely.

In the face of such criticisms it has been argued that the police are making improvements in the recording of race hate crime, and that the appointment of Minority Liaison Officers (MLOs) has helped to alleviate problems associated with engagement. Yet, T.Patel’s research in 2011 reveals that ‘operational officers tended to equate policing in a racially diverse society, with the need to police BME people themselves. Here, there was a tendency to view the BME communities, especially newer (economic) migrants, as largely deviant and problematic. This was done via a process of ‘criminalisation’.

Therefore, it is clear that race hate crime remains a considerable problem in Northern Ireland, which the criminal justice system has 'failed to address or resolve' (McVeigh 2006:54). This year, a follow up to ‘The Next Stephen Lawrence’ will be published by the Northern Ireland Council of Ethnic Minorities. The research report aims to examine all criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland in relation to how they process and respond to racist hate crime. According to preliminary findings there have been few, if any, improvements in the system.  

It is worth noting that the impact of race hate crime on BME communities in Northern Ireland is far-reaching. Each attack not only harms individuals, but it also impacts upon an entire community. In a study by Chahal and Julienne in 1999, which focused on four areas in the UK (including Belfast), it was found that the impact of racism goes well beyond the actual event itself. Fear of being targeted shapes how Black and Minority Ethnic people interact with the wider community; for instance, BME people reported that they were apprehensive about leaving home or going out at night. Racism and the fear of racism also have a negative impact upon the health and well being of minority ethnic people. A similar story is to be found in a study carried out by Connolly and Keenan (2001) and McVeigh (2006); both of which provide an in-depth insight from the perspectives of BME people in regard to how racist harassment is experienced and its impact on a daily basis. Overall, it was found that the impact of both direct and indirect racist harassment is profound, and one tends to feed into and reinforce the other. Direct racist harassment creates fear which restricts freedom of movement, and the unprovoked and random nature of incidents means that minority ethnic people ‘can never feel totally relaxed and 'at home' within wider society’.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland government have failed to take racism seriously as evidenced in the fact that a high profile policy framework (The Racial Equality Strategy) designed to address racism from 2005-10, was never implemented. In the research I carried out between 2008-10 which specifically investigated government attempts to address racism, it was clear that moves towards tackling racism in Northern Ireland were largely impeded by a lack of policy and legislative implementation. Ultimately this contributed to a lack of co-ordination in relation to how racism was tackled across local government, resulting in the employment of weak measures to address racism in the majority of councils studied. More specifically, a number of obstacles also stymied efforts to successfully challenge racism. These included:

- An absence of strategic policy direction and leadership from central government in relation to tackling racism.

- A lack of capacity and confidence within local government to address ongoing racism and put into action strategic policy to tackle the problem.

- Continued poor engagement between local government and minority ethnic people, especially via elected representatives.

- Under-funding and poor management of resources by central government for minority ethnic groups, inhibiting the sector from building capacity - a central aim of the Racial Equality Strategy

- A narrow conceptualisation of racism has, and continues to, limit how racism is tackled, in effect addressing racism on a superficial basis through good relations rather than a strong-anti-racist approach.

- The continuing legacy of sectarianism is also shaping how racism is dealt with. Moreover, the main political parties have sectarianised the debate on racism as divisive, contributing to stalling efforts to address racism.


In 2011 government ministers proposed that a new updated Racial Equality Strategy would be published, broadly similar to the original strategic framework, by March 2012. According to the All Party Assembly Group for Ethnic Minority Communities, this has been delayed and will not be implemented this year as originally planned.

A decade and a half ago, racial equality and anti-racism were non-existent in Northern Ireland and today Northern Ireland has made important moves in aiming to address racism, but these have been foreshadowed by a lack of implementation. Granted, Northern Ireland has moved away from denial to recognition that racism is a problem, yet at the same time its extent is often downplayed or minimised. It is abundantly clear that racism in Northern Ireland is multifaceted and deep rooted. Racism is manifested at the individual, institutional and state levels of Northern Ireland society. For instance, racism at the individual level reveals itself as racial prejudice and race hate crime, as evidenced in surveys, research reports and police statistics. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps more tellingly, research that has focused on the perspectives of minority ethnic people, reveal more subtle forms of everyday racism that are not amenable to measurement through surveys. These include racist banter or jokes, staring and racial distancing. The cumulative effect of this type of racism, alongside more overt forms of racism, can be devastating. It has also been found that racism in Northern Ireland tends to be more covert and hidden. In addition, institutional racism is an issue across a broad range of services. This is often compounded by hostile and condescending attitudes, expressed by public sector staff. And finally, racism is also found at the state level; evident in repressive policies on immigration; ineffective responses to race hate crime (as discussed previously); as well as the poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. 

The quandary remains, racism in Northern Ireland is evidently a widespread problem but so far it is not being strategically addressed by government and difficulties remain in regard to how race hate crime is processed and tackled within the criminal justice system.



Further references

Chahal, K. and Julienne, L. (1999) ‘We Can’t All Be White!’ Racist Victimisation in the UK’. London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Connolly, P. and Keenan, M. (2001) The Hidden Truth: Racist Harassment in Northern Ireland. Belfast: NISRA.

Hainsworth, P. (1998) Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland London: Pluto Press

Jarman, N. and Monaghan, R. (2004) Analysis of Incidents of Racial Harassment Recorded by the Police in Northern Ireland. Belfast: OFMDFM.

Mann-Kler, D. (1997) Out of the Shadows: An Action Research Report into Families, Racism and Exclusion in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Barnardo’s.

McVeigh, R. (2006b) The Next Stephen Lawrence? Belfast: NICEM

Patel, T. (2011) ‘Policing racist incidents: views and experiences of officers within the Police Service of Northern Ireland’ The Journal of Criminal Justice Research 1(2)

PSNI (2011) Trends in Hate Motivated Incidents and Crimes Recorded by the Police in Northern Ireland 2004/05 to 2010/11 Annual Bulletin Belfast: PSNI Central Statistics Branch 

White, C. (1998) ‘Law, Policing and the Criminal Justice System’ in Hainsworth, P. (ed.) Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland. London: Pluto Press. 70-103.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData