The head of the Racial Equality Unit in Northern Ireland has questioned the Executive Office’s dedication to tackling racial inequality, saying it has not implemented plans he set out 16 years ago.
Kenneth Fraser, whose role is within the Executive Office, spoke to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in a personal capacity to hit out at the current strategy for tackling the issue.
“I think it is crucial that we get it right and we haven’t been getting it right,” he said.
Fraser, who joined as head of the Racial Equality Unit in 2002 but has been on sick leave for the last one-and-a-half years, said the key areas that need improving are the same as in 2005: legislation, ethnic monitoring and racial literacy.
In 2005, Fraser drafted his first strategy as head of the Racial Equality Unit, setting out the key things that needed to be done to address racial inequality in Northern Ireland.
He said the racial equality strategy was welcomed but most of its key recommendations have not been implemented – such as “ethnic monitoring and revamping legislation to actually deal with the current circumstances”.
“Until we get ethnic monitoring in place, we will not have a yardstick to judge whether we are actually succeeding.”
Ethnic monitoring helps an organisation to know whether its race equality policy is working. Currently, people in Northern Ireland are only tracked by their religion and gender, not race or religion.
Fraser’s second strategy was stripped back, he says, with the evidence section removed because his manager felt “ministers might take exception to it suggesting Protestants might be less prone to being positive to minority ethnic people than Catholic people”.
As well as creating strategies, Fraser and his team have a responsibility for spreading racial equality across Northern Ireland but he said he has had few staff to implement this.
“We probably averaged about four people, including myself. You cannot do that with that number of staff.”
Fraser pointed out ethnic monitoring guidance as an example of staffing issues.
“Since 2011, we’ve had a guidance for implementing ethnic monitoring across Stormont,” Fraser said.
“Nothing has been done there. Doing something like that require quite a lot of people to go out and advise and help different departments as to what we're looking for. With three or four people you cannot do that.”
Fraser said there needs be funding to enable “work on the ground”, speaking to different communities such as refugees and asylum seekers and helping with community cohesion.
Since taking up his position, Fraser has expanded the role to cover immigration and asylum matters because of their racial equality implications. But he called the Executive’s new Refugee Integration Strategy a “poor piece of work” and “misleading”.
Highlighting his concern at the lack of racial literacy in NICS, Fraser pointed to “cultural seminars for civil servants” which he had seen advertised this month.
“It is presenting lots of different minority groups or nationalities solely as cultural artefacts. So you know, people doing Indian dancing or Polish paper cutting. It’s not treating people as people who can contribute in terms of ideas and economic power and things like that. It is saris and samosas.”
Fraser said he has tried to raise issues with both his line managers and with special advisers and he has whistle-blown but doubts anything will happen as a result.
A key issue is the lack of expertise on racial inequality in NICS, Fraser said.
He said the Executive Office and NICS have not learned lessons from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal to ensure that people with the appropriate knowledge and experience are in the relevant policy-making roles.
Fraser described how a new boss had come in who was “amused by not knowing anything about race”.
Improving racial literacy – the level to which people can recognise, respond to and counter forms of everyday racism – is vital to improving racial equality, Fraser says.
“We need to raise the level of racial literacy here very considerably across the board, including at the most senior levels,” Fraser said in written evidence to the committee ahead of the hearing.
“Where a person does not have a good level of racial literacy they will find it difficult or impossible to understand the issues in the first place.
“Minority ethnic people deserve policy makers and law makers who understand the hurdles and burdens that minority ethnic people have to deal with and that cause the racial inequalities they experience.
“You can't just make it up as you go along. And enthusiasm is not a substitute for knowledge and experience.”
Every NICS department has a Racial Equality Champion to increase staff awareness of the Racial Equality Strategy and issues relevant to their.
But Fraser commented: “Unfortunately if racial equality champions have no racial literacy, then you find yourself in a bit of a difficulty to be able to play that role.”
The whistleblowing civil servant said he had sought to professionalise NICS’ work on racial equality through recruitment.
“I kept trying to build expertise, build capacity, and just build numbers in terms of our ability to deal with this and it didn't happen.”
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the experiences of minority ethnic and migrant people in Northern Ireland. It said Fraser’s evidence is likely to be the final evidence submitted to the inquiry.
The Executive was accused of failing ethnic minorities in 2021 after a report revealed an increase in racist attitudes in Northern Ireland from 2014-2019.