Expanding the McBride agenda
Expanding the McBride agenda

By Inez McCormack

For over four decades, almost half the lifetime of the Northern Ireland state, I have argued that the structural inequalities here are the consequence of systematic institutional decisions and a refusal to accept responsibility for change.

Twenty-five years ago I came to the United States for the first time to ask Americans to give support for modest non-violent inclusive change.

I brought with me irrefutable facts demonstrating that in the fifteen years between the early civil rights movement and the inception of the MacBride principles, two more generations had been born into an unnecessary reality of the humiliation of poverty and exclusion caused by structural inequality and discrimination.

During that time, I tried and failed to get government to use the civil rights reforms to change internally how those structural decisions were made and to give confidence that change was possible. The response was to use the reforms as an alibi to deny the need for change, and to demonize pressure instead of addressing the problem.

The steadfast and solid support from Irish Americans, the comptroller’s offices, the labor movement, many legislators and campaigners, and, ultimately, the president of the United States, made that response not only unacceptable, but untenable.

It could no longer be argued, in the open at least, that the problems lay in the genes of those excluded and expressed as lack of ability, lack of willingness to work, lack of willingness to travel to work. It is easy to forget now that this was the publicly stated rationale by those who denied their responsibilities for implementing change.

The pressure made possible, for the first time, the implementation of affirmative action measures that began to change patterns of structural inequalities linked to access to the workplace. These seeds of hope were then watered by an emerging peace process and ultimately enabled the practice of equality to be placed at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

I look at the patterns of the past not to live there, but to make sure we never live there again; that we do not permit ever again the denial of the need for structural change in the legacy of patterns of deprivation and poverty, but assert that such change is central to building an inclusive future.

I have spent the last decade working with some of the most disadvantaged communities in the North, including areas of loyalist dispossession, to gain access to the hope and opportunity that is their right under the new dispensation; enabling them to confidently using the equality tools built into the Good Friday Agreement, and for resources to be allocated on basis of objective need.

These communities all have problems, many of them that are the legacy of systematic structural neglect and deprivation. But never again will they allow themselves to be labeled as the problem. I see daily their determination to build a future for their children that is different from their past.

Eleven years on from the agreement, I also see statistics that show the gap between the prosperous and the poor has got wider; that the patterns of exclusion in areas of greatest need have steadily worsened.

Eleven years on I can show the systematic institutional refusal by public servants to implement the modest tools from our agreement of hope. I can show the systematic refusal to guide investments and resources into these areas of neglect, and instead to guide them away.

Northern Ireland is a very small place with a population equivalent to the island of Manhattan. It really takes an awful lot of hard work not to implement modest, basic, inclusive tools of change and equality that are the building blocks for a sustainable stable economy, and an inclusive future.

That’s why investment in Northern Ireland has never been cost-neutral. Where it goes, and what it does, can contribute to changing the economic patterns in areas of underinvestment. It can contribute to building a modern dynamic sustainable economy that offers hope and opportunity to those hitherto excluded.

Or it can contribute to reinforcing the widening gap that is the consequence of the investment patterns of the past and the stagnation and instability of a trickle down approach leading to a narrow prosperity. As we all know, here and elsewhere, prosperity certainly flooded upwards, but most certainly did not trickle down.

The writ that has maintained relatively unchanging patterns of inequalities over the course of forty years - patterns that still see North Belfast, West Belfast and Derry with the twenty most deprived council wards - can no longer be allowed to destabilize the future. Real progress is ensuring that profitable economic growth is made socially sustainable in the long-term by developing it within a framework that delivers equality for the areas and people of greatest need.

In the United States and, in the global arena, the consequences of economic growth decoupled from social development is now understood as bad for the economy, and bad for a functioning democracy. It has been encapsulated in the phrase “no-one left behind.”

The lesson from MacBride was a simple one to learn. You lead the demand for change, and leading is more effective than pleading. This was why I asked the city and state comptrollers offices several years ago to consider direct profitable investment in areas of underinvestment in the North; to once again give leadership to show it can be done.

I thank Comptrollers Thompson and DiNapoli for the example they set in coming to Northern Ireland, visiting these areas and continuing to work through tough economic times to make a profitable investment that contributes to creating hope and opportunity in such communities.

The contribution of their offices to the peace process in the last decades has been to demonstrate that such change is necessary to build a sustainable economy and stable climate for investment and to show that change can happen. I look forward now to working with Comptroller John Liu.

We now have new equality laws and procurement policies governing the Executive, these for developing a peaceful and sustainable economic context that promotes profitable proposals that are targeted at areas of greatest objective need. We have mainstream tools like MacBride, and the experience of the past. The wind of change is with us, but I have provided here the hard evidence of the resistance to this view of a modern inclusive future.

I am therefore asking Americans to continue the MacBride agenda of change in Northern Ireland by investing twice: once for jobs, once for justice. Twenty-five years ago I said that this equation was a double-bang for a single buck. MacBride proved that it was possible and doable. The point still stands today.

Those outcomes cannot be achieved in the absence of the ongoing positive contribution by investors of goodwill through robust conditions and rigorous compliance epitomized by MacBride. That’s the reality as we mark twenty-five years of the MacBride Principles: conditions for promoting equality, and compliance in putting them into practice, remain the two key requirements for American investors of goodwill in Northern Ireland.

I end with a quote from the evidence I gave on the need for change when I first came to this country twenty-five years ago.

“It ultimately comes down to this. We can all deliver the rhetoric that offends nobody but the dispossessed. For those who have can always argue that tomorrow is the right time for change. For the have-nots, today is not soon enough, and we can only hope for their generosity of spirit in forgetting their yesterdays.”

I have seen how American leadership forced that rhetoric to connect to changing realities. I experience that generosity of spirit every day. I ask you to continue your leadership in demanding and supporting the change that spirit deserves. That was, and is, the MacBride agenda.

Anything else reinforces the patterns of the past, betrays that generosity, and destroys the confidence of hope. The MacBride agenda need to be expanded, otherwise we are all accepting that people will be left behind. And no one can be left behind.

* Inez McCormack is a lifelong labor and human rights activist and is a former president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

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