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16 November 2000 Edition

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More equal than others

The Assembly debated the draft Programme for Government this week in a somewhat surreal atmosphere, given the First Minister's recent actions and statements. An Phoblacht's LAURA FRIEL reports


In George Orwell's satire ``Animal Farm'', the pigs defend their position of power over the other animals on the grounds that they are `more equal than others'. Writing in the 1940s, Orwell was commenting on the double standards, hypocrisy even, of Stalin's dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

     
  It is bizarre that we are conducting a debate on an agreed programme of government, when the First Minister has informed his party that it is his objective to see the institutions suspended or collapsed  
Martin McGuinness

Well, Stalin's long dead and, for better or worse, the Soviet Union has collapsed, but a whiff of that same hypocrisy can still be detected at the heart of unionism in the North of Ireland.

Take, for example, recent comments by the Ulster Unionist Party's spokesperson on equality, Dermot Nesbitt. Quoting from the British government's as yet unpublished, Statistics and Research Agency report, Nesbitt defends unionist involvement in the Assembly against the criticism of the No camp.

Under Direct Rule, exposure of Sinn Féin was not possible, says Nesbitt, but now unionists are in the driving seat and all that inequality nonsense can be firmly stamped upon.

``Over many years Sinn Féin has implied that unionism is at fault in causing much inequality and discrimination,'' says the South Down Assembly member, and ``much has been tried to reverse this Sinn Féin black propaganda.''

Nesbitt accepts that Catholics are more than twice as likely to suffer unemployment but, he insists, this oft-quoted unemployment differential is not a ``valid measure of the extent or existence of discrimination'', quoting the report.

Over the past decade, argues the UUP equality spokesperson, Protestants and Catholics have had ``similar chances of obtaining jobs''. Presumably, some job applicants are simply more employable (or is that more equal?) than others.

``In short we're taking on Sinn Féin and winning the equality war,'' said Nesbitt. In other words, unionist are engaging in the Good Friday Agreement not to tackle the serious problem of sectarian discrimination which has blighted the lives of so many people in the North, but rather to dismiss the existence of inequality as a republican myth.

This week, as the Assembly met to discuss the draft ``Programme for Government'' presented by the First and Deputy Ministers and published last month, that same whiff of hypocrisy hung over the debating chamber. Here was David Trimble presiding over a programme for government for an assembly whose authority and workings, just days before, he had seriously undermined.

``Our vision is of a peaceful, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society, firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and the protection and vindication of the human rights of all. It is a vision also based on partnership, equality and mutual respect...'' write Trimble and Mallon in the draft programme.

Fine sentiments, but as Sinn Féin's Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin put it, David Trimble had delivered both a programme for government and a programme for the destruction of government within one week, a crisis engineered by Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Council.

David Trimble is operating an ``exit strategy'' to force another suspension of the power sharing executive, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams told the Assembly. Criticising the First Minister's sanctions against Sinn Féin ministers attending north-south ministerial meetings, Adams accused Trimble of shifting authority away from the Assembly towards the UUC.

Demanding equality for Sinn Féin ministers, Gerry Adams urged David Trimble to step back from the process of exclusion he had started. The outcome would not just be the suspension but the collapse of the institutions, said the Sinn Féin president. Unionism must accept Sinn Féin's electoral mandate, he insisted. To deny Sinn Féin's right to represent its electorate would be to accept the notion that some voters are more equal than others.

Addressing the debate, Minister for Education Martin McGuinness said a central element of the Programme for Government was ``our pursuit of co operation through the North-South Ministerial Council''.

``Our educational systems, North and South, spring from the same historical roots and we face the same problems of underachievement and unfulfilled potential. We are both struggling to cater for the special educational needs of our most marginalised children,'' said McGuinness. ``We need to cooperate, to share best practice and to develop joint provision for the specialised forms of support.''

Describing the draft programme as an opportunity to deliver change and, despite funding limitations, to make a real difference for all of our people, McGuinness said: ``I had hoped that we could enter this debate in a spirit of co operation and partnership.''

But, ``the decisions taken by the Ulster Unionist Council at the Waterfront Hall represented an assault on the institutions established under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It is bizarre that we are conducting a debate on an agreed programme of government, when the First Minister has informed his party that it is his objective to see the institutions suspended or collapsed.''

McGuinness criticised the First Minister's attempt to obstruct the functioning of the North-South ministerial Council: ``The exclusion imposed on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the First Minister's discrimination against her, directly contradicts the commitment he declared in the Draft Programme to equality, inclusivity and partnership.''

``It is not a radical document,'' said Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin, commenting on the draft programme. ``A radical departure was not an option, given the limited scope of authority and severely prescribed control of finance that exists.''

The draft programme did contain some innovative and creative ideas, said McLaughlin, which are indicative of the benefits of bringing local expertise and accountability to bear. ``However we cannot ignore the impact of the subsequent actions of the First Minister.''

Genuine supporters of the Good Friday Agreement have been disappointed by the British government's failure to establish clear blue water between their position and the position adopted by the Ulster Unionist Council, said McLaughlin.

``The British government has a responsibility under the terms of the international treaty that they signed to protect the integrity of the agreement,'' he said. ``So far they have failed.''

Welcoming the draft programme's recognition of ``the inequalities of the life experience of our communities in poverty, health, housing, educational and economic opportunity and disability,'' Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health, Sue Ramsay, said the Executive must also ensure that the environment supports healthy living.

Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Development, Gerry McHugh, voiced concern at the lack of a real commitment to farming in the programme. ``Agriculture is one of the main industries in rural areas,'' said McHugh, but ``there is no real commitment to farming.

``In the South this week they are launching a new seven-year plan in which they have given IR£3.9 billion to the farming economy. If they are spending that sort of money in the South and giving that commitment to their agricultural economy for the future, while we just tinkered around the edges with a few things like training and the upkeep of what is already there, then someone has got it wrong.''

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