Equality, The Unfinished Agenda

Joe Jamison reviews Equality in Northern Ireland: the rhetoric and the reality,(principal author: Tim Cunningham), Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), ISBN 1 873285 89 2, £15.00

Equality in Northern Ireland

WHEN THIS important CAJ study was released last fall (September 2006), it did not receive nearly the attention it merited. Now (April 2007), with the hoped-for restoration of devolved government in the north imminent, its timeliness and usefulness rise.

Readers of Irish Democrat book reviews will know that CAJ, perhaps the leading independent human rights body in the north, has a long and honorable record of arming equality campaigners with accurate, no-nonsense, independent research. CAJ's credibility does not stop at the water's edge. CAJ has always given friends of Ireland in the US and the UK reliable assessments of progress or lack of progress on equality, repression, maladministration, and injustice in the north.

Founded in 1981 as a human rights group, CAJ initially focused on the inequities of the judicial system. Over time, CAJ took up sectarian inequality, the contentious issue always at the core of the politics of the north. CAJ has no position on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and its membership is drawn from across the community.

CAJ carefully aims its arguments at an audience of all fair-minded people. Its accounts of policy change can omit the gritty political struggle that drives the process of change, but this is a modest shortcoming. Supporters of Irish unity and independence, who should always be very best democrats, are duty-bound to pay special attention to CAJ's findings.

Equality in Northern Irelandexamines the present situation with respect to inequality between the two major communities, critiquing government responses, in particular, "Targeting Social Need," the "Taskforce on Protestant Working Class Communities," and "Shared Future." The thesis of Equality in Northern Irelandis that, while legislative measures have improved the balance in employment in overall terms, there are important sectors of employment and types of work that are predominantly occupied by members of one or other community.

The legacy of the past still has an important potentially destabilizing impact on today's workforce. For example, the statistics on six county "registered unemployment" as defined by the British government have improved a good deal, but they mask the stubborn reality and size of long-term unemployment.

Equality in Northern IrelandThe CAJ study carefully and skeptically sifts the official government quantitative evidence. The report is enhanced by an excellent appendix of tables and maps illustrating the stubborn inequality patterns at a local level.

Besides CAJ, honest social science is hard to find. Compared to official British government reports, far more realistic mappings of the geography of inequality are the reports and maps produced by the Office of the Comptroller of the City of New York.

The understandable public policy focus on ending inequality in recruitment has led to a neglect of other social indicators such as persistent housing inequality. Moreover, current government initiatives not only ignore persistent sectarian inequality but even exacerbate them by 'sectarianising' the debate. Some of these government initiatives actual run counter to the letter of the Good Friday agreement (GFA).

There has been neglect of tools for reducing or ending inequality such as procurement policy and inward investment policy through which areas of greatest need could be targeted. It will be a great day when the old Unionist policy of "targeting areas of least need" is finally overcome. In a former era, that policy put the University of Ulster in Coleraine, and not in Derry.

The spatial patterns of injustice have much momentum. At present, an outsized share of new resources is going into privileged enclaves in north Down. If the GFA equality provisions were being applied fairly and inclusively, areas of greatest needed -- mostly Catholic, but including working-class Protestant districts too -- would be at the top of the list for public spending and private investment. Nearly ten years after Good Friday 1998, the figures on inequality are worsening.

The sobering CAJ conclusions about the depth of structural inequality fly in the face of the contention of some that, with the decline of the north's traditional anchor industries such as shipbuilding, and now with the decline of security employment that made up for industrial decline, and frequent reports of "rising Catholic self-confidence" and educational attainment, Catholic employment prospects shine and Protestant employment prospects are bleak.

The impression is one-sided and incorrect. In the words of Irish trade unionist and equality campaigner, Inez McCormack, the six county establishment is wily and experienced in steering public discussion into safe channels. For example, left to the establishment, the debate on the equality agenda has somehow morphed, little by little, into a debate about a "community relations" agenda - built around such ridiculous notions that social deprivation is caused by the "intolerance" of the groups that are the main victims of social deprivation.

Chapter One 'Setting the Context' gives a handy summary of the long and winding 30-year road of legislative measures to reduce inequality, each one meeting furious resistance from conservative forces and falling short in effectiveness. The milestones bring back memories: The Fair Employment Act of 1976, the Fair Employment Act of 1989, the SACHR Reports (1987 and 1990), the PAFT Guidelines, and the struggle to put tough equality provisions into the Good Friday agreement.

The most demanding and longest chapter of Equality in Northern Ireland is Chapter 2, 'The Labour Market', a 40-page analysis of the key trends. In the private sector, the report concludes that some newer establishments, having undergone expansion in recent years, are exhibiting a worrying and familiar pattern of Catholic under-representation. As for the swollen Northern Ireland public sector, it shows a complex pattern of under representation of both major communities in various places. The public sector would benefit if public employers were to carry out Equality Impact Assessments seriously and in good faith.

The CAJ report also carries a practical political message. The world still trying to digest the implications of the photograph of Ian Paisley, albeit a little glumly, seated next to a beaming Gerry Adams. If devolved government is restored at Stormont, will the struggle for equality in Northern Ireland be simply reduced to the party-political struggle?

How many times in the recent past have the forces of an intransigent status quo successfully caused public opinion to conclude, "It's over." It was "over" with the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994-5. It was "over" with beginning of all-party talks in 1997, and then with the signing of the GFA in 1998, and then the ratifying votes. It's "over" in 2007, now that devolved government seems to be in the cards. Well, Equality In Northern Ireland insists, it isn't over.

Even with no bullets flying and no bombs exploding, even with the most glaring forms of sectarian inequality a thing of the past, there is indeed a role for independent grassroots campaigning, for external monitoring, for democratic activity by Irish-Americans, and for concerted lobbying not just by the British left but by all conscientious people in Britain, not to speak of the people of the twenty-six counties, no longer fearful of association with paramilitarism in the North.

Equality in Northern Ireland convincingly argues that there is much work ahead before there is democracy in the north. Democracy is a much more powerful destroyer of sectarian ideology and practice than demography ever will be. The activist community might consider this important study its "to-do" list.

Copies of Equality in Northern Ireland: rhetoric or reality can be obtained from the Committee on the Administration of Justice, 45/47 Donegall Street, Belfast BT1 2BR (email:info@caj.org.uk)

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