Allegations that vulnerable members of Belfast’s Roma community are being exploited and intimidated must be thoroughly investigated, Doug Beattie has said.
The UUP’s justice spokesman was commenting after a secret recording emerged of a Roma community and church leader apparently threatening to take anyone speaking to statutory agencies “out of the country”.
The recording, claimed to have been made during a Roma service in August, is said to feature Aurel Nicola warning that one health worker in particular – who works with women and children – should not be told anything about the internal business of the Roma community.
As well a church leader, Mr Nicola is the chairman of the Romanian Roma Community Association Northern Ireland (RRCANI). His comments were translated from Romani and broadcast on the BBC’s Nolan Show on Monday.
“I’m going to bring the women in front of the community and what you decide to do to them, that’s what we’re going to do to them,” he said.
“If it is to take them out of the country with their families...if not, they can stay here. Because you can’t live with people like this. Because they give away everything that is happening in the community,” Mr Nicola added.
The Nolan Show also carried claims that the son of Aurel Nicola, Nicolae Nicola, has been charging hundreds of pounds to assist members of the Roma community to fill out benefit claims and other official forms.
Although it is not an offence to charge someone for help in filling out benefits applications, it is understood that RRCANI is expected to provide this service without charge.
Mr Beattie said that as RRCANI received payments from public funds, “it is clearly important that an investigation is completed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible without disrupting important support to this vulnerable group.”
Aurel Nicola’s solicitors told the BBC that their client was the leader of the Roma Pentecostal Church and therefore “exercises some level of control in the spiritual wellbeing of the community”.
In a statement, Nicolae Nicola’s lawyers also denied any wrong-doing.
“Our client does not impose any charges for assisting in completing benefit forms. These allegations are defamatory. Our client is engaged in assisting the Roma community not in exploiting them,” they said.
In May, the Belfast Health Trust and the child support organisation Sure Start removed services from the RRCANI building over concerns around “governance, exploitation and community control,” according to Belfast Trust emails seen by the BBC.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson first raised the issue on the Unionist Voice website in early August. He claimed Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir has questions to answer over his outspoken support for RRCANI after concerns had been raised.
In response, Mr O Muilleoir told the News Letter that an intimidatory poster campaign “attacking Belfast Trust staff” changed everything “because it was the first allegation of law breaking made to me”.
There is no suggestion either Aurel Nichola or his son, or any member of RRCANI, were involved in placing the Romani language posters in the Holyland area.
Mr O Muilleoir added: “I reported it to the police and it certainly changed the police’s attitude because after that time the police then also stopped formal engagement with RRCANI.”
The PSNI said it commenced an investigation into “exploitation and criminality affecting the Roma community” in early August following the appearance of the sinister posters in south Belfast, and appealed for anyone with concerns to ring 101, or to contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 which is 100% anonymous.