The notion of slavery tends to bring us back to African slaves brought to America, however slavery continues as 21st Century problem.  Belfast and the Belfast Charitable Society of the 18th Century found themselves caught in the controversy surrounding this abhorrent trade.

The Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752 to assist the poor and destitute of Belfast.  For the first 130 years of its existence it found itself conflicted at times with its members playing significant roles in how slavery was viewed in Belfast.

When a proposal to create a slaving company in the town, it angered many members of the Belfast Charitable Society. William Drennan was responsible for helping to draw up a petition which was passed around the town, collecting signatures against slavery. Mary Ann McCracken, a member of the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and Martha McTier formed the Belfast Women’s Anti-Slavery League.

Mary Ann, as an old and frail lady in 1850s in Belfast, stood by the gangway of ships that were heading for the southern ports of the USA where slaves still worked, to hand out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants and sailors.

However, at the same time many estates and businesses utilised slaves to harvest their crops such as sugar.  Waddell Cunningham, a member of the Belfast Charitable Society is probably the best-known slave owner in Belfast as he attempted to open Belfast as a slave port.  Waddell had gone to America in the 1750s and with a Belfast-based partner, Thomas Gregg, a founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society, and established a firm which by 1775, had become the largest shipping company in New York.

Thomas McCabe was a member of the Belfast Charitable Society watchmaker and United Irishman. He is said to have stood at the foot of Donegal Street, near the Old Exchange Buildings, where he held up the prospectus for this proposed company, calling out – ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man that will sign this document’. The Northern Star, the paper of the United Irishmen, would tell its readers that ‘every individual, as far as he consumes sugar products becomes accessory to the guilt.’

It is within this context the Department of Justice held their event at Clifton House to raise the awareness of modern slavery in Northern Ireland.

Modern slavery is happening in Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice (DoJ) was calling on everyone across society to be aware of the possible signs that someone may need help and to report suspicions quickly and confidentially.

To help raise awareness about the criminal activity of modern slavery the department launched an awareness campaign in partnership with local councils, the emergency services, public and private organisations and a wide range of civil sector organisations.

Speaking at the launch Department of Justice Permanent Secretary Nick Perry said:

“Modern slavery is cruel and vile.  We are asking everyone to be aware of the signs and report suspicions to the authorities.

“One quick and confidential call could end the suffering of individuals and deliver the help and support they need.

Supporting the event and launching his annual report on anti-slavery, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland OBE said: “No part of the UK is immune to the evil crime of modern slavery. Thousands of people are trapped in abusive, violent, exploitative conditions and this campaign brings us one step closer to putting a stop to it.

“My Annual Report details the impressive anti-slavery work across the UK, including efforts in Northern Ireland, and I look forward to seeing how this campaign will further add to the fight against modern slavery.”

Since the establishment of the PSNI’s Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) in 2015, PSNI have recovered over 100 victims from situations of modern day slavery or exploitation.

Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “These are horrendous crimes against some of the most vulnerable people in our society and we must all work together to ensure that we do everything possible to eradicate these appalling acts of criminality and inhumanity. We are committed and absolutely determined to bring those responsible for human trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced labour to justice.”

Nationally, Home Secretary Amber Rudd recently approved the UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery and separately the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Annual Report has been laid Parliament.

The awareness campaign is being rolled out over all council areas and posters and leaflets offering advice on how to identify suspicious activity will be on display. A wide range of organisations have agreed to display and distribute the material in public spaces and to their staff including local councils, Health and Social Care Trusts, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, Northern Ireland Hotel Federation, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and Northern Ireland Housing Executive, church and faith groups and a wide range of civil sector organisations.