Thursday, June 16, 2005

Discrimination hasn’t gone away in the north of Ireland

Jarlath Kearney:

Less than four months ago, the Irish government minister with responsibility for the North claimed that anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist discrimination “has disappeared”.

In a newspaper interview published on March 6, foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern declared: “Matters have changed dramatically in the North… the type of discrimination that took place in previous decades, all of that has disappeared.”

Just two days ago, the actions of a courageous career firefighter from south Down seriously undermined the public position of Mr Ahern and his senior officials.

Following a difficult legal battle, John Allen forced the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland to concede that his complaint of religious and/or political discrimination was unchallengeable.

The authority settled Mr Allen’s case just before the case had been scheduled to open at the Fair Employment Tribunal in Belfast on Monday morning. The authority also agreed that it would restructure aspects of its recruitment policy in line with its public equality duties under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Effectively, the Fire Authority had imposed a discriminatory policy that excluded Catholics and nationalists — based on their area of residence — from promotional opportunities at headquarters in Lisburn, Co Antrim.

This was achieved by drawing up maps of geographical areas within which senior officers who could be on “stand-by/call-out” duty must reside. These maps excluded areas in west Belfast, which is just 11 miles (18 kilometres) from Lisburn. They also excluded areas such as south Armagh, Derry, south Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone, all of which have large Catholic and nationalist populations.

Since the Fire Authority is a major public service, its failure to adhere to the public equality duties introduced as a result of the Good Friday Agreement is very serious.

In this regard, John Allen’s case — supported by the Equality Commission — also represents a significant shot across the bows of other government and public bodies in the North.

During his trip to the North a fortnight ago, Alan Hevesi, the comptroller of New York state, indicated that, while some progress had been made, he retained continuing concerns in relation to issues of discrimination and inequality in the North. Such concerns are regularly voiced by Sinn Féin and SDLP representatives.

As a long-time campaigner for the MacBride principles on fair employment and a key supporter of the North’s peace process, Mr Hevesi remains an important and well-informed US politician.

In criticising ongoing communal discrimination and wider working-class deprivation, Mr Hevesi argued that models of US good practice could be implemented in the North to help achieve equality.

Specifically, he emphasised the extent to which government procurement and investment practices could be positively conditioned to bring about affirmative action.

One of the agencies with which Mr Hevesi’s New York state retirement fund has now entered an investment arrangement is the state agency Invest Northern Ireland.

At a seminar addressed by Mr Hevesi, Sinn Féin general secretary Mitchel McLaughlin pointed out that Invest NI had not yet subjected its recently published ten-year corporate plan to an equality impact assessment, on the grounds that the strategy was “too high-level”.

Other key British government agencies, such as the Strategic Investment Board, are using similar excuses to circumvent public equality duties.

Serious questions have also been raised about the failure by Invest NI to tackle social need by proactively targeting investment.

In April, government statistics demonstrated that the financial assistance provided by Invest NI to the parliamentary constituency of Belfast South in 2003-04 exceeded the combined total provided to the five Border constituencies of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Foyle, Newry and Armagh, South Down, and West Tyrone during the same period.

Moreover, the constituency of Belfast West received the lowest number of “assistance offers” from Invest NI in the three years between 2001 and 2004. While Belfast South received 268 “assistance offers” from Invest NI in the single year 2003-04, Belfast West received just 178 similar offers in the 2001-04 period.

Three weeks ago, the British government’s own official deprivation statistics revealed that Belfast West has the highest proportion of deprived people of any Northern constituency. Belfast North, Foyle, and West Tyrone were other areas with some of the highest proportions of deprived citizens.

In recent months, Invest NI has sponsored separate flagship investment deals of £25 million (€37 million) in Shorts Bombardier in east Belfast and £2 million (€3 million) in the Old Bushmills Distillery in north Antrim, at an approximate cost of £100,000 per job.

According to Equality Commission statistics for 2003, Shorts Bombardier has 6,236 employees, of whom 14.8 per cent are Catholic. The Old Bushmills Distillery has 129 employees, of whom 13.3 per cent are Catholic.

At the end of May, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, found itself under scrutiny over compositional trends that the Northern Ireland Office admits are unlikely to change in the coming years.

It was revealed that less than nine per cent of the 2,000-strong workforce are Catholic. Responding to questions from the SDLP MP Eddie McGrady, direct-rule minister Shaun Woodward said: “It is not at this stage practicable to determine when the composition of the service will fully reflect the wider population”.

In May, Daily Ireland revealed that the British government ban on Irish citizens gaining employment in the North’s senior civil service was unlikely to be lifted for at least another 12 months.

This ban on Irish citizens contributes to the ongoing compositional imbalance of the Northern Ireland Office and senior civil service. At present, just one in four employees in the NIO and in the senior civil service is Catholic.

Based on recruitment trends over 30 years, the senior civil service will not achieve communal parity until 2057.

While hard-won changes have been engineered to ease the historic levels of discrimination and inequality in the North, the reality of recent months demonstrates that personalised discrimination, public unfairness and political bias remain unresolved issues within state structures.

Perhaps the most simple yet glaring example of this is that the Catholic population remains at least twice as likely as the Protestant population to be unemployed. The British government gave a clear commitment in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to address this disparity rapidly.

However, just two weeks ago, Daily Ireland revealed that this precise imbalance continued, notwithstanding the wider drop in unemployment. The British government has manifestly failed to fulfil its Good Friday Agreement commitment on this issue.

Based on the latest available Labour Force Survey statistics between winter 2003-04 and autumn 2004, Catholic women are 3.5 times more likely to be unemployed than Protestant women, and Catholic men are 1.7 times more likely to be unemployed than Protestant men.

Daily Ireland has established that senior Irish government officials with direct responsibility for handling North-South matters had failed to request these basic statistics from the British government prior to their publication by this newspaper.

Perhaps that failing explains Dermot Ahern’s public claims that discrimination in the North “has disappeared”.

What it does not explain is why discrimination and inequality in the North continue to be serious and unresolved aspects of the Good Friday Agreement’s unfinished equality agenda.

Of course, in any colonial society, the indigenous population are always treated as second-class citizens which is why Catholics will continue to be victims of discrimination as long as the Six Counties remain under British rule.


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