Pattern of systemic inequality must be reversed
Pattern of systemic inequality must be reversed

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

If the SDLP leadership is looking for an explanation as to why Sinn Féin has replaced it as the party leading the nationalist people of the six counties it need look no further than the decision SDLP councillors took at last month’s annual general meeting of Lisburn council.

At the meeting SDLP councillors abandoned a long standing principle of their party - the principle of power-sharing.

They agreed a deal with the DUP, UUP and Alliance which resulted in the exclusion of Sinn Féin councillors from positions on the council.

In the lead up to the meeting they met with the other parties to the deal knowing that it would lead to the exclusion of Sinn Féin from positions of authority.

The SDLP carefully considered its decision. From that point of view it is even more disturbing that a party elected to represent the interests of nationalists would act in this way.

Sinn Féin has four councillors on Lisburn council. They are elected by more than 5,000 people from Twinbrook, Poleglass and Dunmurry. The SDLP have three councillors. Its councillors were elected by surplus votes from Sinn Féin.

The decision by the SDLP to support the unionist-driven exclusion of Sinn Féin does not just affect those Sinn Féin councillors but directly affects more than 5,000 nationalists, including some who actually voted for the three SDLP councillors.

When Sinn Féin councillor and MLA Paul Butler challenged the exclusion decision in the council chamber the DUP claimed it was “democracy in action”; SDLP councillors remained silent. They refused to explain their actions.

The SDLP has given the unionists much needed political cover to carry on discriminating.

Lisburn is not an isolated case.

The SDLP supported exclusion of Sinn Féin in Belfast, Ballymoney, Antrim and Newtownabbey.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan needs to publicly explain to the nationalist people why his party is supporting political discrimination against Sinn Féin.

Partition and the state unionists built were based on discrimination which still affects many areas of life for nationalists and Catholics.

Discrimination created a privileged caste of people - unionists and Protestants - of all classes.

It was particularly evident in the area of employment.

Employment is the basis of prosperity for individuals, families and communities.

It is the basis for personal, family and community prestige, self-esteem and power.

Unemployment is the basis of poverty and powerlessness out of which flows numerous human problems.

Evidence that discrimination and inequality stubbornly persists to this day can be seen in last month’s Labour Force Survey 2005 Religion Report.

The survey highlighted the impact of structural discrimination and inequality between Catholics and Protestants and confirms the pattern established after partition.

Its key findings show that a higher percentage of Catholics, male and female, are unemployed compared to Protestants, with Catholic females being 50 per cent more likely to be unemployed than Protestant females.

Catholics experience higher levels of ill-health as a cause for not working; have more families with dependent children; higher rates of single parents and are more likely to rent than own their own homes.

These are all indications of a community excluded from its place as of right in the economy.

It has to be borne in mind that the findings of this survey are 10 years after the equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, almost 20 years after the 1989 Fair Employment Act and 30 years after a similar Act in 1976.

Clearly the current measures to address discrimination and inequality are not being used effectively.

These patterns have also been entrenched by the unbalanced and unfair placing of major investment, by Invest Northern Ireland, in areas like south and east Belfast to the detriment of border counties, west Belfast and west of the Bann.

Public procurement - the spending of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money - is not being used to reverse this pattern of systemic inequality between Catholics and Protestants. Indeed it is reinforcing it.

The tools are there to rectify this situation - the equality agenda (encompassing the long-awaited Single Equality Bill), Equality Impact Assessments and laws like Section 75. They are not being used.

That is what the SDLP should be focused on instead of supporting unionist proposals excluding Sinn Féin.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News