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6 July 2000 Edition

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The challenge facing the Equality Commission

BY FERN LANE

For the past 25 years, the Six Counties has had some of the most stringent equal opportunities and fair employment legislation in Europe. For a quarter of a century, the North of Ireland has been able to boast of a growing and enviable abundance of laws and public bodies supposedly devoted to enforcing these laws, with legislation initially passed in the mid-'70s, reinforced in 1989, and then added to again as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

But apart from giving the British Government and the Northern Ireland Office something to which they can feebly point when confronted with their inability, or unwillingness, to tackle the issue of entrenched unionist discrimination, what has all the fine-sounding legislation achieved? Well, very little. Catholics are still two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than Protestants and many careers and employment opportunities remain completely unavailable to nationalists. The prospect of becoming a police officer is currently about as feasible as joining the Orange Order whilst other avenues of employment - Harland and Wolff for instance - have such a well-developed atmosphere of sectarian hostility that few Catholics have been inclined to subject themselves to it.

Another case in point is local government. In a normal democracy local authorities should strive to be models of equal opportunity and fair employment practice, but in the Six Counties, the reverse is true. Many, if not most, unionist-dominated councils can be held up as striking examples of blatant malpractice. Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Butler, one of those responsible for pursuing the party's equality agenda, points to the government's own figures as evidence of the deeply ingrained discrimination - both religious and gender - which occurs in authorities under unionist control.

``Local government in the North employs around 8,000 people,'' he says. ``The latest figures show a breakdown of 60% Protestant and 36% Catholic. However, these figures are somewhat misleading if one looks at the religious composition of individual councils. In four councils, less than 10% of the workforce is Catholic, whilst in another twelve less than 25% are Catholics.'' Altogether there are some 20 councils where Catholics comprise less than 40% of the workforce.

Castlereagh, Ballymoney and Carrickfergus councils are amongst the worst offenders, as is his own authority, Lisburn Borough Council, the second largest in the Six Counties. In an area where Catholics make up 26% of the local workforce, they represent less than 15% of the council's. The further one goes up the managerial ladder, the greater the differential becomes; Catholics hold just two managerial posts out of a total of nineteen (10.5%).

Clearly what has been and still is missing from unionist psychology, and therefore employment culture, is a broadly and genuinely understood and practised ethos of fairness and equality. It is the same lack which prompted the first raft of legislation almost three decades ago and which still prevents individuals, companies and toothless public bodies such as the Fair Employment Commission from actually enforcing the relevant laws even where the most flagrant breaches occur. It is also analogous of the wider disregard for equality which to this day permeates the Six Counties.

Whilst even the most unreconstructed bigots in unionism have learned that they have to make the right noises in certain public fora with regard to equal opportunities, the mask regularly slips and shows the more familiar face of unionism reflected in the figures above. More indicative is John Taylor's notorious comment that ``there can be equality of opportunity, but not equality. The Irish minority cannot be equal to the majority in Northern Ireland''. But who says so?

The law, common decency and nationalists themselves say that they can be - indeed, are - equal and should be treated as such. The fact that Taylor has the arrogance to assume that he, as a British unionist, still has the right to decree who should be afforded rights says a great deal about how regressive both his and his party's political philosophy remains.

The near hysterical reaction to Martin McGuinness' perfectly rational requirement that either the Tricolour be flown alongside the Union Jack or that no flags at all be flown on the Department of Education building, also revealed the paucity in understanding of the meaning of equality by unionists. The thought of a public expression of Irishness, particularly when combined with a significant degree of political power, was more than they could bear. In the furore, even those who should know better, like the SDLP, took it upon themselves to ignore what the Union Jack actually represents. As is fully intended by those who insist on its presence, it is a statement of unionist domination and unionism as the expression of British rule in Ireland. It is visual bullying of an only slightly more subtle variety than the flying of loyalist paramilitary flags where Catholic residents cannot avoid seeing them. It tells Catholics to know their place.

Even when not being as downright offensive as John Taylor, unionists are most often caught in a state of absolute denial. Ken Maginnis, for example, is fond of making the hilarious assertion that the 1948 Education Act put an end to the social, civic, cultural and economic exclusion of Catholics in the Six Counties. The comment becomes much less funny when one uncovers the racist sub-text which is, of course, that Catholics have simply been too lazy and/or stupid to make use of the array of opportunities so generously presented to them by their benevolent unionist betters.

John Taylor's, and by extension the Ulster Unionist Party's, belief that ``the Irish minority cannot be equal'' is an obscenity which has been consistently glossed over by the British government, so-called `liberal' unionists and the SDLP. In a proper democracy such an attitude towards an ethnic group by a politician would not go unpunished. He and others of unionist persuasion, including the British government, need to learn that recognition of the equality of nationalists is not theirs to bestow or deny as they think fit. It is an absolute and unconditional right.

The simple humanity of recognising others as equal is, emphatically, not any sort of `concession' requiring the praise and applause of an indulgent government. What, almost imperceptible, movement Ulster Unionists have made on matters of equality have been made only in response to the critical gaze of the international community and then with the most grudging, mean-spirited reluctance - and they still expect to receive enthusiastic gratitude from nationalists.

Regardless of the carefully modulated public utterances of David Trimble that unionism is so enamoured with the idea of equality that unionists would not dream of discriminating against Catholics, the facts speak resolutely for themselves. Given the opportunity - such as in local councils - they seem to be incapable of doing anything else. In response, Sinn Féin is calling for an inquiry by the newly established Equality Commission into the employment practices of all 26 councils in the North.

``It will be clear to see why an inquiry is necessary when one looks at the history of discrimination and the total absence of any real change in unionism,'' says Paul Butler. ``Up to now, the system of local government has been synonymous with discrimination and unfair treatment of the nationalist people. If we are to make conflict a thing of the past, then ending discrimination must be part of it. It is up to the Equality Commission to take up this challenge and demonstrate that real change is about to take place.''

An Phoblacht
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