British civil servants working against equality

Recent reports by the British government underline the need to pursue a comprehensive equality agenda, write Michael T Hall

RECENT REPORTS by British government agencies have only reinforced what nationalists have known for generations - that generally speaking, in 'Northern Ireland' it's better to be born unionist than nationalist.

It seems the main trigger of the 1968 civil rights movement remains far from being resolved.

The British Labour Force Survey figures this year show Catholic women are still over three times more likely to be unemployed that their Protestant counterparts. Similarly the report shows the unemployment rate for Catholic men to be approximately twice that of Protestant males.

Astonishingly these figures haven't significantly changed since nationalist civil rights marchers called for equitable status with unionists within a British state they were forced to be a part of against their will.

The British government employment and deprivation statistics serve to emphasis one of the most pervasive structural realities of partition - an economic and social inequality left largely untouched by successive legislation introduced to counter-balance it. The Fair Employment Act of 1973, revised three times to date, has had little quantifiable effect in doing so.

A report entitled Publication of Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2005, released in May by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), adds to the depressing picture.

Figures found three of the top four deprived areas of the north as defined by Westminster constituency - West Belfast, Folyle and West Tyrone - to be nationalist. Similarly three of the top four most deprived local council areas - Strabane, Derry and Newry and Mourne - were nationalist.

Other social problems naturally stem from this economic situation. Catholics, for example, suffer from greater health problems, including mental health, as a result.

Gerry Adams'press conference at Stormont Buildings on June 27, called to highlight the need for an all-Ireland suicide prevention strategy, pointed to a disproportionately high number of suicides in nationalist areas. Of the 60 suicides in the six counties reported this year until June, up to a third occurred in west and north Belfast alone, two areas with a fifty per cent higher rate than the already high average in Ireland, he pointed out.

Most damningly for resident British ministers at Stormont are the new investment figures this year, which suggest that government initiatives are not only failing to tackle historical disparities between Catholics and Protestants, but that they blatantly reinforce them.

A break down of the government's inward investment agency Invest Northern Ireland performance statistics shows the unionist heartland of East Antrim last year received double the investment in the combined, mainly nationalist border constituencies of South Down, West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Newry and Armagh. The figures show five of the top six areas for inward investment are unionist constituencies: Belfast East, Belfast South, East Antrim, South Antrim and Upper Bann.

Belfast received the largest amount of investment support, with Belfast South and Belfast East, having majority unionist populations, getting the majority. The fact that only one in four civil servants at Stormont is from a nationalist background and that ,nearly all senior civil servants are pro-establishment unionists, may have something to do with this.

Sinn Féin's Cathy Stanton seems to think so, accusing civil servants last month of "by-passing equality legislation by not carrying out proper equality-impact assessments". She also pointed out British ministers are overseeing the civil service practices without doing anything about them. But maybe it's just too absurd to expect unaccountable people to hold others to account.

Stanton said her party would be approaching the Equality Commission, recently appointed by the government in June, to raise concerns about the situation. This body, headed by former Women's Coalition leader, Monica McWilliams, has brought together the most uninspiring bunch of people you could imagine to oversee a solution to the most immense problem challenging the success of the Good Friday agreement. The panel includes two commissioners linked to the Women's Coalition, two with the SDLP, one with Alliance, one with the DUP and no republicans.

If the situation slides into the violent quagmire the GFA managed to pull us out of, it will do so precisely because political institutions lacked the necessary dynamic to tackle what one respected English academic once described as the state's "economic regulator maintaining the status quo".

This presents republicans and socialists with the need to pursue an aggressive equality agenda to ensure this doesn't happen. It raises the question however, whether we have an adequately defined 'equality agenda' programme and an effective vision of how we get there?

The Irish Democratinvites readers and activists to give their views on the equality agenda and how it should be pursued in Ireland. Send your views to:

Please note that the above article was authored soley by Michal T Hall and not Michael T Hall and Declan McVeigh as originally stated. The Irish Democrat wishes to apologies for any embarassment that this mistake has caused.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-09-05 16:36:05.
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