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Ulster has a non-White population of about 0.1% at the moment. Let's wait until Belfast resembles Tower Hamlets or Bradford and we'll see how much they embrace multiracialism...

Learn from others and we will enjoy racial diversity

What can we in Northern Ireland gain from Great Britain's debate about multiculturalism, asks Owen Polley

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Race and politics are always a potentially explosive mix. When Enoch Powell delivered his Rivers of Blood speech in the 1960s, he quickly became the most polarising public figure in Britain.

No one would compare David Cameron's recent remarks about multiculturalism to Powell's incendiary rhetoric, but they ranged across similar divisive terrain.

At a security conference in Munich, the Prime Minister argued that
"state multiculturalism" in Britain has failed. The speech came under instant attack from critics who said that its timing was insensitive (his engagement coincided with a rally in Luton by the English Defence League - a rabble-rousing, anti-Islamist movement).

To add to the controversy, BNP leader Nick Griffin waded in to describe Cameron's comments as a "huge leap" forward. That's exactly the type of
backing which the Prime Minister could do without.

It also serves as a reminder that a hardcore of extremists is ready to exploit and pervert any debate around race, culture and integration.

Recently, the BNP registered to contest elections in Northern Ireland. In this part of the UK, we're only beginning to experience genuine racial diversity, but the party hopes to exploit any tensions which immigration might create.

Unlike Griffin, when Cameron criticises multiculturalism, he's not attacking the existence of multiracial societies within the UK. The Prime Minister objects to a tendency of governments to treat people as members of groups, defined by race, religion or ethnicity.

He argues that this approach actually prevents some communities in Britain from integrating properly and contributes to home-grown Islamic
terrorism. The previous government poured more than £90m into radical Islamist organisations via a Preventing Violent Extremism initiative.

It theorised that a group which shares a lot of radical ideology with a potential terrorist is best placed to dissuade him or her from committing violent acts.

It all sounds uncomfortably familiar from a Northern Ireland perspective. Our entire political system is, after all, based on the premise of two separate communities, competing for resources, services and jobs. Segregation and replication are already the norm and we're too familiar with arguments over funding dubious groups.

When OFMDFM released the Executive's so-called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration programme, it was quickly ripped apart by campaigners for a shared future, who say it will actually further entrench division. That's disappointing, at a time when the UK government is revisiting its approach to integration.

In Northern Ireland, we're late-starters on the politics of race. That could actually be an advantage. There's an opportunity to learn from experiences elsewhere.

If we get it right, we can enjoy the cultural richness diversity brings, while also making newer arrivals feel integrated and at home.

To date, we've had few high-profile racist incidents in Northern Ireland. Only the attacks on Roma during the summer of 2009 were serious enough to command attention outside the province.

There's no indication that casual racism, or occasional outbursts of violence, are set to harden into a mood for far-right politics any time soon.

If the BNP decides to field council candidates in Northern Ireland, it's likely to get short shrift.

For the time being, we're far more preoccupied with traditional prejudices. But as society becomes more diverse, there is a risk that it will become even more segregated.

The Executive's failure to combat existing home-grown divisions hardly inspires confidence that it will know how to respond.

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