Equality Agenda under threat
BY GERRY ADAMS
April will mark the third anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement explicitly recognises the widespread existence of discrimination and through a range of measures agreed by the participants seeks to end inequality by promoting equality and justice for all citizens. These measures include the promotion of `Human Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity'; the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into law; the establishment of a Human Rights Commission; the imposition of a statutory duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity; a new Equality Commission, and a to-be-agreed Bill of Rights.
It is appropriate and necessary almost three years on that we assess what progress has been made since April 1998 on the equality agenda and what gaps remain.
For nationalists and all proponents of the Equality Agenda, the problem is that the British government is arming unionism with all the weapons required to subvert the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement
The equality agenda is and will remain for some time, a battleground between those seeking real change and those opposed to change.
That is evidenced in the attitude and approach of even those unionists who are pro-Agreement. For many unionist politicians the equality agenda is a nationalist aspiration that must be cut down to the size of ``minority rights''. This Ulster Unionist view of equality was summed up by John Taylor, Deputy Leader of the UUP when he said: ``Of course there can be equal opportunity, but not equality. The Irish minority cannot be equal to the majority in Northern Ireland.''
For nationalists and all proponents of the Equality Agenda, the problem is that the British government is arming unionism with all the weapons required to subvert the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.
In at least ten key respects, the implementation of the Equality Agenda is being thwarted:
Flags and symbols - The decree issued by the British Secretary of State that the British Union jack, and only that flag, must be flown from all departmental headquarters flout the provision in the Good Friday Agreement for parity of esteem. As such, Mandelson has publicly exposed his own insidious contempt for the principle of equality for the identity and allegiance of Irish nationalists enshrined in the Agreement, and approved by more than 2 million voters.
Irish language and bilingualism - The British government has failed to recognise in policy and law the intrinsic value of the Irish language and Irish culture as promised in the Agreement.
Consequently, the promotion of the Irish language has not been given the priority and resources needed. Many obstacles remain to the use of the Irish language in relation to government departments and public bodies and services.
Public Body Designations - Under the Equality Duty of Section 75 of the NI Act 1998, the British government has a responsibility to designate public authorities and bodies who then must produce Equality Schemes. These schemes will then be subject to Equality Impact Assessments to guage the equality implications for that public body. So far, scores of public bodies have been designated.
However, the British Secretary of State has refused to designate the BBC equality duty and all indications are that he will continue to resist in the forthcoming listing. This is despite the requirements of the Equality Commission itself, and the views of the Taoiseach's office, the Equality Authority, the Six-County Human Rights Commission and Sinn Féin.
Unemployment differential - The British government has refused to place on a statutory basis ``the progressive elimination of the differential in unemployment rates between the two communities''. Despite 30 years of fair employment legislation, which the British government alleges is the strongest in Europe, the last published official statistics showed that Catholic males are now almost three times more likely than Protestant males to be unemployed and that Catholics now constitute more than 70% of the long-term unemployed.
Targeting Social Need - The refusal to put on a statutory basis the skewing of resources and finances to those areas of greatest social need to fulfil the commitment given to the progressive elimination of the community differentials. These differentials are manifest in the underdevelopment in infrastructure and job investment West of the Bann and along the border.
Political ex-prisoners - The British government has failed to ``facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support''. Instead, the British government to continues to maintain legislation and policy which discriminates against political ex-prisoners participating as equals in all aspects of social and economic life.
National security discrimination - The incorporation into new legislation, (the Fair Employment & Treatment Order (1998), N.I.), the provision to discriminate in the allocation of jobs or contracts, against anyone deemed by the British Secretary of State to be a `threat to national security'.
Institutionalised inequality in the Northern Ireland Civil Service - The most recent report by the Equal Opportunities Unit of the Six-County civil service itself, shows the inequality experienced by Catholics in most branches of the civil service, particularly in senior civil service grade. No timetables and targets have been established to progressively and rapidly eliminate that institutionalised inequality, to balance the religious/ political profile
Nationality requirements of the civil service - These requirements apply to all appointments to the civil service, and recent cases show how they particularly infringe on senior civil service appointments, and result in public advertisements for jobs such as head of the Equality Unit stipulating that only British nationals may be appointed. This transgresses against the right of nationalists and republicans to ``identify themselves and be accepted as Irish... as they may choose''.
The Equality Commission - The minuscule resources afforded the Equality Commission, (approximately £0.5m), are indicative of the priority attached to the pursuit of Equality Agenda by the British government. Consequently, there is a growing potential that equality schemes being completed in 2001 by public bodies may identify inequalities arising from their policies and functions, but be unable to take the affirmative action necessary to correct those inequalities.
Equality has to be at the heart of every decision taken by the Executive, the Assembly, the All-Ireland institutions and the British government, and especially the British government. It cannot be an illusion. It must be a fact.
If discrimination is to be really made a thing of the past, then root and branch legislative change is required. As is obvious from the above, rigid mindsets and attitudes will not change simply because of the Good Friday Agreement, the Equality Duty or the existence of the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
Robust legislative change, coupled with structures and mechanisms of accountability, and the fullest implementation of properly funded Targeting Social Need programmes, are necessary to effect the kind of scale and level of change required to impact on discrimination and advance the equality agenda.