Speaker marks Community Relations and Cultural Diversity Week

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 30 September 2015

Reference: SO 03/15/16

As part of Community Relations and Cultural Diversity Week, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, hosted an event "One Assembly, Many Peoples" to celebrate the diversity of the community. The Speaker used his speech to highlight the need for the membership of the Assembly to be more representative of the community and revealed that he had written to Party Leaders to ask them to be mindful of that while selection processes are conducted for the next Assembly election.

Speaker McLaughlin said: "It is a great pleasure to welcome you all here tonight for this event to mark Community Relations and Cultural Diversity Week. I was delighted to be invited by the Community Relations Council to help launch the programme for events this week. I said then that I was particularly pleased to be involved as the theme was "One Place, Many Peoples.

"Many of you will know that I have been trying to use my time in office to pursue the theme of building "respect". One of the key aspects of it has been emphasising the importance that this Assembly should respect the community it represents by reflecting all parts of it. That of course includes the two largest blocks we traditionally think of, unionism and nationalism, but it means much more than that.

"I don't believe this community was ever just orange and green but it certainly is not now. This is one Assembly of many peoples. We are here to represent the whole spectrum of our society. We are to represent people of different political views, different religions, different ages, different genders, and different sexual preferences.

"We also represent people from many different cultures who have chosen to live here. A small number of minority communities lived alongside us during the darkest days of the Troubles at a time when even visiting here would have been largely dismissed internationally. In my view, it is one of the most positive developments of our peace process that those numbers have grown, allowing us to offer a home to such diverse cultures.

"I think we do have to challenge ourselves collectively and ask whether we recognise the diversity of our community enough. That is why I wanted to hold this event this evening. Celebrating the diversity of our community should not be something we only do defensively in response to negative influences such as offensive remarks or racist attacks.

"We cannot just rely complacently on a reputation of hospitality. We should instead recognise and celebrate our diversity proactively and routinely. All of the new communities who have come here of course make an important contribution to our economy and our health service and so many more sectors. But it is much more than that. We should recognise our minority communities not just as workers but as neighbours and friends.

"I want this Assembly to do more to communicate that message. It is incumbent upon all of us who are Members to do that. While this Assembly is frequently subject to criticism, sometimes well deserved, I never cease to be amazed by the number of people who stop me and say they were watching some item of business on the floor of the Chamber. Therefore as Members we have a platform to give leadership and positive influence to the community.

"That is why I have introduced the concept of respect into our standards of debate in the Chamber, expecting Members to focus on tackling the issues with courtesy and avoiding personal attacks. Elected representatives need to be mindful that their words and temper in debate are not just an interaction with the person they are responding to on the other side of the Chamber. They do resonate and have power in the community to encourage or deter engagement.

"As Speaker, one of the many reasons why I want to see a positive outcome to the current cross party talks, is that some long term stability would make membership of this Assembly more attractive.

"Amongst the current 108 Members of this Assembly there are 85 men, including me, and only 23 women. There are 61 Members over the age of 50, including me, but only 20 Members under the age of 40. In the last month I was delighted to welcome Andy Allen as the first wheelchair user to join this Assembly. Additionally, we have only one Member from a minority community, Anna Lo, who confirmed her retirement this week.

"Our current membership often does not receive enough credit for the work that I know goes on. However, the figures cannot be denied - our membership is not representative enough of our local community. I want to see more female Members, younger Members, and LGBT Members. But I also want to see more Members from our minority communities.

"Ultimately, the electorate will decide that but parties have a role in creating the conditions to encourage more people to put themselves forward as candidates. I have written to all party leaders seeking a commitment that they will be mindful of that as they select candidates in the months ahead.

"However, it is not just by being a MLA that you can make your voice heard. Your MLA's need to hear your views and concerns in the constituency surgeries. Our Committees need to hear from you too in their inquiries. As one Assembly we have a role to make sure we listen to the many peoples we represent but you also have a role to make sure your voice is heard.

"Tonight, we are going to sample a range of performances. I think it is fantastic that in so many towns we can now see so many international cultures sitting alongside the lambeg and bodhrán. It is not a threat. It is an opportunity for us to learn and develop from new influences.

"It is a sign that we are part of a modern global community.

"We are One Assembly, we are many peoples and we are all the better for it."

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