The Northern Ireland Assembly is 100% White: Representation in a Deeply Divided Society

Image: Son of Groucho via Flickr.

Stormont’s archaic, ivory, stony exterior is reflected in its membership; 67% male, majority over 50, and 100% white. In 2021, with concern over inequality in political representation and treatment of BAME politicians becoming an issue at the forefront of political discourse, and a continual rise in racially motivated hate crime and everyday discrimination in personal and workspaces, this should not still be the case.

As Michael Potter quoted from a minority ethnic NGO representative in Northern Ireland in Inclusion in Post Conflict Legislatures, 2019, “Basically, for me, sectarianism trump[s] racism. Or, as usual, good relation[s] trump race relation[s].” Sectarianism has been the dark cloud overshadowing Northern Irish society for centuries, and is a defining issue in its contemporary political atmosphere.

The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, which restored peace in the North following the three-decade long conflict known as ‘The Troubles,’ and the subsequent agreements intended to maintain peace, defined the political system in terms of ethno-national identities, those being British and Irish. The GFA/Belfast Agreement put emphasis on stringent measures to ensure that both Irish and British communities are properly represented in the Northern Irish Parliament and that no single group has total authority.

Such measures include the Petition of Concern; this allows a veto of proposed laws if 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly, MLAs, oppose it, and has been used by the Democratic Unionist Party to block legislation to legalise equal marriage and abortion services. Furthermore, it includes the clause that only votes from MLAs who have designated themselves Nationalist/Unionist count on ‘key issues,’ as opposed to politicians that chose to designate themselves as ‘Other,’ often those from parties who are neutral on the constitutional question; Ireland or Britain?  Post-conflict political institutions are clearly designed to accommodate those of identities that are associated with the conflict, at the expense of those that are not.

Ethnic minorities in the North of Ireland are indeed minorities, with 98.2 percent of the population being white, 0.35 percent Chinese, 0.34 percent Indian and 0.2 percent Black as of the 2011 census, (however the recent 2021 census will likely depict a more diverse population). Yet, this does not negate the fact they are 0 percent represented. Through the Black Lives Matter movement and increasingly open discussion of modern race issues, it has become glaringly clear that white people alone are not qualified to speak for, let alone legislate for, minorities.

However, Northern Ireland has had representation from non-white communities in the past; in 2007 Anna Lo became the first and only, to date, ethnic-minority politician elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly (and the first politician born in East Asia elected to any legislative body in Europe). Her election provided hope that "at least one of the parties (the Alliance Party, and largest neutral party in Northern Ireland) prepared to recognise the diversity of the community and the voters are prepared to vote for someone who was not strictly from an orange and green background,” stated an NGO representative in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, Anna Lo was the target of racial abuse from Ulster loyalists and did not stand for re-election in 2016 as a result. The fact that the little representation Asian communities had in Northern Ireland was quashed by the prejudice and hatred of conservative politicians paints a dire picture of how minorities are viewed and treated on the streets and by those making our laws.

Representation of the smallest communities in any society is of the utmost importance - they are the communities that need to be spoken for. Michael Porter stated that "The government invests in events to increase inter-cultural understanding, but does not help minority ethnic groups assert their rights and such events have not had an impact on racially motivated violence."

Such initiatives seem to wield little power in the current social climate; race and religious hate crime spiked by 15-25% in England and Wales following the Brexit referendum (owing to the hateful rhetoric regarding immigrant communities as a political tool to encourage the British population to vote to leave the EU) and racially motivated violence towards Asian people drastically increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even towards children, with instances of hate crimes against South and East Asian communities increasing by 21% across the United Kingdom.

The UK finds itself in a desperate situation; in the wake of this spike in anti-Asian violence it should be of paramount interest of the people of Britain and, in particular, the people of Northern Ireland, that this is prevented through tough legislation, which will only be adequate through political representation in Stormont.

How do we fix this problem? The case has been made to encourage positive discrimination in the workplace to favour minority groups and increase their influence.  Anna Lo herself called for quotas to get more women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ representatives into the Northern Irish Parliament. Simple encouragement for those of ethnic, gender or sexual orientation minority groups to get involved in elected politics has proven ineffective, due to the tribal and confrontational nature and reputation of Northern Irish politics, therefore parties using a quota system to choose members to stand for election appears to be the only method worth pursuing until deeply ingrained prejudices are finally stamped out through long-term attitudinal change throughout society over generations.

Northern Ireland has a past tainted by discrimination, predominantly of Irish Catholics at the hands of the British; only through electoral reforms and encouragement of cross-community initiatives after 30 years of violent conflict were we able to create a state in which each community felt safe and properly represented in politics. We have seen the issues that arise when groups are not looked out for, silenced by a bigoted majority, and we should be on the front lines of the fight against political marginalisation. As a country, we should be past the racist attitudes that make the state feel unsafe for already marginalised groups, and until acceptance and celebration of minorities becomes the norm, I am afraid we will remain in this paralysed state of bigotry.