*Is equality at risk from the St Andrew's deal?

by Deasun O Donghaile

SO THE rich won't have to pay their share of domestic rates and their children will still be the beneficiaries of academic selection.

Pensioners on low income will be glad to hear however, that the British government will 'examine the possibility' of future rates relief. Not as certain as the capping of what millionaires will have to pay, nevertheless we must be thankful for small mercies.

While, of course, there still is ambiguity and uncertainty about the specifics of the settlement negotiated at the St Andrews, any outcome should be measured in terms of how it will provide a context for challenging the growing inequality within the north of Ireland, as most capably portrayed in the Committee for the Administration of Justice's recent publication Equality in Northern Ireland: the rhetoric and the reality.

Activists and campaigners within the social movements rightfully look to the human rights and equality provisions of the 'stop-start' negotiations as an indication of substantive progress or otherwise. The Good Friday agreement's Section 75, which placed a positive duty on public bodies to promote equality, was per- haps the strongest such piece of legislation in western Europe. The limita- tions and obligations this placed on arbitrary public decision-making was quickly identified and many have since tried to strangle it at birth.

Most notable among this conservative bloc are senior civil servants and British direct rule ministers who are actively trying to undermine the equality provisions. This is reflected in the current review of the legislation. Trade unions and NGOs have already expressed concern that this review in ef- fect attempts to undermine the principle of statutory duty.

In order to observe this agenda, one need look no further than the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister policy paper A Shared Future. This document spells out the "good relations" agenda, giving it primacy above an equality and human rights based approach which uses objective need as benchmarker for governmental action. The "good relations" agenda is essentially an extension of the Ulsterisation strategy - based on the spurious premise that conflict exists because the two communities cannot get along. The working classes are to be blamed for "intolerance".

The conflict had nothing to do with fundamental inequality and human rights abuses and violations endemic to the state and perpetuated by consecutive governments. Two tribes went to war, now we just need to get them to hold hands, share parks, respect traditions, etc - or at least not riot. That discourages investment. The document is also not so subtle in its promotion of privatisation.

So given this context, what was negotiated in St Andrew's to ensure that rights are upheld?

The British government has claimed it will now produce an "anti- poverty and social exclusion" strategy, based on objective need and will be a continuation of the' Renewing Communities' initiative. Quite a paradox if you consider that the initiative pumped money into Protestant communities and was a blatant political and arbitrary measure taken despite objective need, which clearly showed higher levels of social and economic deprivation in catholic areas. No doubt this current plan will base itself on the assumptions of A Shared Future. Not much of a gain here.

A forum for a Bill of Rights will meet in December. The convening of this forum is a step forward, even though there are serious ambiguities regarding its remit and that of its chairperson. Its composition and the issue of public input are also outstanding; evidence that a fudge emerged from the negotiations in the interests of a settlement.

The DUP and UUP maintain the capacity to neuter any such forum. Clearly the major issue will be around the inclusion of social and economic rights within any future Bill of Rights - with unionists of all hues taking a strong stance against judicial enforcement of social and economic rights.

Meanwhile, the signalled intent to prepare for Single Equality Bill can be heard as a five-year-old echo. John Spellar MP, the 'fly in' minister responsible at the time, indicated his inten- tions to discuss way forward for the legislation. In all probability it looks as though 2008 will be the earliest time frame for an outcome. It must be asked if there is anything new in this section or just an announcement of a timetable, which was already es- tablished?

The government will work with trade unions, employers and ex-prisoners groups to provide guidance for employers on the re-integration of political ex-prisoners. While this is a positive measure, the 'guidance' produced for employers must be robust enough to outlaw discriminatory behaviour of employers denying political ex-prisoners work on the grounds of political beliefs. There would need to be a legislative basis to this 'guidance' if it is to be enforceable in any positive way.

The additional powers being conferred to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a long over due yet progressive, as is the proposed Irish Language Act.

The equality and human rights sections of the St Andrew's Agreement are fundamental to the socialist republican project. They inform and instruct the nature of democratic accountability, public finances, investment and public services. They should form as a central part of any negotiating strategy on institutional arrangements. Unionist opposition to this approach remains potent. It is worrying that the St Andrews deal is ambiguous with no concrete timetables. But were we really expecting any more?

Obviously, the DUP know republi- cans want restoration more than they do, and this is why they felt confident enough to introduce rates and academic selection into the now well-known side deal. Obviously a side deal with republicans may have put any deal in jeopardy. But an agreement to scrap the current Review of Section 75 or to re-assess A Shared Future would have made things interesting. Or how about re-designating the Strategic Investment Board - the quango set up to ba- sically open the north's public services to market competition - so that it must comply with Section 75?

But, as malcontented as we are, at least Daddy won't have to cancel his membership to Golf Club on account of increasing domestic rates. Sure, we're all free to join the golf club. Isn't that what equality is all about? It certainly seems to be for mainstream political unionism. Meanwhile residents of Belfast's Shankill Road, where less than 1 per cent of children pass the 11+ exams, will continue to vote DUP.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-01-25 10:57:54.
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