Some are more equal than others
Troops Out Equalities and Discrimination conference
The Troops Out Movement (TOM) held a conference in Birmingham last weekend on Equalities and Discrimination in the north of Ireland. The Conference was sponsored by four Trade Union Councils - Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham and Oxford, and a number of trade union branches. In spite of the World Cup, the conference was successful and attracted people from various parts of England. It was opened by TOM chairperson Ian Juniper, who said that the Equalities Agenda is the 'acid test' of the Good Friday Agreement.
In recent years, there has been a 57% drop in the number of people from West Belfast actually employed
The first speaker was Una Gillespie from the West Belfast Economic Forum, who explained that the forum was set up ten years ago to monitor social and economic policy and its impact on the communities in West Belfast where unemployment is at its worst ever. One amazing statistic she shared is that in recent years, there has been a 57% drop in the number of people from West Belfast actually employed. Overall, Catholics are still two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than Protestants, a statistic which remains unchanged in 30 years.
Una explained that the Equality Duty (Section 75 Northern Ireland Act (1998)) covers nine categories in which public authorities should ensure equality of opportunity but does not include the Irish language or prisoners, areas of great importance to the nationalist people. Certain public bodies have not been defined and have no legal responsibility to promote equality, for example the RUC and the BBC. Una pointed out also that equal opportunity is very different from equality of outcome.
Una talked extensively about the blatant abuse of the Holy Cross children and their parents, which clearly showed the state's inability to deal with discrimination. She finished by reminding the audience that nothing has changed, or is changing in the lives of the people of West Belfast.
A vibrant question and answer session followed what was an informative, inspiring and often amusing talk.
TOM Secretary Mary Pearson, who is a member of the National Union of Teachers and a delegate to Birmingham Trades Council, said trade unions have always shown support for oppressed people throughout the world but added that the leadership of British-based unions seem to have a blind spot in relation to Ireland. She said they have, in effect, colluded in discrimination. Mary gave dramatic figures of where Catholics and Protestants were employed, showing the huge gap between the two communities. The worse cases of discrimination were in companies where British trade unions were present. Even the Irish Congress of Trade Unions does not take a strong enough stand on sectarian discrimination for fear of alienating loyalists, she said. Another question and answer session followed, where again the audience were willing contributors.
After lunch, Bríd Ní Chianáin, an Irish language and cultural activist, made the case that ideology is the unconscious way we react to the world around us and culture is the outward manifestation of the way we see the world. Putting this statement in historical context, she explained that there was no political unity in Ireland when the British first invaded - but there was a coherent cultural identity, so Britain set out to destroy the culture. This they did with the Statutes of Kilkenny and they have repeated this down through the years. The British government tried to change the mindset of the Irish people. Indeed the thrust of the government on cultural issues in the Six Counties is to manage sectarianism better.
Bríd told the audience that until recently, Irish language classes were held after school and teachers were often arrested. She told how the hunger strikers had helped so much to encourage people to learn Irish. Many people had joined classes in solidarity with them and since then, the culture of the Irish language has blossomed. Keeping the language keeps the culture alive, she said. Although Irish classes are growing all over Ireland, she reminded the audience that we still face an uphill struggle. She said the language is an extension of how we see the world and has to be encouraged. We have to see Irish as our elective language.
In spite of much talk of two cultures/traditions in the north, Bríd said that there are only two traditions in Ireland, anti-imperialism and pro-imperialism. She said that the British government seems to believe that hidden sectarianism is acceptable for the Irish people, as long as it not openly blatant.
She finished her riveting talk, which was interspersed with illustrative stories, by saying that the hunger strikers turned the corner and Irish heads are now held higher "and to keep heads up, imperialism needs to be defeated".
A lengthy question and answer session followed with all three speakers and the audience didn't seem to want the meeting to end.
BY SEAN MacCONMARA
Troops Out Movement Coordinating Committee
For further information on TOM activities contact PO Box 1032 Birmingham B12 8BZ