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16 October 2008 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

Civil Rights - the issue was inequality 

On the 30th Anniversary of the British Government’s 1976 Fair Employment legislation, designed to outlaw religious and political discrimination in the North of Ireland, the Committee for the Administration of Justice, (CAJ) launched a damning report on the failure of Government to address the ‘problems of disadvantage and communal division’ in the North of Ireland.
The report, entitled Equality in Northern Ireland, the Rhetoric and the Reality, accuses British Government politicians and senior civil servants of “introducing measures which instead of reducing community divisions, exacerbate them and marginalise further, the most disenfranchised in our society, both Catholic and Protestant”.
The conclusions of the report are stark but they reinforce the position that has led to the impasse in the power sharing administration in the Assembly. Every step by the republican/nationalist community towards equality is seen by unionist politicians as a threat to their constitutional position. More significantly, it serves as a constant reminder, despite their collective denials, that the anti-Catholic discrimination enshrined as official policy in their’ ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’ went out the window when the people signed up to the Good Friday Agreement.
We need to remind the unionist obstructionists and shamefully some of their nationalists fellow travellers, of the words contained in the preamble to the Agreement, “We are committed to partnership, equality, and mutual respect as the basis of relationships”.
Put simply, that means that the demands of the Civil Rights movement – the right to work, to a house, to vote, to live without the type of oppressive legislation contained in the current ‘Terrorism Bill’ the successor of the Special Powers Act, are as relevant today as it was when a  motley crew of political activists, civic leaders, and trendy leftists, assembled in Duke Street on 5 October 1968.
Those whose voices daily fill the airwaves with negative comments on the current state of affairs, and they were all there present at the recent Civil Rights commemorative events in the Guildhall in Derry, would do well to reflect that we did not March on 5 October for ‘half a loaf’ as someone once said. Nor did we vote to share power with unionists who still believe that the republican/nationalist community in the words of David Trimble still needs to be ‘house trained.’ In other words it’s equality or bust for we jettisoned the second class citizen tag when we took to the streets on the 5th October, 1968.
We knew then as we do now that the struggle for justice and equality was never going to be easy and certainly not for the politically faint hearted.
Those who claimed recently that the demands of the Civil Rights movement were granted within three months of 5 October march, are  living in cloud cuckoo land and should read the CAJ report.
The most damning aspect of the report is the assertion that government initiatives are not merely ignoring issues of inequality but sectarianising the debate, thus undermining the provisions contained in the Good Friday Agreement and the legislation that the British Government itself introduced in the wake of the political negotiations.
Both the British and Irish Governments are currently in default of commitments in the agreement and the St Andrews review, because of the intransigence of the DUP. The real scandal is the reluctance by both Governments to acknowledge that political and religious discrimination still exists, and is increasing disadvantage and communal division.

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