Equality - the rhetoric and the reality

A new report by the Belfast-based civil liberties group, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), has criticised the British government for specifically targeting social need in deprived Protestant areas at the expense of Catholic areas.

The report collates data and studies to show that Protestants still enjoy advantage over Catholics, particularly in terms of jobs, housing and financial aid. It suggests that the British government is ignoring or suppressing this information.

The 208-page CAJ report, ‘Equality in Northern Ireland - the Rhetoric and the Reality’, also challenges the myth that disadvantaged Catholic areas should be better able to cope than similar Protestant areas.

Deprivation in Protestant and Catholics areas must be tackled equally, it says, criticising as “totally misconceived” the British government’s ‘Taskforce to Address the Needs of Protestant Working Class Communities’.

The following is an executive summary of the report.

This report is being issued on the 30th anniversary of the fair employment legislation in 1976, when religious and political discrimination at work was explicitly outlawed in Northern Ireland. It explores whether the charges of inequality which were at the heart of the civil rights marches in the late 1960s are truly a thing of the past. To the extent that discrimination has been addressed and ended, what are the lessons for other spheres of social inter-action, beyond the workplace, and indeed perhaps even other jurisdictions? To the extent that religious and political discrimination or community differentials still exist, where are the problems, and is anything being done to address them effectively?

The conclusions of the report are stark. Extensive, and excellent, official data is drawn on to examine closely the reality on the ground and all independent observers will, we believe, be led to conclude:

a. Legislative measures - though not necessarily the early initiatives - have made great improvements in the situation of those in employment in Northern Ireland in overall terms. There are, however, clearly important sectors of employment, and types of work, that are still predominantly occupied by members of one or other community. This finding suggests that the legacy of the past still has an important and potentially destabilising impact on today’s workforce.

b. The statistics of “registered unemployed” have dramatically improved, but they do not give the full picture. Statistics hide the large number of people who want to work but who cannot find employment. An economy which grows at the expense of those in most need is not built on solid foundations and will create longer-term societal problems.

c. The focus of the campaign to end political and religious discrimination at the point of recruitment has been, in large part, effective; it is obvious, however, that advances made regarding employment have not been translated into other social policy areas. This report looks by way of example at the issue of housing, where there are important community differentials - but these are being ignored rather than tackled.

d. Current government initiatives risk not merely ignoring issues of inequality but of seriously exacerbating them and indeed sectarianising the debate. As such, these measures risk undermining the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, and in many instances run counter to the provisions in the Agreement and the legislation that government itself introduced in the wake of those political negotiations.

e. Major funding tools such as inward investment and public procurement policies offer the potential for challenging some of the legacy of disadvantage highlighted earlier, but early signs regarding the strategic direction of such tools are worrying.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) is an independent human rights group working to uphold the highest standards in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. CAJ is affiliated to the International Federation of Human Rights and was honoured with the Council of Europe Human Rights Prize in 1998 for its efforts to mainstream human rights and equality considerations in the peace process. Throughout its 25 years of work (it was founded in 1981), the organisation has argued that human rights abuses are wrong in themselves but that they also feed and fuel conflict. The organisation has researched, published and campaigned on issues of discrimination and equality since its outset.

It is the premise of this study that the denial of rights to people on the grounds of their political or religious beliefs violates international human rights, runs counter to domestic legislative provisions protecting equality of opportunity, and is seriously destabilising. Great efforts were made in the course of the negotiation of the Agreement to ensure that the tragedies of the past would never again be experienced. Yet this report concludes that government is ignoring measures that have proved effective in undermining communal divisions. It concludes that government is in fact introducing measures which, instead of reducing community divisions can only exacerbate them, and marginalize further the most disenfranchised in our society, both Catholic and Protestant.

Action is urgently needed. The report is highly critical of current measures, but its intention is to focus positively on what needs to be done. Taking as a starting point that a strong, vibrant, and modern economy can only succeed on the basis of fairness for all, the recommendations are offered in a spirit of constructive endeavour. We believe that the approach throughout is motivated by the widely-shared principle outlined in the preamble to the Agreement, to the effect that -

“...The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all. We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships...”

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© 2006 Irish Republican News