The First Minister and I are appalled by the deplorable racist attacks on Romanian families that took place in the south and east Belfast areas in the past two weeks and, indeed, other recent racist and sectarian attacks. Those attacks were unacceptable acts on men, women and young children who came here to build a new future for themselves. The incidents have done major damage to our reputation and to our efforts to build a shared and better future for everyone.
We have consistently stated that migrant workers are bringing very real benefits to our society and economy. We welcome and support those who have come to live and work here, and we utterly condemn hate crime and discrimination of any kind. It must be remembered that these are the actions of a few. Most people were appalled, and many acted to support the families who were targeted. In Belfast, local community representatives and a range of groups that we fund are working to prevent further attacks and to support the unfortunate victims.
We are fully committed to building a cohesive, shared and integrated society for all. We want to ensure that newcomers to our shores are welcomed into communities that are not divided, separate or unequal, and that we address the challenges that face new and host communities. We are on record as stating that we are finalising proposals for a draft programme of cohesion, sharing and integration. That programme must, and will, tackle the challenges that face local communities. It will set a framework to tackle racism, sectarianism and other prejudices.
We hear the calls for us to conclude the preparation of our policy proposals, but a framework alone is not enough. All our efforts are required, and everyone in the House must stand to reject the behaviours and prejudices that underpin the recent attacks. We reassure communities, particularly the most vulnerable, that, while we liaise with the Assembly Committee, the work of challenging sectarianism, racism and all forms of intolerance continues with our active support.
I find it somewhat hypocritical of Sinn Féin to make comments that oppose sectarianism, given that, for years, that party supported sectarian attacks on men and women in the border areas of Northern Ireland. Will the deputy First Minister provide the House with the reasons why he and his party have blocked and held up the tackling racism strategy for the past two years?
I believe that we all want the proposals to go well beyond being mere sound bites or well-intentioned platitudes.
OFMDFM has been preparing the ground to enable it to make significant recommendations for action in a number of key areas. For example, we are considering the findings of a short-term research project so that we can plan long-term youth work that will underpin the summer interventions that we continue to finance. Recently, we took receipt of an important report on peace walls in Belfast. We are examining how that fits with the ideas that we are considering on how to work with people in those divided communities so that relationships can be built, safety guaranteed, and shared spaces regenerated.
I intend to provide a draft strategy to the Committee before the summer recess. If that is not achievable, we will work through the summer to give the proposals to the Committee as soon as possible. That work may require a recall of the Committee. OFMDFM will continue its summer youth programmes and its work to tackle sectarianism and racism. We hope to announce shortly a major pilot programme to promote rights, dialogue and good relations in Derry.
I believe that attacks on ethnic minorities and sectarian attacks occur because the perpetrators believe that they are better than those whom they assault. Recognition that everyone is equal and entitled to be treated with equality is at the heart of dealing with the issue. If there has been a difficulty in agreeing the way forward on the cohesion, sharing and integration strategy, equality is at the heart of it. All Members in the House — without exception — must agree that everyone must be treated with equality. However, some people find that difficult.
The recent terrible murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine happened specifically because some people in the town are sectarian bigots. They believe that they have the right to go into a street, murder someone and leave someone such as Damian Fleming within inches of losing his life. We must deal with the issue comprehensively by recognising the need for everyone to respect people on the basis of equality, which, as I said, goes to the heart of the matter.
The line of questioning that has emerged from the attacks demonstrates how far we all have to travel, in the House and beyond, in our approach to such issues. I am happy to add my support to the deputy First Minister’s condemnation of the racist attacks. Often, Members who asked related questions in the House were told that it is a matter of supporting local communities, and I concur with that. Will the deputy First Minister assure the House that the document will be ambitious and that it will tackle ingrained sectarianism and racism in the political system and in Departments? That would result in a proactive and productive, rather than responsive, approach to such issues.
I agree that the document must be of the type that the Member described. She and I were among those who experienced the terrible after-effects of the attack on the Roma community. It was heartbreaking to see attacks on people who had honoured us by coming to our shores seeking to build new lives.
Similarly, over many centuries, many people who left the island of Ireland for the United States of America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and many other countries were treated despicably by the local communities. For us to repeat the mistakes of centuries ago is disgraceful.
As I held Fernanda, the baby who was born in Belfast, in my arms when she was five days old, I knew that her mother and father were about to take her away from her birthplace because of a despicable hate crime. I also met a young woman called Maria who came here a few months ago without a word of English. She is a lovely person who taught herself and her two children English. Maria was able to act as interpreter between us and the rest of the Roma community. That shows clearly how hard those people were trying to build new lives.
We need to face up to all the problems that are out there. All of us need to do more, and there is a particular responsibility on people to recognise that perhaps not enough was done by the system as a whole. It was very interesting to see that Assistant Chief Constable Finlay effectively threw up his hands in relation to how he thought the police handled the situation. Effectively, they did not know what was happening in the Roma community. That accusation could also be levelled at us. We all have lessons to learn and, as we go forward, the type of document to which the Member referred needs to be very thorough and proactive in relation to facing down racism and sectarianism in our society.
Two weeks ago, the First Minister and I met the former President of India, who is recognised as being the most popular President of that country since the foundation of the Northern state. Over the weekend, I read his book ‘Indomitable Spirit’, in which he states:
“The basis of all systems, social or political, rests upon the goodness of men. No nation is great or good because parliament enacts this or that, but that its men are great and good.”
He hits the nail on the head because we need to get the document right, and we need to pass laws and legislate, but we also need to recognise that although the vast majority of our people are very angry about sectarian attacks and sectarianism, and about racist attacks and racism, the fact is that there are an awful lot of racists and sectarian bigots in our society. What is required is for society as a whole, supported by the police and the political process, to bear down on those people and make it absolutely clear that that type of activity will not be tolerated.
During the course of almost every meeting of the Executive, we are given a report by the Health Minister about the outbreak of swine flu. At a certain time of the year in the North, I think that we have flag flu. In many parts of the North, for weeks on end, leading up to the Twelfth of July, it is obvious that a massive effort is made to plaster flags everywhere. I think that the people who do that — [Interruption.]
The people who do that show their insecurity. We need to recognise that everybody has a responsibility to contribute in a positive and constructive way towards the lessening of tension. That applies as much to everyone in the community from which I come as it does to everybody else. A lot of over-the-top stuff is going on, and people need to recognise that it would be a useful contribution to good community relations if they were to tone things down just a little bit.