6 June 2002 Edition

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Focus on equality at Coiste AGM

Newly elected TD Martin Ferris gave the closing address to the Coiste na n-Iarchimí AGM on Tuesday 28 May, which for the first time was held in Dublin.

Coiste is the network of republican ex-prisoner groups throughout the 32 counties, with executive offices in both Dublin and Belfast. It was set up following the Good Friday Agreement to support prisoners and their families and to enable them to play their part in the development of a new dispensation in Ireland.

AGM participants included representatives from government, statutory agencies, community partnerships and many members of the Coiste community.

Niall Crowley, Director of the Equality Authority (EA), which has done substantial work since its inception in forwarding the implementation of equality legislation, gave the main address.

He spoke of the work of the EA and of the nine grounds of discrimination that have been recognised in the recent 26-County equality legislation. He talked about how the EA is looking to extend these to cover discrimination on socio-economic grounds, on criminal convictions, on trade union membership and on political opinion. These are very substantial developments from the standpoint of advancing the equality agenda in Ireland. It is an indication of the impact of the Good Friday Agreement upon both states.

But Crowley painted the canvas of rights even wider. He recommended a framework for approaching the issue of rights and of equality under four titles, four 'R's' basic to equality.

"Discrimination has to be looked at from the point of view of Redistribution, which concerns the conditions and socio-economic discrimination in the labour market and in the workplace," he said. He also highlighted Recognition, which concerns the cultural arena, building a society that recognises and welcomes diversity, be it ethnic, racial, gender, in the new Ireland. A further title constitutive of equality is Representation, which concerns the political field, where people should have a say in all decisions that affect them. This crucially affects every issue of peoples' daily lives and is a fundamental condition of achieving democracy." Finally, he added Respect, "where there needs to be protection from violence and respect for individual in building a caring, humanitarian society that shuns violence as it does retributive and punitive action".

These are rights common to all aspects of society where people suffer discrimination but crucially, they are rights under which all equality issues need to be considered if equality is to move beyond the aspirational.

Crowley spoke of the need for an integrated approach North and South in forwarding this equality agenda, and the need to address the imbalance of rights. He talked of two examples of this imbalance: "In the North we have section 75 of the Good Friday Agreement, which has not yet been extended into the South; but in the South we have advanced an ethos of participation and partnership which is not as yet as strong in the North, though the civic forums may provide the opportunity for this development."

Mike Ritchie, who co-ordinates Coiste, introduced the body's annual report, which covers a huge body of work: of engagement of ex-prisoners in political education, of inter-community dialogue, of economic development, of research and archiving, and of outreach, which culminated in Laurence's McKeown's book Out of Time and the feature film H3.

Workshops reviewed developments in continuing discrimination against political prisoners and addressed the questions of how far the governments have implemented the Good Friday Agreement and what steps can be taken by Coiste and governments to forward the equality agenda.

Several workshops concentrated on the failures of government to live up to the commitments made in the Agreement, in particular in the South where the government has failed to release all prisoners covered by the Agreement. In the North, there has been a marked failure by the British government to make good its commitments by funding prisoner organisations and their communities.

When compared with the packages drawn up for prison officers and police, the AGM heard, the paucity of resources committed by the British government to the former prisoner community has shown a terrible absence of political will to push forward the commitments it undertook.

Martin Ferris, ending the conference, spoke of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. He said we should remind ourselves of the importance of the prison struggles and the determination of republicans which has carried our struggle forward. He spoke of his solidarity with all those who remain in prison still.

He called on the 26-County government to immediately release the Castlerea prisoners. After four years, he asked, where is the Human Rights Commission? Why is the state still hauling people before the courts on extradition charges? "We have a way to go for the full implementation of the God Friday Agreement," he said. "There is much unfinished business. It is all about equality - the principle of all our work. We can't bring about an Ireland of Equals alone. I look forward, like all of you, to the challenge that lies ahead of us all."

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