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1 July 2004 Edition

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Standing idly by

BY JIM GIBNEY

A Sinn Féin picket against Lisburn Council's discriminatory practices

A Sinn Féin picket against Lisburn Council's discriminatory practices

Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch's famous but empty assurance in the summer of 1969 about not standing 'idly by' while the RUC, B Specials and loyalists visited a pogrom on the nationalist and Catholic people of the Six Counties was to the forefront of my mind last Thursday morning.

I was sitting in the chamber of Lisburn Council trying to contain my anger at the Irish Government's decision not to send a representative to observe the annual general meeting of the council.

They were invited by Lisburn Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Butler to monitor the council's proceedings and to witness at first hand its discriminatory practices.

One hour before the meeting began at 11am, Sinn Féin was informed by a senior Irish Government official of their decision not to attend. The news was greeted with disbelief and raw rage, although there was some indication the night before that the government was thinking along these lines.

However, it was expected that they would have reflected overnight on the serious implications of not attending the meeting for those who have been campaigning over the past year to highlight the council's bigotry.

At last year's AGM, the unionist councillors excluded Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance Party from all positions of authority in the Council.

It took all of two minutes last year, on a public show of hands, for the unionists to disenfranchise 20,000 people in the borough; it took even less this year.

This year's decision to deny nationalist and Catholics their rights was even more brazen than last year's. Then, it was not expected and the decision was taken behind the council's closed doors.

Last week, due to the public campaign carried out by Sinn Féin over the past year, there was a considerable media presence and a political interest beyond the council chamber. This included the interest of the Irish Government.

Instead of the unionists responding positively to the pressure they revelled in telling the media that everything was fine in the borough of Lisburn and in front of the cameras again dutifully voted all positions on the council to themselves.

This undemocratic act of exclusion should have been the focus of this article and indeed should have been the single focus of the media's coverage of last week's council meeting.

Instead, blatant discrimination is competing for attention with the political cowardice displayed by the Irish Government.

Although some people might think I am exaggerating by comparing what Taoiseach Lynch said and didn't do in 1969 and what happened last week at Lisburn, because lives were on the line in '69 when Lynch made his declaration, the point of similarity is the sense of let-down among nationalists and republicans.

And this sense of being betrayed by the Irish Government has a deeper and wider echo among northern nationalists than the events of last week.

It stems from the collective experience of northern nationalists and Catholics in their dealings with the Irish Government from 1921, when the British Government imposed partition.

The Irish Government abandoned nationalists in the north to the violence and discrimination of unionists for 50 years while they got on with building 'their state' in the 26 Counties.

And while I readily acknowledge the Irish Government has gone a long way to removing this sense of betrayal over the last ten years of the peace process, nonetheless a wrong decision to back out of attending the council meeting has the potential to reverse the progress made.

These feelings are compounded by the fact that Fianna Fáil is fighting Sinn Féin for electoral support and in this contest the peace process is being squeezed.

For all I know the political motivation behind the decision not to attend the council meeting could well have been provoked by Sinn Féin's successes in the 26 Counties.

If this were the case it would be a very worrying situation indeed because the issue to hand for the Irish Government in this instance is the quality of life for the nationalist and Catholic people who live in Lisburn borough Council. They pay rates to that Council yet they are being systematically discriminated against because of their political allegiance and religious beliefs.

What this means to these ratepayers is they have one play park for 25,000 people whereas the rest of Lisburn has 29 play parks.

The districts of Twinbrook and Poleglass are the most deprived in the borough. They have the highest levels of unemployment, especially among teenagers, and the highest levels of health problems arising from poverty, yet the council puts the least resources into these communities.

The council's fair employment record is scandalous; 16% of its workforce is Catholic yet the Catholic population is one third. Of the 25 senior posts in the council, only two are held by Catholics.

In its recruitment advertisements, the council has refused to carry a notice welcoming Catholic applicants, as they are obliged to do by law, to help balance out the workforce.

The Union flag flies above the council offices on 12 July as well as the 17 designated days and last year they conferred the freedom of the city on the Royal Irish Rangers, who are the notoriously sectarian UDR renamed.

The council refuses to recognise the Irish language and has yet to implement the EU Charter on regional and minority languages.

The Chief Executive of the Council, Norman Davidson, is a paid employee of the council. He is paid to be objective and independent, yet his decisions and advice to the councillors invariably reflect the unionist bias that pervades the place.

These are just a sample of the issues and difficulties that the nationalist and Catholic people and their elected representatives have to face daily.

In recent months, Councillor Butler received three letters; one from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, one from Tánaiste Mary Harney, the other from Minister Brian Cowen, all expressing concern about the situation in Lisburn. These were welcomed but more is now needed.

The Irish Government cannot side-step the sectarian practice in Lisburn. They made a commitment in the Good Friday agreement to creating a society in the North free from sectarian harassment and intimidation.

If this commitment is to mean more than the paper it is written on; if the letters are to mean anything, then it will require the Irish Government's direct, hands-on presence, in unionist councils like Lisburn, Ballymoney and Ballymena, to name a few.

It is quite obvious that unionist politicians are not prepared to share power at any political level and thus far the British Government has shown a reluctance to compel them to do so, either legally or morally.

This places an additional responsibility on the shoulders of the Irish Government.

Its voice and considerable influence has to be brought to bear in every facet of life in the North to end the situation where Irish people living in their own country are discriminated against for the very reason that they are Irish.

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An Phoblacht
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