Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Gail Walker: Is Sammy’s rant on racism just a new red herring?

Gail Walker, Belfast Telegraph

Does Finance Minister Sammy Wilson secretly wish he was Jeremy Clarkson? Bluff, popularist and straight-talkin', Sammy takes peculiar pride in telling it like it is. If there is anyone who likes to ruffle liberal-left feathers, it is the East Antrim MP.

Now, normally whenever LL feathers are to be ruffled, I'm the first to say ‘Count me in' but, Sammy ... enough already! Last year it was denying climate change was manmade, this year — ta dah! — it's the ‘anti-racism industry'.

The roots of Wilson's row with the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) is his statement earlier this year that employers should give priority to local people over economic migrants when it comes to jobs.

It is a point with which many — myself included — would have sympathy. In these difficult times, it is only natural to think that charity should begin at home. But Wilson singularly failed to say how this aspiration would square with UK and EU legislation.

As he was not suggesting that Stormont ‘go to the mats' with Brussels and Westminster on this one, his comments could have been filed safely under ‘Hot Air'.

NICEM, in response, wrote to the Executive expressing concern about the then Environment Minister’s remarks.

Since then, the balloon has well and truly gone up, with Wilson speaking darkly of an ‘anti-racism industry' stifling free speech and debate by branding as ‘racist' anyone disagreeing with them.

Except nobody's hung the ‘R' word explicitly round Wilson's neck. And, well, Sammy hasn't exactly been stifled (you'd need a hell of big pillow to do that).

True, there’s been talk by critics of his sentiments helping to spread xenophobia and the like. Close but not quite. Still, it isn't only Wilson who should choose their words more carefully in the future.

More controversially, Wilson argues the ‘industry' exaggerates the level of racism here for its own financial gain: “Don't forget that NICEM have a vested interest in this — they need to keep up the impression that there's rampant racism in Northern Ireland because they apply for grants on the basis that their services are required.”

Keep up the impression? Has the Finance Minister forgotten the mini-pogrom in the Village area only a couple of months back? Or maybe he thinks that was only an impression of 100 fleeing Romanians?

As NICEM's figures are based on police statistics for actual racist incidents, and those statistic show that hate crimes are on the rise, surely Wilson should be more concerned about people here living under threat than rambling on about quangos? But then again, maybe the PSNI is also part of |the cabal.

Bottom line here: is the Finance Minister of Northern Ireland saying we do not have a serious racism problem? If so, why is Belfast regularly described in the world's media as the hate capital of Europe?

How does he explain those disturbing little stickers which appear with monotonous regularity at a bus stop near you?

And, if Wilson is so concerned about ‘vested interests' raiding the public purse, what about ‘the politics industry'. Let's see shall we?

There's 108 employed up at Stormont, three in Brussels, 18 in Westminister. Plus countless secretaries, researchers and assistants (the fact that many are wives, relatives and friends of our elected representatives is, of course, entirely co-incidental). And let's not even start with the hundreds of (unpaid, admittedly) councillors working their way up the career ladder.

What are we talking about here? Several hundred? Thousands? Tens of thousands? All to administer a population less in size than Birmingham. Viewed with cynical eyes, do they, too, not have their hands held out?

If there is indeed an ‘anti- racism industry’ here, it's a cottage one in comparison with the corporate leviathan of |local politics.

By Wilson's saloon bar reasoning, don’t all our politicos have a vested interested in ‘exaggerating' problems and keeping the pot boiling? Is he, therefore, suggesting that we should |stop listening to them? But let's not shoot those messengers, eh, Sammy?

A gross simplification? A travesty of a complex situation? Ab-so-lutely. But one no worse than the travestying of the motives of those who have the temerity to take issue with Wilson's original remarks.

And if NICEM and others have an interest in ‘exaggerating' racism, could it not be that Wilson and other local politicos have an equal interest in ‘downplaying' it?

After all, it takes a brave politician to tell an unknown proportion of his or her potential voters that they're bigots. It also damages a self-image, that is close to our hearts: apart from our own wee spats of killing each other, we really are a lovely, warm and welcoming people.

But Sammy shouldn't worry. There's little chance of anyone yelling “Black b*****d” in his face. (Except those from the ‘republican tradition’ of course.)

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