Equality fault-line opens

by David Granville

EARLY DEBATES at Stormont have confirmed - as if confirmation was needed - that getting unionists, nationalists and republicans to reach agreement, especially on equality issues, was not always going to be easy.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that a Sinn Fein motion proposing the establishment of a working party to look into the question of the under-representation of women in the assembly was narrowly rejected in favour of a DUP amendment encouraging gender equality and preserving the principle of merit in recruitment and selection.

Or that senior DUP figures have indicated that the party will veto an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland on the basis that 'Ulster Scots' is in greater need of financial support. Or that another Sinn Fein motion supporting the introduction of a single equality bill to replace existing legislation was also narrowly defeated by unionists.

This particular debate included the outlandish claim by the DUP MLA Gregory Campbell that Protestants were facing discrimination in terms of police recruitment. At the time of the signing of the Good Friday agreement only 7.5 per cent of the RUC were from a Catholic background. As a result of introducing recruitment on a 50/50 basis in the wake of the Patten report this figure has risen to just under 18 per cent of the, now renamed, force - a figure which is planned to reach 30 per cent by 2010-11, according to a recent statement in the House of Commons.

As currently around 43 per cent of the population of the six counties are from a Catholic background, there will still be some considerably way to go before the PSNI becomes truly representative of the community it serves.

What many unionists really object to is that modest, and decidedly gradualist, equality reforms have begun the process of transforming the police from a "Protestant force for a Protestant people" into one capable of serving all the people of the six counties. With the unionist parties now seemingly fully committed to power-sharing, It's just one of many necessary changes that they are going to have to get used to.

Other issues are proving less contentious, particularly those relating to the economy and the need for British exchequer to stump up more funds to counter the neglect, devastation and under-development of the conflict years.

The above article was originally published in the Morning Star on 30.05.07.

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