Putting equality centre stage
Una Gillespie is the Director of the West Belfast Economic Forum and a former Sinn Féin councillor. During a period of consultation, in which groups and agencies will be sending submissions to the Equality Commission, Una addresses the equality agenda for An Phoblacht.
Equality was enshrined at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. For the first time, it was acknowledged by the British government that systematic discrimination against Catholics, which has been endemic in this state, must now be dealt with in a structured fashion.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, enshrined in legislation in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, public bodies are now required to design and implement equality schemes.
The statutory duty requires public bodies to produce schemes to ensure promotion of equality of opportunity between different groups specified as:
Persons of different religious belief and political opinion; racial groups, age, marital status, sexual orientation, men and women generally, persons with a disability and those without; persons with dependants and those without.
The consultation period for the draft equality schemes closes on 30 June, by which date all public bodies must have submitted their equality schemes to the equality commission for approval.
These draft quality schemes should be important tools for implementing the equality agenda. However, like other fundamental aspects of the Agreement, the equality agenda and provisions for its implementation have been subject both to interference from the British government and from civil servants within the various departments who do not want to see equality as central to the functions and policy development of departments and related bodies.
We are in real danger of seeing the equality agenda buried in paperwork and bureaucracy rather than prioritised as a live issue with the potential to make a real impact on the quality of life for people living in areas that have borne the brunt of the conflict and of discrimination by the British government.
While groups have been inundated with 120 draft schemes from various bodies, the ones that are not yet designated are equally important. Some of the worst offenders in relation to employment of Catholics are not yet required to produce equality schemes. These include the RUC, Queens University and the University of Ulster.
Other organisations within departments with a large chunk of public money at their disposal are not producing their own equality schemes. Therefore, organisations with a dismal performance in the promotion of employment opportunities in Catholic areas, such as the IDB, are effectively off the hook and can continue in their discriminatory fashion.
Peter Mandelson's failure to issue a designation order is making a joke of the equality agenda by leaving it to public bodies themselves to decide whether or not to develop an equality scheme. These public bodies will, therefore, be required to do nothing to redress the inequalities between the two communities and the British government have once again failed in their responsibilities under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Added to these shortcomings is an Equality Commission which to date appears to have extreme difficulty acknowledging that there is religious discrimination against Catholics. Members of their staff have told us that they prefer to talk about social and economic disadvantage and will be applying that across the board in the two communities.
The Equality Commission has also recently announced grants to groups in defined categories under section 75 of the NI Act. They have, however, chosen to exclude groups working in the area of religious belief and political opinion. We have been told that their staff will work with groups on this issue. Such discrimination is unacceptable and will be challenged.
For nationalist communities throughout the Six Counties, this means that they will be denied access to funding to enable them to facilitate discussion on and to monitor the impact of the equality schemes on the religious differentials in employment in their areas.
The legacy of inequality and discrimination experienced by the Catholic community runs through all aspects of life in this state, from employment and education to use of public space and provision of amenities.
The reality of economic discrimination means that Catholic men remain three times more likely to be unemployed than their Protestant counterparts. If equality between all of the people of the north of Ireland is to be achieved, then discrimination must be challenged and brought to an end.
The letter delivered to the political parties by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair clearly spoke of the significance of section 75 in working towards equality and the eradication of discrimination. To date, the British government and the Equality Commission are proving that they are not up to that challenge. It is up to us to make sure that they face their responsibilities.