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28 August 1997 Edition

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Ending discrimination - a question of political will

In advance of negotiations, Gerry Adams outlines the essential steps which the British government must take to create a climate of equality


Equality of treatment has long been a priority on Sinn Féin's political agenda. Equality, an end to discrimination, the provision of equality of opportunity are central requirements of any stable and cohesive society. The more so in Ireland where discrimination has been used as a tool of division and political hegemony.

There can be no lasting political settlement without a firm foundation of equality. This is a fundamental democratic right which requires no negotiation; which should not and must not be dependent on any talks process.

     
  It is self-evident that while legislation is clearly necessary, of itself it is not sufficient to tackle structural inequalities. To do that effectively there needs to be a co-ordinated and integrated strategy involving legislation and economic and social policies  
James Connolly

It is now thirty years since the civil rights struggle highlighted the issue of jobs discrimination against nationalists and Catholics. Almost 25 years ago the British government's William Van Straubenzee told us - in the report which carried his name - that equality of opportunity should be clearly visible in a workforce which by and large reflects the denominational ratios in the community as a whole. The British government, in establishing a pattern it would pursue since then, promptly ignored the key recommendations of the Van Straubenzee Report in drafting the 1976 Fair Employment Act.

In similar vein they gutted the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR) review of 1987 of many of the measures it recommended as effective tools for change. And in the interim they put time, energies and resources into combating the Mac Bride Principles campaign with a diligence never expended in eradicating discrimination.

Also in the interim enough has been written, said, researched, legislated for, brought before the courts, set up in institutions, to create a small industry by itself. And still we have discrimination. Still we have not realised equality of opportunity.

And, I have to say, there is yet little evidence available to suggest that the British government intends to take effective action.

For instance, in the run up to the developing crisis around Garvaghy Road in early July the British governments SACHR issued its review of the current situation in jobs discrimination. In the welter of media coverage around Garvaghy Road the review got about as much political and media attention and coverage as the Ballymurphy under-12's football final. As a result the public political debate it should have provoked did not even get on the political radar screen let alone disappear off it. It has remained out of sight ever since. I am not, of course, suggesting that the timing of the release of the report was deliberately chosen to have that effect. Of course not. But it is important that the issues raised in this report are subjected to such a debate. The issue of discrimination is all too important to be allowed to slide in this way.
  We have had almost thirty years of reports and committees and legislation and agencies on this issue. What is required and what has ever been absent is the political will to do what is required  
James Connolly

 

As a general observation the most interesting thing about the SACHR report is the sense of deja vu it produces. The report reflects many of the proposals contained in the SACHR report of 1987 - ten years ago. Proposals which were gutted and excluded from the Fair Employment Act which followed two years later. This is the clearest demonstration possible of the absence of the political will to act on this issue. Interestingly the Labour Party, then in opposition, expressed grave concerns about this. Conceivably now, as the party of Government, they will act to redress the situation.

Some of the recommendations of the SACHR report which clearly needs supported in the form of amendments to the `89 legislation are:

extending affirmative action to cover unemployment and especially the long-term unemployed;
giving the FEC a role in recruiting from the long-term unemployed;
extending the scope of contract compliance to include goods and services;
repealing the `national security exemptions' provision which in fact is the blatant political vetting of workers;
putting Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment on a statutory footing;
ensuring that Targeting Social Need is taken seriously, ensuring that it is implemented.
The SACHR report, if acted upon, has a positive and potentially significant contribution to make in eradicating discrimination and the provision of equality of opportunity.

But it is self-evident that while legislation is clearly necessary, of itself it is not sufficient to tackle structural inequalities. To do that effectively there needs to be a co-ordinated and integrated strategy involving legislation and economic and social policies.

The ending of discrimination and the pro-active and urgent pursuit of an equality agenda is critical to building confidence that this is a real attempt by the British government to move forward. This is vital to any attempt to secure a just and lasting peace.

We have had almost thirty years of reports and committees and legislation and agencies on this issue. What is required and what has ever been absent is the political will to do what is required. What is required is change. Change in the short term. Change which is sustainable. What is required is the goals and timetables for that change. What is required is significant, positive and lasting effect. What is required is an end to discrimination and the provision of equality of opportunity.

The SACHR report, like others before it, has produced tools for change. What it does not and cannot produce is the will to use those tools. Only the British government can do that. The injection of the ever absent political will into the equation is their responsibility.
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