Race law 'should apply in Northern Ireland': There is still one part of the UK where racial discrimination is legal, writes John Buckley

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The Independent Online
PRESSURE is growing for laws against racial discrimination to be extended to Northern Ireland. None of the three Race Relations Acts introduced since 1965 applies there; unlike in Britain, anyone suffering discrimination can seek no redress from the courts.

The Government has argued that immigration there is on an insignificant scale and that Northern Ireland has no problem of racial discrimination. It estimates that there are 10,000 people from ethnic minorites in the province.

Sarah Lee (who will not give her real name for fear of repercussions) thinks otherwise.

As one of Northern Ireland's 6,000-strong Chinese community, she believes such laws are essential. Every night, as she works in the family take-away, the same drunks come out with the same insults. She and her family do not protest. When they have in the past, the place has been smashed up.

Ms Lee has had enough of the take-away business, which employs 90 per cent of the Northern Irish Chinese. She sees further education as the way out. But she has encountered landlords unwilling to rent rooms to non-whites and she fears that, whatever her qualifications, without laws against racial discrimination it may prove impossible to find a decent job.

Many of the older Chinese people in Northern Ireland do not complain about discrimination. Eleanor McKnight, of the Chinese Welfare Association, says it is part of a tradition of not challenging authority. 'Some just expect discrimination because they are foreigners here, but others don't have enough English to be able to complain, and they know that they have no redress when they do. Another problem is that the authorities here see religion as the main issue on the agenda.'

Because it dominates the agenda in Northern Ireland, religious discrimination has been outlawed since 1976, when the Fair Employment Act was introduced. Bob Cooper chairs the Fair Employment Commission, the body charged with enforcing the Act. He says the Government is reconsidering its stance on racial discrimination in Northern Ireland. Last march, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, agreed to publish a consultative document on race relations legislation which could be out by the end of the year.

Martin O'Brien works with the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a body that campaigns for the Government to meet its international commitments on human rights. He says the present situation, where racial discrimination is outlawed only in Britain and religious discrimination only in Northern Ireland is 'illogical and immoral', and also illegal.

'Britain signed the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and other international treaties. For too long it has breached its obligations to provide effective remedies for racial discrimination.'