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31 May 2007 Edition

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Interview : Martina Anderson

Twenty one days as an MLA

MARTINA ANDERSON talks to LAURA FRIEL about life as a newly elected MLA in the North’s Assembly and her work in attempting to tackle issues of discrimination and inequality.

“As a newly elected MLA you have to hit the ground running and I was really pleased to introduce a motion in support of the Single Equality Bill just two weeks after first entering the chamber to take my seat,” says Martina.
Currently legislation tasked with addressing discrimination and inequality is fragmented and applies different standards of protection. There’s a hotchpotch of different acts that need to be brought together. The Single Equality Bill seeks to harmonise the legislation.
“But the issue isn’t simply about bringing existing legislation together under one banner. It’s also about doing a better job. The introduction of the Single Equality Bill also offers an opportunity to improve current standards,” says Martina.
“The ability to enforce equality legislation and overcoming inequality through affirmative action are crucial if we are serious about addressing discrimination in all its forms and building a new society of equals.
“A law that simply declares discrimination to be illegal but fails to enforce an effective remedy offers no protection at all. Affirmative action is an effective way of bringing disadvantaged groups onto a level playing field. Affirmative action gives us the freedom to compete from a position of equality.
“No one has anything to fear from equality. It’s a message unionists need to hear but sadly some are still refusing to listen. I was surprised at the level of hostility the Single Equality Bill provoked in the Chamber from members of both the DUP and UUP,” says Martina.
The motion called on the Executive to bring forward harmonisation legislation for discussion and consultation. Unfortunately the prospect of discussion and consultation proved too much for some MLAs.
“Nelson McCausland opted for a mixed message describing issues of equality and human rights as ‘embedded in the heart’ of the DUP’s vision while refusing to support the motion,” says Martina.
“It’s really important for unionists to take ownership within the process of progressive change and so I was heartened when Nelson rooted unionist contributions to equality and human rights within the Scottish Enlightenment tradition.
“Republicans don’t have a monopoly on progressive thought but we don’t always acknowledge that. I was really pleased to hear Nelson’s message to the wider unionist and Protestant community that equality and human rights were issues they ‘should feel comfortable with’.
“Unionist opposition to the motion fell into a familiar catalogue of excuses none of which stood up to close scrutiny but provided just sufficient cover for the DUP and UUP to vote against the motion. The motion fell by just three votes but the issue is not defeated. The OFMDFM is already committed to supporting the Single Equality Bill,” says Martina.
In her first meeting with Martina, Human Rights Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, focused upon some of the fundamental difficulties currently being faced by the commission. The Commissioner raised two immediate concerns, both serious restrictions placed on the remit of the commission by the British government.
“The British government has restricted the commission’s power of retrospective investigation. At the moment the commission can only compel documents and information on matters after 1 August  2007. This actually closes down the ability of the HRC to play a significant role in conflict resolution,” says Martina.
“The British government were more open to wider powers of investigation for social and economic matters but refused comparative powers in relation to political and civil rights issues. That’s telling in itself. The British state is still engaged in a conspiracy of cover up, most significantly in relation to collusion and repression.
“The HRC has also been denied the ability to make unannounced welfare visits to places of detention. The commission has the recognised status of a national HRC under the United Nations and as such is entitled to spontaneous access to places of detention. In denying this the British government is at odds with international law.
“The United Nations protocol against Torture compels governments to designate organisations with unannounced access to places of detention. The British government named the Red Cross but failed to name the HRC,” says Martina
“The current Justice and Security Bill places restrictions on the remit of the HRC but it’s not the last word. It’s up for review in four years time and with the Assembly up and running we should be in a better position to challenge current restrictions. Working towards that starts right now.
 “Appearing on Hearts and Minds with Gregory Campbell was an experience. Gregory is one of the more hostile members of the DUP. He seems particularly outraged that a former republican POW has a role in Sinn Féin's project of unionist outreach.
“It’s not a plot Gregory! I’m really trying to approach engagement in an open and honest way. We’ve all got a lot to learn about each other. Perhaps the party selected me because I’d got more to learn than most,” laughs Martina.
“I am listening to Gregory. I understand that he’s articulating a particular position within a section of unionism that is still very hostile to the project of conflict resolution and social transformation. It’s not easy to engage with someone determined not to.
“Hearts and Minds runs for half an hour and in that time Gregory denounced me as a terrorist, gangster, Nazi, a liar and a hypocrite. The only thing he didn’t accuse me of was witchcraft but I’m sure there’s time for that yet,” says Martina.
“I did learn something during the encounter. Gregory appears to be trapped in a nightmare of his own making. He imagines equality and human rights somehow threatens Protestants and the unionist community. But no one has anything to fear from equality. Equality is about protecting everyone’s rights.
“Republicans do not want to inflict on anyone else the kind of discrimination and repression suffered by nationalists under the old Stormont regime. We have no interest in that. We want to build a better future by moving away from all that. Sinn Féin will work hard to address inequality and discrimination where ever it occurs,” says Martina.
“I know it’s not easy for unionists like Gregory Campbell to engage with republicans but I hope we can find a way of moving forward. I don’t have all the answers but I believe we’ll come up with better answers by working together. In some respects politicians are lagging behind many people within the community.
“People, from all kinds of backgrounds, are already working together, moving the process of conflict resolution and reconciliation forward. In my role within Sinn Féin's unionist outreach initiative, I come across examples of positive engagement all the time. There’s a good news story out there waiting to be told,” says Martina.

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