Equal Rights in Northern Ireland

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Equal Rights in Northern Ireland

The period of devolved government in Northern Ireland (1921–1972) saw an entrenched unionist and Protestant majority discriminating systematically against a large nationalist and Catholic minority. Despite a constitutional ban on discrimination, Catholics were discriminated against in local elections, housing, and public and private employment. Alienation, segregation, and disadvantage were serious problems. The police and security services were almost exclusively Protestant. In education, single-denominational schools were the norm; educational underachievement among Catholics compounded their disadvantage.

Reforms since the 1960s

The unionist and London governments introduced some belated reforms in the 1960s: The more crass discriminatory practices in housing and elections were removed; complaint mechanisms and community-relations bodies were introduced; and the exclusively Protestant police reserve was replaced with a new force. The 1973 Northern Ireland Constitution Act reinforced the prohibition on explicit discrimination by public bodies on grounds of religion or political opinion, and it also established the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR) to advise on human-rights matters.

In 1976 the government introduced measures to combat discrimination in the private sphere. The British ban on sex discrimination in employment and in the supply of services was extended to the Irish province (but not the prohibition on race discrimination, since the government did not believe that the province had a problem of racial discrimination). The 1976 Fair Employment Act (FEA), which was limited to Northern Ireland, banned discrimination on grounds of religion or political opinion in employment. The statutes on sex discrimination and fair employment established independent bodies to promote equality. The FEA applied only to employment. More seriously, it prohibited only direct, explicit discrimination and not indirect discrimination, which includes cases where, for example, an employer hires someone on the basis of educational achievement; this indirectly works to the disadvantage of some groups. The 1976 act did not undo the situation of persistent disadvantage. Pressure groups in the United States urged corporations and legislators investing in Northern Ireland to respect the "MacBride principles," a code of conduct for U.S. firms that encourages nondiscrimination and equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland. In 1987 SACHR reported that the Catholic male unemployment rate was two and one-half times higher than the Protestant male unemployment rate and had not changed since 1976. SACHR recommended a new law to promote equality of opportunity.

The 1989 Fair Employment Act implemented some of SACHR's recommendations. Indirect discrimination was outlawed, and many (though not all) employers were put under a duty to monitor the religious composition of their workforces. The act permitted limited forms of affirmative action, including training programs that would be accessible to the underrepresented Catholics and would encourage them to apply for jobs. Reverse discrimination—explicit preferences for Catholics—remained illegal. The 1989 act prompted definite improvements, but Catholic disadvantage, single-religion places of employment, and occupational segregation persisted. SACHR, the equality bodies, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ—a civil-rights group established in 1981), and others promoted a new policy of "mainstreaming" equality, which would emphasize working proactively to achieve equality rather than simply avoiding discrimination. They also advocated more robust affirmative-action and enforcement measures.

There were important developments apart from the fair-employment laws. The United Kingdom's accession to the European Community prompted many changes. A 1986 European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision limited the scope for national-security defenses in sexdiscrimination cases. In 2000 the European Community adopted new measures barring discrimination based on race, religion, disability, age, or sexual orientation. Rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) resulted in the decriminalization of gay sexual practices (1981) and in limits being placed on the nationalsecurity defense to claims of religious discrimination (1997). Both ECJ and ECHR cases provided greater protection for people who had undergone gender-reassignment surgery. Discrimination against people with disabilities was banned in 1995, and so too was racial discrimination in 1997. Independent bodies were established to enforce these laws. The 1997 Labour government's constitutional reforms included the 1998 Human Rights Act, which requires public authorities to respect the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. The convention prohibits discrimination in the enjoyment of such rights. Its extensive and open-ended list of prohibited grounds (e.g., age, sexual orientation, lifestyle, etc.) captures some types of official discrimination that would not otherwise be illegal. Women's rights also began to receive attention. In 1996 a new party with a focus on equality—the Women's Coalition—entered the male world of Northern Irish politics.

The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement

The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement promises wide-ranging equality and human-rights reforms. The Women's Coalition played a role in ensuring this. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the assembly and executive may not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. The act creates two bodies to promote human rights and equality: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (replacing SACHR) and the Equality Commission (replacing four earlier bodies). The Human Rights Commission is working on a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. The act adopts the policy of "mainstreaming" equality. All public authorities must devise equality schemes to explain how they promote equality of opportunity between people, irrespective of religion, political opinion, race, age, marital status, or sexual orientation, and between people with or without a disability and with or without dependents. This duty extends to all the functions of a public authority. Public authorities must also consider how to promote good relations between persons of different religions, political opinions, and races. This new duty is expected to encourage a more proactive approach and more transparent and participatory decision making.

The London government's Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) of 1998 replaced the earlier fair-employment legislation. FETO extended the prohibition of religious discrimination to nonemployment fields. Affirmative action was extended somewhat—for instance, employers may actively recruit from the ranks of the long-term unemployed. (Previously, this would have been unlawful indirect discrimination against Protestants.) Since 1998 the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister is responsible for equality law; its charge is to unify the diverse equality laws. The peace process also required a major review of the police, a force that was still unrepresentative of Northern Ireland's diverse population. To remedy this, the 2000 Police Act requires that 50 percent of new recruits be Catholics.

Much has been achieved in Northern Ireland. Catholic disadvantage in employment and education has diminished; for example, in 2001, except in security occupations, Catholic participation in public employment equalled Catholic representation in the private workforce. The new measures undertaken since 1998, although they stop short of the SACHR recommendations, are impressive, but they also indicate how bad things had become in Northern Ireland. A quota for the police was necessary because less than 10 percent of the force was Catholic. The FETO had to make an exception for affirmative action targeted at the long-term unemployed because two-thirds of the long-term unemployed are Catholic. In many areas of life separation and mistrust remain: Sectarian violence continues, residential segregation is prevalent, many private associations are restricted to a single community, most schools are single-denominational, and the main political parties attract support from only one community. Furthermore, the equality measures are controversial, with some members of the unionist community regarding them (especially the quota for the police) as rank reverse discrimination.

Other forms of inequality are also significant. Serious socioeconomic deprivation affects members of both communities. Homelessness is a bigger problem than in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Women's Coalition has exposed crude sexism in political life. According to a 2002 Northern Ireland assembly research paper, women are significantly more likely than men to experience poverty. In 2002 the Equality Commission felt the need to issue a "wake-up call" on the dangers of race discrimination. If the new equality measures are striking initiatives, that is only because Northern Ireland still needs to tackle serious problems of inequality, segregation, and disadvantage.

SEE ALSO Equal Economic Rights for Women in Independent Ireland; Women in Irish Society since 1800; Primary Documents: The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998)


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Rory O'Connell