Community group 'knew about Roma exploitation'

By David Thompson
BBC Nolan Show

  • Published
Nicolae Nicola
Image caption,
Nicolae Nicola denies exploiting vulnerable members of the Roma community by charging them hundreds of pounds for access to benefits services

A former manager at a south Belfast community group has said it knew about Roma exploitation claims for years.

LORAG employed Nicolae Nicola and is fronted by veteran republican Gerard Rice.

A Nolan Show investigation has revealed LORAG's former Roma project co-ordinator said she raised concerns with Mr Rice, and quit over inaction.

Mr Rice and LORAG denied they had any knowledge of the claims before May 2018.

Concerns raised

Earlier this month, the Nolan Show revealed that Nicolae Nicola had exploited vulnerable members of the Roma community by charging them hundreds of pounds for access to benefits services.

Mr Nicola denied the claims.

Image caption,
The Romanian Roma Community Association for Northern Ireland is based in south Belfast

Mr Nicola was employed as a Roma support worker by Lower Ormeau Residents Action Group (LORAG), working in the Roma Romanian Community Association of Northern Ireland (RRCANI).

His former manager Denis Long, also a LORAG employee, said she did not know why LORAG had claimed it did not know about allegations about Mr Nicola until 23 May this year in a meeting with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.

"We all shared the same concerns in relation to Nicolae and RRCANI and we often had open discussions on this topic even before I started working in LORAG/RRCANI," she said.

"I reported all my concerns, as they arose, to my line manager who reported back to me that she passed these issues on to the director of LORAG.

"I also raised these concerns with the director of LORAG personally, on several occasions throughout my employment.

"The LORAG response changed throughout the period of my employment: from advice that we had no evidence to prove that Nicolae was charging people money for services, to advice that charging people money for benefit support wasn`t illegal.

"We always discussed the need to provide a legitimate alternative for the Romani people."

Image caption,
The Belfast Heath Trust removed services from the RRCANI offices in May

She said that she resigned from LORAG over the concerns.

Mrs Long, who has worked with the Roma community for a number of years, added: "We collectively created a situation where the rights of the wider Romani communities are being sacrificed in the interest of a select few.

"If we are not honest enough to acknowledge this, we condemn the Romani people to a life on the margins of our society, where being vulnerable actually suits certain interests."

'The Roma way'

LORAG deny the claims. It says it "can confirm that none of our employees reported any such concerns… prior to 23 May 2018".

In Belfast Trust documents, obtained by BBC NI's the Nolan Show under the Freedom of Information Act, the 23 May meeting was noted by a trust official.

The document stated: "During this meeting LORAG stated that they were aware that charging for benefits was happening but that this was the Roma way."

LORAG denied this claim and said it would be pursuing the matter with the Belfast Trust.

Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has faced questions about his relationship with RRCANI and Mr Nicola.

After the Nolan Show revealed that Mr Nicola was involved in exploitation of the Roma community, Mr Ó Muilleoir told the BBC that Sinn Féin disengaged with the RRCANI centre when he was confronted with what he described as a "vile, malicious poster" on 16 August.

Image caption,
Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has faced questions over links with RRCANI

The Nolan Show has no evidence that RRCANI was in any way behind the malicious poster campaign mentioned by Mr Ó Muilleoir, and police have continued to investigate the source of those posters.

However, Gerard Rice was at the RRCANI AGM in October. Mr Rice is a prominent Sinn Féin member in south Belfast.

Mr Ó Muilleoir has also advocated on behalf of RRCANI with a number of agencies.

Earlier this year Minority Ethnic Diversity Fund (MEDF) money for LORAG and RRCANI was stopped.

The Executive Office said at the time that "four other successful applicants" would be working with the Roma community.

Virtual monopoly

But Mr Ó Muilleoir seemed to be campaigning for RRCANI to have a virtual monopoly over funding for the Roma community.

Documents obtained by the Nolan Show show that in May 2018 - just before the trust and SureStart pulled services from the RRCANI building - Mr Ó Muilleoir advocated on behalf of RRCANI to the head of the civil service.

He told David Sterling that: "It is important to point out that one month into this new financial year, RRCANI has not been approached by any organisation or agency which claims to be prepared to carry out MEDF funding.

"Neither, of course, has RRCANI as the representative group for the Roma in the region given its consent to work with any of these groups".

He asked how these groups planned to show how they would work with the Roma people "when they clearly were not going to deal with the body which represents the Roma".

The Nolan Show asked Mr Ó Muilleoir why he did not think other groups would provide these services, and why he thought people needed to ask RRCANI's permission. He did not respond.

Mr Sterling pointed out that there were Roma people in other parts of Northern Ireland.

He told Mr Ó Muilleoir that Roma people "like any other local residents, are free to engage with RRCANI or any other group providing services of relevance to them" and that "the Roma community already do so".

Sinn Féin did not respond to questions from the Nolan Show.