Address by Minister at the official launch of Intercultural Week 19–25 March 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be with you this morning to launch Intercultural Week 2006. I'd like to begin by acknowledging the work done by the co-ordinators for the Week: the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI). It is good to see North-South co-operation in combating racism and managing our diversity. I would like also to acknowledge the support of the National Action Plan Against racism and the support of my own Department for the Week.

I believe that events like Intercultural Week provide an opportunity to reflect on the changes in our society, to exchange ideas on how we should move into the future in such a way that we avoid the fractures within society that have been experienced in other diverse societies and, of course, to focus on the many positive aspects of diversity in modern Ireland.

As has been remarked on many occasions, we have within a decade or so taken on a demographic profile which the more established economies of the EU took decades to reach. We are a country of immigration - and no longer are the returning Irish the major component of that inward migration. New landmarks are being continually reached. In the twelve months to April 2005 the highest level of immigration since records on migration began here in 1987 was recorded. There were 70,000 immigrants in those 12 months.

Foreign nationals now make up in the region of 6 per cent of the population and by 2030 our foreign population could be one million, or 18 percent of the population. The Government is well aware of the challenges that these changes pose for Irish society and we are actively working to ensure that the transition can be a positive experience for Irish and newcomer alike.

We launched, last year, the National Action Plan Against Racism which provides a comprehensive framework to develop our diversity strategies. The Plan builds on the substantial equality infrastructure already in place. In addition new work authorisation legislation is before the Oireachtas and I will soon be in a position to bring my proposals to government for a comprehensive Immigration and Residence Bill. But managing a diverse society is not a process that has a beginning and an end - it is a living process and one which needs to be driven by a sense of what is good for all of us. There is no reason why we cannot achieve an inclusive society where everyone is assured of respect for their identity and where reasonable accommodation is made for different cultures - and be no less Irish for all of that! 

Your theme for the week is Participation; focusing on this key pillar of the National Action Plan Against Racism. The theme is concerned with full participation in Irish society, including a focus on the political level, the policy level and the community level. Participation promotes interaction among people; we learn about each other as people not just as 'nationals of this or that country' or 'members of this or that particular group'. Interaction at this human level is a good way to break down prejudice; if we are members of clubs, political parties, voluntary groups we become team-mates or colleagues and develop a commonality of interests. What happens at the local level, how we react to each other as individuals, effects trends in wider society. I would like to see, and would very much support, the emergence of leaders from our ethnic and cultural minorities as public figures and to see the development of more ethnic-led organisations: leaders not just in the sense of representation of their own group but also of Ireland in all its new diversity.

As regards political participation by cultural minorities, the National Action Plan Against Racism deals with measures to enhance the participation of cultural and ethnic minorities in the political processes. A key challenge is to ensure that positive action will be developed to encourage the participation of cultural and ethnic minorities at all levels within the political process. I know that the Strategic Monitoring Group is working on initiatives that will focus on a range of measures designed to encourage participation in the wider political processes; to encourage political parties to develop measures to actively encourage involvement and political participation for ethnic/cultural minorities. It will also encourage them to revisit the Protocol for Political Parties, drawn up under the Know Racism campaign, to encourage Political parties to adopt it as part of their own codes of conduct. I fully support them in this important work.

The progress so far of the recent Garda recruitment campaign targeted at people from our ethnic and cultural minorities has been most encouraging. Indications are that in the region of 6%-7% who have successfully completed first stage are from these communities. This is a fair reflection of the composition of our national population. The remaining stages of the recruitment from this competition will be completed in the coming months and I would ask people to bear in mind that this is the first time for such a targeted recruitment programme to An Garda Síochána and we are learning all the time.

I believe that the participation from ethnic minorities in our police force will make a positive and lasting contribution to the ongoing change and modernisation in An Garda Síochána. I look forward to the day when trainees originating from all continents will graduate at the College and go on to achieve career distinction in An Garda Síochána. Planning for the policing service we want to have for this country in 20 years time should begin now.  We must be pro-active, progressive and have a vision as to how An Garda Siochana can provide an effective policing service in a more diverse Ireland.

On the international scene many of you here will be aware of our ongoing contacts with the UN - CERD Committee in relation to follow-up on the recommendations in the Concluding Observations of that Committee on our first and second national report on implementation of CERD. As part of that follow-up, Mr Morten Kjaerum intends to visit Ireland in the coming months to gauge progress. Indeed, I have written to Mr. Kjaerum to let him know that the Government supports such a visit and to assure him of our co-operation. The visit will provide him with the opportunity to engage with officials, expert bodies and the NGO community. We have developed a good working relationship with the UN Committee and very much value the expertise they bring to issues of race and diversity.

Another significant project underway, and supported by my own Department and the NPAR, is the project being carried by the NUI Limerick into racism and the criminal law. The research will consider whether the concepts of 'race hate crimes' and 'race aggravated offences' should be considered for adoption into Irish legislation. I understand that the report will be available mid - year and I look forward to studying its findings.

There is such a wide range of activities underway this week, it would be hard to single out any particular one - but I would like to just mention the CSO seminar this week entitled 'Part of the Bigger Picture' which aims to encourage minority ethnic participation in the Census which takes place in about 4 weeks time. The results of this census will contribute to the ongoing development of services for both public and private sector providers and given that it includes a 'nationality' and an 'ethnicity' question, it will provide considerable food for thought.

I would like to close by congratulating the NCCRI for building successful partnerships across a wide range of bodies and for finding workable solutions to whatever issue they turn their attention to. You all have a busy schedule of events for the Week and I wish you well in your activities.

I now formally launch Intercultural Week 2006.

20 March 2006