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Redressing the Inequalities: Why we need equality legislation

9 November, 2004


Speaking at a conference in the Hilton Hotel, Belfast titled "Fair Employment in Northern Ireland: a generation on" Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel Mc Laughlin MLA said:

"An attitude is prevalent that the north of Ireland has a 'long and distinguished history' in the field of equality,that we are at the 'cutting edge' of fair employment legislation and 'innovative' in our practices. The reality is of course different and it should be remembered that every single piece of equality legislation was hard fought for, often in the face of indifference, intransigence and foot-dragging.

"A realistic approach to eradicating inequality must be taken. Yes, there has been some improvement but not enough. The problems have long been identified. We know that those who suffer from unemployment, particularly the long-term unemployed, suffer from multiple effects of poverty. We know that nationalists suffer disproportionate disadvantage across all the indicators. We know that there are pockets of unionist disadvantage which need tackled also. We know, from Noble, the location of the most disadvantaged areas and the subsequent strategic investment required to uplift these areas. We know that the areas, which suffered the greatest conflict, suffer from the highest levels of poverty and inequality. Instead of pretending that the fair employment issue is resolved it is high time to implement radical change.

"We need an improved Equality Commission with more powers and resources and, crucially, the determination to use them. Sinn Féin, along with other organisations working in the equality field, have become increasingly concerned that the Equality Commission itself is becoming part of the institutional resistance to meaningful change.

"Sinn Féin wants to work with others, with the Equality Commission, with government departments, with the equality constituencies to bring about a truly fair, more equal society. Yet, we find ourselves increasingly frustrated by the institutional resistance to equality. Our frustrations and concerns are shared by many that work in this field. The key question lies around the effectiveness of the equality tools -- the legislation, the Equality Commission, Equality Impact Assessment's etc - as a means of remedying inequality in our society."

Full text of Mr Mc Laughlin's Speech:

An opinion prevails that we in the north of Ireland are at the 'cutting edge' of fair employment legislation and 'innovative' in the field of equality. The reality is of course different and it should be remembered that every single piece of equality legislation had to be fought for, often in the face of indifference, intransigence and foot-dragging.

Instead of complacency there should be an acknowledgement of the inherent limitations and lack of political will within the system to advance the equality and anti-discrimination agenda. The key determinant of the success or otherwise of anti-discrimination legislation is whether it is making a tangible difference on the ground. It is Sinn Féin's view that it has not and that we are still a long way from achieving equality of opportunity never mind equality of outcome.

Fair Employment Debate

The Fair Employment debate has been characterised by disagreement over the nature and extent of discrimination. Some commentators would generally refuse to acknowledge that structural discrimination ever existed although others have been prepared to concede that some isolated incidents of discrimination may have occurred in the past. Of course, the next step in this argument is that the past is the past; things are different now and let's move on.

It is my view that structural discrimination against Catholics and nationalists in the north of Ireland has occurred and still occurs. The statistics show that discrimination and disadvantage are current realities that require urgent solutions.

Redressing the Inequalities: Why we need equality legislation.

Census and other data show that social exclusion, unemployment, and deprivation do exist and continue to demonstrate why we need equality legislation. Particular groups and geographic areas experience these injustices more than others as well as suffering 'adverse impacts' in relation to economic activity. Indeed, their relative position is now much worse given that prosperity overall is rising.

Nationalists fare badly across every indicator of deprivation. In Sinn Féin's view this is no accident. It is symptomatic of the nature of the state and patterns of discrimination and disadvantage are continuing.

Nationalist Under-Representation in the Workforce

Monitoring figures from the Equality Commission show that the steady increase in Catholic participation in the workforce of approximately 0.5% per annum which occurred throughout the 1990s has since levelled off. Catholic representation in the private sector is less than 40%, and in firms with more than 25 employees there has been a decline. [Equality Commission, Monitoring Report No. 13]

Monitoring data also demonstrates Catholic under-representation in public and private sector employment relative to their proportion of the economically active population. While there is an increase in the Catholic share of employment, that share is still below the Catholic proportion of the economically active and the gap has grown since 1971, as census figures show:

In 1971 Catholics were 31% of the economically active and had 29.1% of employment, a 1.9 percentage point gap.

In 1991 Catholics were 39.8% of the economically active and had 36.3% of employment, a 3.5 percentage point gap.

In 2001 Catholics were 43% of the economically active and had 39.5% of employment, a 3.5 percentage point gap.

Unemployment Differential

The 'Unemployment Differential' is regarded as a key indicator of the effectiveness or otherwise of anti-discrimination measures. The ratio of Catholic to Protestant unemployment rates has varied e over the past number of years. In general Catholic male unemployment rates have run at between two or two and a half times that of Protestant males. The latest Labour Force Survey figures just published (October 2004) which cover 2002 show that the unemployment rate for Catholics was 8.1% against 4.35% for Protestants.

