Andy George

Born in Armagh of a mixed heritage, Andy George has experienced racism of one kind or another for much of his life. But now, as President of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), he is in a position to do something about it. 

With a Malaysian father and Northern Irish mother, Andy and his three siblings all occasionally encountered a sense of otherness as they grew up in Armagh. “Most people were very welcoming”, he says now, “but there were times when I felt I didn’t belong. I shared the banter but sometimes I didn’t feel the same.”

At school Andy was the only person from an ethnic minority and the playground could be an uncomfortable place. “It could be quite isolating,” Andy says. “When I was bullied, my mother said just call them snowflake, but you can’t beat racism by calling people a racist term back.”

Good at sport, able to make friends easily, Andy was able to deal with the impact of racism better than most. “I probably had a different experience to some colleagues in England,” he says. “I was always completely accepted by my girlfriends’ families, for instance.”

When it came to choosing a career, Andy had little doubt of where he was heading. He had grown up hearing stories from friends whose fathers were in the police. Andy, like many of those friends, joined up. “I have always stood up to bullies. To me standing up for vulnerable people in crisis situations is what policing is about.” 

Within two years of joining the RUC, it was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). At the time he was one of just a few officers from an ethnic minority in a police force of over 13,000.

He was, however, largely accepted by his classmates.“You stop being a teenager when you join the police,” he says.

“You have to rely on each other to get through training because of the pressure of trying to pass. But the camaraderie was great, my roommate really helped me through, for instance."

As with any other police force, and, indeed, society in general, the PSNI is not immune to racism and both in training and subsequently on shifts, Andy has experienced racist abuse. 

Nevertheless, Andy thrived in the PSNI, pursuing a role in the Armed Response Unit, where he excelled in training. But around this time, a personal tragedy occurred which left a deep mark on him and made him determined to take a more pro-active stance against racism.

Andy had always been very close to his sister Vikki, the youngest in the family. But while he had become used to the harsher realities of racism, she was unable to confront them.

“We were very close,” he says. “Vikki was a little softer, she wanted to be loved by all. But when it became clear growing up that she wouldn’t be accepted by everybody, her way of dealing with it was to use racist terms against herself in a self-deprecating way. In a sense her mental problems began as a teenager struggling for identity.”

Despite continued support from Andy and his family, Vikki’s sense of alienation eventually drove her to take her own life. While racism was not the only issue in her suicide, it played a large role.”

Devastated, Andy tried to understand why she did it, even training as a hypnotherapist to help others with mental health issues caused by racism.

In 2015, Andy joined the Ethnic Minorities Police Association, and then the UK-wide National Black Policeman Association (NBPA). In 2018 he helped bring their conference to Belfast, which helped shine a spotlight on racial equality and policing here. Last year he became their first mixed race President and the first from Northern Ireland.

“It’s been an absolute privilege,” Andy says. “As President it allows me to bring back racial equality issues and talk about how they are dealt with in the rest of the UK.”

Andy has seen a big change in diversity in Northern Ireland since he was a child but believes that having understandably focused on sectarian issues in the past, we still have some catching up to do in dealing with issues around diversity.

“I think looking at diversity offers an opportunity to progress and tackle our sectarian past. When people are looking at community cohesion, their minds can be switched on to racism and how that impacts on segregation.”

It won’t happen overnight. Though larger than when Andy was growing up, Northern Ireland’s ethnic minority population remains far lower than in the rest of the UK and there is a shortage of role models in senior positions throughout society. That includes the PSNI, where he is the joint highest ranked officer and there is no black or mixed race officer above inspector.

“We have to support black and mixed race officers and staff,” he says, ‘and ensure stakeholders groups are racially equal. We also have to improve the relationship between police and ethnic monitories.”

Andy feels that seeing police officers like him can help gain that required trust and confidence from minority communities. “It’s so important people feel there is someone who understands them and speaks for them.”

It’s a trust that Andy himself has worked hard to achieve, recently receiving an Advancing Racial Equality Award from the North West Migrants Trust for his courage in speaking out about racism.

“Becoming President means more people are willing to speak to me and I want to see more engagement on these issues. If the voice of ethnic communities is being heard and actioned with accountability I think the PSNI and society generally will benefit. But the first thing is to admit the problem exists. If we are not aware of our prejudices, how can we improve?”