Belfast Roma leaders 'intimidating and exploiting'

By David Thompson
BBC Nolan Show

image captionAurel Nicola - pictured in a BBC documentary - chairs a Roma community organisation

A Roma community leader has threatened to take people who speak to the authorities "out of the country".

A BBC Nolan Show investigation has revealed that Aurel Nicola made the threats in a church service in August.

He spoke about a health worker, who worked with women and children in the community.

His son Nicolae Nicola has exploited the Roma community by charging vulnerable people for benefits advice. Both men deny the allegations.

Church threats

In a secret recording of a Roma service in City Church in Belfast, Aurel Nicola, the chairman of the Romanian Roma Community Association of Northern Ireland (RRCANI), is heard threatening to remove people from the country for talking to the authorities.

Much of his speech was directed at a health worker and he appeared angry that some Roma in the community were talking to authorities.

Mr Nicola was speaking in Romani, which has been translated: "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.

image captionThe Romanian Roma Community Association for Northern Ireland is based in south Belfast

"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.

"It is giving away everything. Everything I do the police know right away - why is that?"

'Brutal and horrifying'

Green Party leader Clare Bailey, who was aware of allegations around RRCANI, told the Nolan Show that many of the issues raised in the investigation had been brought to her attention in May.

"I'm hearing that people and agencies have known about what you're talking about today for years," she said.

"And what I have heard, what I have witnessed, and the impact that it's had on individuals is brutal, is horrifying and is destroying individuals."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna told the programme the recording was "shocking".

"I have been aware of allegations of control and coercion happening on a few layers," she said.

image captionThe Belfast Heath Trust removed services from the RRCANI offices in May

"But for people to be berated for speaking to professional people providing services and threatening to deport people essentially is what I read from the start of that."

Mr 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".

They added that "he spoke at a church meeting" on 19 August that was a "church service and not a political meeting".

Mr Nicola "denies that any of these issues were dealt with in the course of his sermon", added his solicitors.

Charging for benefits

His son Nicolae Nicola is the public face of RRCANI.

He was engaged in exploitation of the Roma community by charging for filling out forms for benefits such as working tax credit and child tax credit.

In broken English, a member of the Roma community, whose name is withheld to protect their identity, told the Nolan Show that Nicolae "has control".

"He says: 'I can get you benefit, I can get you child benefit, I can get you tax credit and you have to pay me so much if I'm doing that.'

"Depends on how many kids in the family… sometimes like two kids or three kids, £300, maybe go to £500 or £600 - he take that when he get the paperwork.

image captionNicolae Nicola "has control", according to a member of the Roma community

"All my friends say they need to get him what he promised like £300 or £500 or £600.

"Every time you would go, need to send a letter. He was charging £150 to fill in the forms. Some these people no speak English."

In a statement, Nicolae Nicola's lawyers said that allegation was totally denied.

"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."

It is not illegal to charge someone for assistance in making benefits applications.

'Institutional racism'

Belfast Health Trust and South Belfast Sure Start, a childcare support organisation, removed services from the RRCANI building in the city in May.

Internal Belfast Trust emails reveal that it removed community health workers from the RRCANI "due to concerns regarding their governance, exploitation and community control".

On 8 June 2018, the chief executive of the Belfast Trust wrote to Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

image copyrightTwitter
image captionMáirtín Ó Muilleoir - pictured with Nicolae and Aurel Nicola - tweeted his support for the Roma community in June

He told Mr Ó Muilleoir that the trust was withdrawing services from the RRCANI offices because some health staff felt vulnerable and there were other matters that needed to be investigated.

He made it clear that it was on a temporary basis and he would be happy to return services to the RRCANI offices if it was appropriate to do so after the investigation had been completed.

An article tweeted by Mr Ó Muilleoir on 11 June described the removal of services as "institutional racism".

The article and tweet made no mention of concerns about the welfare of staff.

In a statement to the Nolan Show, Mr Ó Muilleoir said: "The first time I was made aware of any complaint relating to the Roma community was on 16 August."

He added that on 2 August, he was "being told by the PSNI that they were no inquiries going on relating to the Roma community".

He said Sinn Féin is "opposed to all forms of racism, exploitation and intimidation" and called for a thorough police investigation.

On claims of racism in the decision to remove services, Joy Poots from South Belfast Sure Start said: "Are we expected to say that it's OK for Roma women to pay money for services and we just take a blind eye to that?

"It's racist to expect Roma women to get less or to do something that no other community is doing just because they are Roma."

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