The Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland

Statements on Matters of Public Interest / Concern



Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland
64 Old Dundonald Road
Belfast BT16 0XS.

31st March 2005

Mr Tony Steed,
Equality Unit Manager,
Housing Executive,
2 Adelaide Street,
Belfast, BT2 8PB.

Dear Mr Steed,

I have been asked to respond to the consultation document on the Race Relations policy on behalf of the Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland.

The Bahá'í community has probably the greatest ethnic diversity of any faith community in Ireland. There are Bahá'ís in Northern Ireland from all the continents, some have come as refugees and others as migrant workers or students. Some of these Bahá'ís came here in the 1950s and they have made a massive contribution to life in Northern Ireland - both in their professions as well as supporting the development of the Bahá'í community. There are also many Bahá'ís from Northern Ireland who have settled overseas and the community maintains close links with them. It is not surprising then that we have a keen interest in the issue of race relations.

We applaud the Housing Executive for taking this step in drafting a Race Relations policy and for the extensive consultation exercise that accompanied the development of the policy. We feel that the policy is appropriate, timely, and pertinent. It is presented in a way that is clear and easily understood. We feel it contains significant commitments that will benefit the Housing Executive as well as members of minority ethnic communities and the community at large.

There are two areas that we feel the Housing Executive might consider further developing in order to strengthen the policy. These are outlined below.

Eliminating prejudice

The policy and strategic framework for good relations in Northern Ireland "A Shared Future", recently published by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister describes the challenges that we face in developing good relations. It states that "The underlying difficulty is a culture of intolerance, which we will need to remedy if we are to make Northern Ireland a more 'normal' society - the sort of society we would all be proud to live in."

Furthermore "A Shared Future" specifies the first policy objective in the following way: "[To] eliminate sectarianism, racism and all forms of prejudice to enable people to live and work without fear or intimidation."

The Bahá'í community strongly supports the objective of eliminating prejudice. We believe that such an objective is essential, achievable and imperative. We are aware that in the drafting of the NIHE Race Relations policy you would not necessarily have been aware of the thinking of the OFMDFM in relation to "A Shared Future". We feel that it is essential that the NIHE Race Relations policy is closely aligned with "A Shared Future" and we feel that there is now an opportunity to create that alignment.

The particular area that we feel needs to be addressed is the issue of how the Race Relations policy can be used to support the objective of eliminating prejudice - particularly within the NIHE workforce. We acknowledge that the policy makes the following commitments:

Staff training in Race Relations and cultural sensitivity, to promote awareness of prejudice and stereotypical attitudes will continue.
In addition, the Housing Executive could, in certain circumstances, make available positive action training to employees from minority ethnic communities

We feel, however, that the policy could be significantly strengthened in relation to the internal measures that could be introduced to assist in the elimination of prejudice. A starting point would be a clear statement that identifies the problem. We feel that the OFMDFM document might assist as a model in this regard. Having clearly identified that there is a problem of race relations within the Executive there could then be a number of specific measures introduced to address the problem.

Ethnicity and faith

We feel that the policy needs to include a section that explores the interface between racial discrimination and religious discrimination. It is an area where currently there is much confusion in public documents in Northern Ireland. Indeed, to date we are not aware of a single document that addresses the complexity of the issue in a satisfactory manner.

The issue is complex for the following reasons:

  • ·Jews and Sikhs are regarded as being distinct races - so in these cases the terms "religion" and "race" are synonymous.
  • Most other faith communities contain members from differing ethnic backgrounds. The differing ethnicity within a faith community is often a product of the geographical location of the community. So for example a Christian community in India will be made up of people of Indian ethnicity, some of whose ancestors may have converted to Christianity in the early years of the Christian era whereas a Christian community in Fermanagh is not likely to have many Indian members.
  • Increasingly in Ireland we are seeing that people are making informed choices about the faith community to which they wish to belong (as opposed to simply accepting a faith of one's birth). This means that it is increasingly likely to meet a Bahá'í, Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu who is of Irish birth. Indeed within the Bahá'í community we have many Bahá'ís whose grandparents accepted the Faith. In such cases there is a clear separation of faith and ethnicity.

We feel that it is essential that there is a section in the policy that explores this issue and makes a clear commitment that the Race Relations policy extends to cover issues of faith. The Appendix contains reference to a number of documents that refer to both religion and race; however we were not able to find any reference to religion in the main text of the policy.

The need for the policy to explicitly include references to religion is illustrated by the following example.

In Craigavon following the public dispute in relation to a planned site for a Mosque many Muslims were intimidated and had to flee their homes. Some Muslim homes were burned. Much of the media coverage of this issue described it as "racism". However in our view this description was invalid. Some of the people that were forced to leave their homes were Irish people who had converted to Islam and the specific issue of a site for a Mosque is clearly a religious issue.

It is essential that the policy extends to include protection for people who suffer discrimination of this type.

Finally we congratulate you on the development of a very good draft Race Relations policy and we send our best wishes for the further development of the policy and its implementation.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Keith Munro,
Secretary of the Bahá'í Council.


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