By Mary Nelis
On the 30th Anniversary of the British Government 1976 Fair Employment legislation, designed to outlaw religious and political discrimination in the North of Ireland, the Committee for the Administration of Justice, CAJ , launched a damning report on the failure of Government to address the ‘problems of disadvantage and communal division’ in the North of Ireland.
The report, entitled ‘Equality in Northern Ireland, the Rhetoric and the Reality,’ accuses British Government politicians and Senior Civil Servants of ‘introducing measures which instead of reducing community divisions, exacerbate them and marginalize further, the most disenfranchised in our society, both Catholic and Protestant’.
The conclusions of the report are stark but they reinforce the position that has led to the impasse in the power sharing administration in the Assembly. Every step by the Republican/ Nationalist community towards equality is seen by Unionist as a threat to their constitutional position. More significantly, it serves as a constant reminder, despite their collective denials, that the anti-Catholic discrimination enshrined as official policy in their ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people ‘went out the window when the people signed up to the Good Friday Agreement.
It is therefore important that, forty years on from the 5th October, 1968, to remind the unionist obstructionists, and shamefully some of their nationalist fellow travellers, of the words contained in the preamble to the Agreement: “We are committed to partnership, equality, and mutual respect as the basis of relationships”.
Put simply, that means that the demands of the Civil Rights Movement, the right to work, to a house, to vote, to live without the oppressive legislation, contained in the current ‘Terrorism Bill’ the successor of the Special Powers Act, is as relevant today as it was when that motley crew of political activists, civic leaders, and trendy leftists, assembled in Duke Street on the 5th October 1968.
Those whose voices daily fill the air waves with negative comments on the current state of affairs would do well to reflect that we did not march on the 5th October for ‘half a loaf’ as someone once said. Nor did we vote to share power with Unionist who believe that the Republican/ Nationalists community in the words of David Trimble’ still needs to be house trained’. In other words its equality or bust for we jettisoned the second class citizen tag when we took to the streets on that day.
We knew then as we do now that the struggle for justice and equality was never going to be easy and certainly not for the politically faint hearted.
Those who claim this weekend that the demands of the civil rights movement were granted within three months of the 5th October March are living in cloud cuckoo land should read the CAJ report.
It is ironic that Derry is still being held up as an example of the failure of the government’s inward investment agency Invest Northern Ireland to address the inequalities of their performance over the years, which shows that the Unionist heartland of East Antrim, received double the investment of the combined nationalists border area constituencies.
The report highlights significant community differentials in Housing, the main plank of the Civil Rights demands, with more Catholics on longer waiting lists, a situation that the CAJ claim is being ignored rather than tackled.
The most damning aspect of the report is the assertion that Government initiatives are not merely ignoring issues of inequality but sectarianising the debate, thus undermining the provisions contained in the Good Friday Agreement and the legislation that the British Government itself introduced in the wake of the political negotiations.
Both the British and Irish Governments are currently in default of commitments in the agreement and the St. Andrews review, because of the intransigence of the DUP.
The real scandal is the reluctance by both Governments to acknowledge that political and religious discrimination still exists, and is increasing disadvantage and communal division.
It will be interesting to hear the response of those politicians who forty years on, are still trying to brush inequality under the carpet or denying that it ever existed.
I wasn’t in Duke Street on October 1968. But few women were present on that historic day for as wives, mothers, sisters of the leaders of the Civil Rights Marchers, they were probably engaged in the more mundane activities of watching weans, making dinners, getting the clothes ready for Sunday and the domestic routine of the home, that in those heady times, despite Phil Coulters song, was the responsibility of women.
The Derry men who walked the dogs were not in Duke Street either. Most were in the Brandywell watching the match and the rest were in the pubs or the bookies. Those who turned out for the March were ever after recognised as the more politically enlightened of Derry’s male population.
The few women, most notably Bernedette Devlin and Betty Sinclair, who penetrated what traditionally was the preserve of the male comrades, politics and protest, were more or less viewed in the light of the prevailing mindset of the time, that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’.
Those times have changed or have they? A Sinn Féin motion last year proposing the establishment of a working party to examine the question of the under representation of women in the Assembly, was voted down in favour of a DUP amendment encouraging gender equality.
Forty years after women eventually joined the male comrades in demanding civil rights and thirty years from the introduction of equality legislation and Section 75, the DUP can only encourage rather than implement equality.
It’s worth remembering that, for it was the issue of inequality which prompted a Dungannon Doctor, Con Mc Closkey and his wife Patricia, to set up the first Civil Rights Association.
Simultaneously it was the denial of rights that prompted a small group of people in the Foyle Hill Estate in Derry, to set up a Tenants Association whose aims and objectives were broadly speaking in line with the Civil Rights Movements.
The demands were simple; The right to equality of citizenship for the people of the estate, the right to playing and nursery facilities for children, the right to full time education for children, the right of women to be equal partners in the tenancy of their homes, the right to equal opportunity in services, roads, lighting, and home maintenance, Rights that most civilised societies took for granted.
We didn’t know why we had no playgrounds for the 12,000 children who lived in Creggan. We didn’t know why we lived in a place that the Munce and Kennedy report some ten years later would describe as fit only for sheep rearing.
We didn’t know why the our children could only access school on a part time basis or why there was a bussing system, that ferried the successful children who passed the 11 plus, out of the estate to the lush green surrounds of the Grammar schools and ferried in the failures, to the tar macadam playgrounds of the Secondary schools.
We knew we were Irish but we knew that even as a majority community, in our own City, we would never be equal. We had endured from birth more than our fair share of poverty and humiliation but we accepted our lot assured that as Catholics if we were short changed in this life we would be rewarded in the next.
The tenants associations, without a political thought in their heads, suddenly found themselves confronting head on the Unionist Corporation who since partition had denied them equality of citizenship. But it was the more militantly political groups, most notably the Derry Housing Action Committee, that took up the challenge to confront the State. In Duke Street, the people of Derry, got off their knees and proclaimed that they were Irish and equal.
No wonder that on the morning after the 5th October March, Eamon McCann could state that people felt good to be alive. Few would realise then, that the State would extract a price that would be paid by the generation to come in lost lives and lost years of imprisonment.
The main trigger of the 1968 Civil Rights demands, equality, has still to be resolved. The unemployment rate for Catholic men remains twice that of Protestants. The measures set up to tackle poverty in both the Catholic and Protestant working class communities by targeting investment at those most in need has failed.
Unionists who are resisting reforms should not be allowed to impede the progress to full equality for every citizen on this island. Perhaps we need another 5th October to get that message across.