Minority Ethnic and Religious Communities: Cultural and Economic Contribution — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:01 pm on 24th May 2012.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 1:01 pm, 24th May 2012

My Lords, there is an old tradition that the Magi-the wise men from the East-were Zoroastrians. My noble friend Lord Bilimoria demonstrated today, 2,000 years later, that Zoroastrians still have great wisdom and precious gifts to share with the rest of us. However, those gifts are not universally recognised. In the recent report of the United States commission on religious liberty, Zoroastrians were listed among the many religious minorities who face persecution, discrimination and imprisonment, not least in Iran. Many noble Lords heard the exchange at Question Time today about the continued abuses of human rights in that country for a variety of reasons.

Two weeks ago I delivered the annual Tyburn lecture. In penal times, Tyburn-today's Marble Arch-was where 105 Catholic men and women were executed for their faith. Among them were Edmund Campion, a distinguished Oxford scholar, and the poet Robert Southwell, a cousin of William Shakespeare. I reflected during the lecture that Tyburn's disturbing and poignant story is one of immense cruelty and barbarism. It is the story of a perverted legal system, and reminds us to what intolerance, mutual persecution, the crushing of conscience and what Thomas More called the breaking of the unity of life inexorably lead. Parliamentarians even brought forward measures to remove children over the age of seven from their families if their Catholic parents did not conform.

The story of Tyburn does not call for revenge and should not be used for the stoking of old hatreds. However, it is instructive and has applications today. It reminds us that the struggle for religious freedom is intrinsic to the struggle for democracy and freedom itself. This debate is timely and should remind us that we should appreciate the privileges that we have and be aware of the sacrifices that were made to secure them and committed to speak up for the millions of people who suffered or died for their faith in previous generations so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have today.

I am a Catholic and am proud of my British and Irish antecedents. My mother was an immigrant from the west of Ireland. Her first language was Irish, not English. She married my late father, who was a Desert Rat, in the East End of London. I hold British and Irish passports, as do my children. I have always taught them that you do not hate one country because you love another. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said about holding on to the preciousness of your roots while integrating and playing your part in the nation where you live.

During my time in another place, where I was Irish affairs spokesman for many years-the day after I was elected to the House of Commons, Airey Neave was blown up in its precincts-I heard interminable Statements about tragedies both in Britain and in Ireland. Today there are 6.6 million Catholics in this country-10% of our population-and 600,000 people in England were born in Ireland. Ireland has been the largest source of immigrants to this country for more than 200 years. It is estimated that as many as 6 million people in the United Kingdom have at least one Irish grandparent. Surely it is worth reflecting, exactly a year after Her Majesty the Queen visited the Republic of Ireland, that we have made extraordinary progress despite 800 years of history and mutual hatred.

On the economic issues raised by my noble friend Lord Bilimoria and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, it is worth mentioning, especially in these troubled times, that last year €13.6 billion-worth of UK goods were sold to Ireland, and that British trade with Ireland is still greater than its business with the huge emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.

Today is a day for celebrating our nation's diversity-the whole world in one country. It is an important moment to insist that along with respect for difference and minorities must come a commitment by us all to do all we can, using all our energy, to promote the unity, democracy, freedom and justice that we treasure in this nation. They are precious gifts worthy of the Zoroastrian Magi.