Race and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland: Towards a Blueprint for the Eradication of Racism from the CJSNI

NICEM (the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities) published its The Next Stephen Lawrence: Racist Violence and Criminal Justice in Northern
Race_and_Criminal_Justice_2013Ireland report in 2006. This report described the frightening reality of racist violence in Northern Ireland at that time through the testimonies of NICEM clients. It also addressed responses to that violence, particularly those of the police and the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland (CJSNI). The tone of people‘s experience was characterised by the title – one victim of sustained racist violence made it clear that he had to leave Northern Ireland because he did not want to become the next Stephen Lawrence. This illustrated graphically the impact of racist violence on the lives of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people living in Northern Ireland. The report went on to detail ways in which the response of the police and the criminal justice system to that violence might be improved. The report found that the criminal justice system was institutionally racist‘ in the sense that this term was employed by Macpherson. The research suggested that there had been a ‘collective failure’ across the CJSNI, ‘to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’. It was hoped that the report would play a pivotal role in transforming the situation vis-à-vis BME people and racism in Northern Ireland.

Another episode in 2009 saw whole communities ‗ethnically cleansed‘ from parts of south Belfast after violence between fans at a Northern Ireland/Poland soccer match. Suggestions have continued of an intimate connection between loyalist paramilitaries and racist violence. And in 2011 one member of the BME community did become another Stephen Lawrence‘. In other words, profound problems remain in terms of racism and racist violence in Northern Ireland. Moreover, questions remain in terms of both the desire and the capacity of the Northern Ireland criminal justice system to address this violence. Meanwhile, the reality of living with racism continues to be reflected in the experience of NICEM‘s clients:

I find it difficult to accept how being called a Paki and being told to return to your native‘ home is not racially motivated. How can an incident that resulted in my daughter having a broken nose, stitches, bruising all over her body, being called a Paki‘ and told to go back home throughout the assault … not have a racial connotation? Especially when the word Paki‘ was used throughout the assault? [She] now hates the colour of her skin, her name, [and] won‘t go into the town without an escort. She has been to three different schools due to racial harassment. I‘m totally
appalled at the lack of any support or understanding for my daughter‘s predicament. I don‘t feel she has been heard or protected from harm. I believe that the whole experience has left her scarred and has stripped her of any confidence she had. [She] hates discussing what she has been through as it emotionally drains her. [She] tried taking her own life at one point stating that the abuse is never going to go away and
that she wishes she was born white‖ (NICEM client).

We want to ask, therefore, how this situation might be positively transformed – to ask what a blueprint for the eradication of racism‘ might look like for the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. This is a particularly opportune time to propose a new beginning on race and criminal justice. With the recent devolving of the administration of justice and a new Minister and Department for Justice in place, the opportunity for
addressing race and criminal justice in Northern Ireland has never been better. In other words, for all the change there has been in rhetoric, the NICEM experience suggests a profound, ongoing problem with the ability of the Northern Ireland criminal justice system to recognise and confront racism. When the Macpherson report from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was launched in 1999, the Independent characterised it as forming ‗nothing less than a blueprint for the eradication of racism in the British criminal justice system‘.

The NICEM experience suggests that Northern Ireland remains in a pre-Macpherson situation‘. Our analysis suggest that all parties interested in racial justice in Northern Ireland – statutory and non-statutory alike – need to work towards an appropriate implementation of the letter and spirit of Macpherson – as well as incorporating subsequent lessons from England and Wales and Scotland. Put simply, there remains a pressing need to move towards a blueprint for the eradication of racism Race_and_Criminal_Justice_2013in the Northern Ireland criminal justice system. That is the focus of this research.