Thus despite the introduction of supposedly tougher fair employment legislation, initiatives such as 'old' and 'new' TSN, and a commitment by the British government in the Good Friday Agreement to 'progressively eliminate the differential in unemployment rates' there has been no tangible improvement in the unemployment differential rates between Protestants and Catholics. On top of this Catholics are still less likely to be in employment, more likely to be unemployed, at greater risk of living in lower income households and/or being dependent on benefits as well as at greater risk of experiencing multiple deprivation. New TSN policy is only having a "modest" impact on the differential in unemployment rates between the two communities.

Conclusions

It is clear that we are still a long way from achieving fair participation in the workplace as well as equal distribution of resources.

We have had more than 30 years of fair employment and equality measures supposedly designed to eliminate discrimination and inequality in the north of Ireland. And what has been the result? Across all the indicators of deprivation nationalists continually suffer the worst disadvantage. It is clear that we live in an unequal society.

A realistic approach to eradicating inequality must be taken. Yes, there has been some improvement but not enough. The problems have long been identified. We know that those who suffer from unemployment, particularly the long-term unemployed, suffer from multiple effects of poverty. We know that nationalists suffer disproportionate disadvantage across all the indicators. We know that there are pockets of unionist disadvantage which need tackled also. We know, from Noble, the location of the most disadvantaged areas and the subsequent strategic investment required to uplift these areas. We know that the areas, which suffered the greatest conflict, suffer from the highest levels of poverty and inequality. Instead of pretending that the fair employment issue is resolved it is high time to implement radical change. Sinn Féin has some suggestions.

Recommendations:

Monitoring

  • It is clearly necessary to retain and strengthen fair employment policies and the targeting of resources on the basis of objective need. Monitoring is a necessary tool to track changes and inform policy. Monitoring and implementation policies need improved.
  • The Labour Force Survey, for example, has too small a sample while the basic annual workplace monitoring and the Article 55 reviews every three years are of little value if the Equality Commission does not have the resources to analyse and act on the information collected.
  • Improved monitoring should also include cases taken to Fair Employment Tribunals and their outcomes broken down by category and made freely available to the public. This would track patterns that have emerged from the cases taken under the legislation, the number of cases lodged, proportion of findings of discrimination, average figures for settlements, recommendations made by the Tribunal etc.
  • There is a need to monitor the impact of 'chill factors' on employment patterns, particularly the extent to which these exist in a post-conflict context.
  • Research suggests that there is greater inequality in smaller workforces that currently fall below the threshold for compulsory monitoring, i.e., less than 10 employees.
  • New TSN should be placed on a statutory footing.
  • The impact, or lack thereof, of initiatives such as New TSN on religious and political inequality must be assessed and more stringent targets set. For example, there has been a consistent failure to bring investors into specifically targeted TSN areas. Instead, the designation 'in or adjacent to TSN areas' is being used. This has the effect of making TSN areas so geographically wide as to render the definition virtually meaningless while at the same time DETI and INI claim to be adhering to and surpassing TSN obligations.

Political Ex-Prisoners

One of the important commitments entered into by the two Governments in the GFA was to support the resettlement of prisoners following release. This has not happened. There is a particular responsibility on us all to secure equality for all affected by conflict be they victims or ex-prisoners. As part of its equality agenda, SF wishes to see all historic inequalities dealt with. This should include the achievement of full citizenship for political ex-prisoners.

Legal Assistance for Cases

Support for individual cases needs to be reinstated either by providing the Equality Commission with the necessary financial resources or by making legal aid available for discrimination cases. The ability of individuals to initiate legal action against those who discriminate or who allow harassment/discrimination to go unchecked must be an ongoing and effective weapon in any strategy of anti-discrimination legislation.

Equality Commission

We need an improved Equality Commission with more powers and resources and, crucially, the determination to use them. Sinn Féin, along with other organisations working in the equality field, have become increasingly concerned that the Equality Commission itself is becoming part of the institutional resistance to meaningful change. The manner in which it dealt with the legal assistance issue, for example, caused huge concern.

Another concern is around how the Commission is handling Schedule 9, Paragraph 11 investigations. Since its foundation the Commission has been reluctant to use this power and has only begun to do so because interested organisations, including Sinn Féin, have asked the Equality Commission to undertake investigations of public bodies for their failure to comply with an equality scheme. This has raised questions around the Commission's own commitment to vigorous equality enforcement.

Sinn Féin wants to work with others, with the Equality Commission, with government departments, with the equality constituencies to bring about a truly fair, more equal society. Yet, we find ourselves increasingly frustrated by the institutional resistance to equality. Our frustrations and concerns are shared by many that work in this field. The key question lies around the effectiveness of the equality tools -- the legislation, the Equality Commission, EQIA's etc - as a means of remedying inequality in our society.

To paraphrase: "Some work done: lots more to do".

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