Is the British government's "Equality Agenda"
rhetoric or reality? Will parity of esteem supplant
sectarian ascendancy for unionists, as the core
equation of British hegemony? Are British fair
employment pledges merely old platitudes, masking
the true agenda of cementing British rule by preserving
a pro-British majority through sectarian privilege?
week New York City Comptroller William Thompson
presented a report on his recent fact-finding
mission to Irish-American leaders. His report,
following a September study issued by the Committee
for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), provides
startling statistics, which not only do much to
answer such questions but also reveal much about
Britain's true intentions under the Stormont Deal.
British policy in the six counties has long been
marked by a direct contradiction between its words
and deeds on the question of sectarian discrimination.
The British repeatedly enacted laws which outlawed
sectarian discrimination in employment. At the
same time, the British promoted a privileged status
for unionists forged by public and blatant practices
of systematic religious discrimination.
was a clear rationale for such a dichotomy between
British rhetoric and policies. Statutes outlawing
religious discrimination could be touted by the
British in answer to complaints about sectarianism
in the six counties. Meanwhile the structure of
the six county state depended upon sectarian privilege
in favor of unionists in jobs, housing and political
patronage. Sectarian ascendancy gave Protestants
a vested economic interest in continued allegiance
to British rule and curtailed the growth of the
nationalist population within the state. Denying
jobs, houses and any means of political redress
was intended to preserve and prolong an artificial
unionist majority supportive of British rule.
In their rhetoric, British officials would oppose
sectarianism, which they said had been outlawed.
In their policies the same British government
officials would promote, foster and maintain the
sectarian system, which favored British rule.
dichotomy between British rhetoric and reality
began with the very creation of the Stormont regime.
Britain's Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which
would provide the impetus for a six county Stormont
administration, formally and solemnly forbade
Stormont premier Basil Brooke would voice the
real agenda which would be pursued with the crown's
in the audience employ Catholics, but I have
not one about the house
. In Northern
Ireland the Catholic population is increasing
to a great extent. Ninety-seven percent of Roman
Catholics in Ireland are disloyal and disruptive
If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work
on our farms we are traitors to Ulster."
British gave the unionists free reign to impose
these sectarian policies which served British
interests, while ignoring their own laws which
outlawed such policies.
a half century this system of British rule, with
its cornerstone of religious discrimination would
produce a civil rights movement. Simple demands
for justice in jobs, housing and voting rights,
however, could not be granted. While such demands
comported with British words and laws, the reality
was that any real advances towards equality would
undermine the very core of the sectarian system
upon which British rule was grounded.
Civil rights marchers would be banned by crown
officials, beaten by loyalists, attacked by the
RUC and ultimately shot down by British troopers
on Bloody Sunday.
Britain's brutal reaction to civil rights would
ultimately provoke levels of armed resistance
which would force the British to close down Stormont,
and return to direct British rule.
FAIR EMPLOYMENT ACT
Direct rule meant that the British would no longer
hide behind the unionists or Stormont on the question
of sectarianism. The British had to choose between
keeping the sectarian system which served British
interests, or keeping its pledges on ending discrimination
against Catholics. The British opted to protect
their sectarian system but camouflaged their decision
by simply reviving the old policy of enacting
laws, which were never intended to be enforced.
The Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973
made it illegal for public authorities carrying
out government functions to discriminate. In a
statelet where the crown was a major employer,
such a law if enforced, would have had a major
The van Straubenzee committee was commissioned
by the crown to investigate and report on discrimination
in the private sector. A Fair Employment Act was
passed in 1976 to outlaw discrimination, in words
which seem to have been reprised in the Stormont
Deal equality section. A Fair Employment Agency
was created to enforce its provisions. A host
of studies, tribunals, commissions, advisory bodies
and amended legislation would follow.
officials announced that the old nationalist grievance
of sectarian employment discrimination had been
put to rest. Discrimination had been firmly outlawed,
they proclaimed. Meanwhile, the reality was that
few would benefit, except a handful of token Catholics
like Bob Cooper, who was picked to head the agency.
Meanwhile the reality was that a decade later
Catholic unemployment would remain at 35%, and
double the percentage of Protestant unemployment.
In New York, an initiative would begin that would
expose the reality of British practices of discrimination
camouflaged behind pledges of equality.
The Mac Bride principles were initiated by New
York City Comptroller Harrison Goldin . A staff
member, John Cudahy, read a newspaper article
which noted the impact of the Sullivan Principles
in compelling American owned companies to stop
profiting from racial apartheid in South Africa
and asked simply, "why not Ireland?"
A preliminary review showed that American companies
doing business in the north had hired local managerial
personnel who simply followed the customary sectarian
hiring practices. An example was Ford Motors whose
controlling owners, descendants of County Cork
Catholic emigrants found that their managers at
Ford plants in Belfast would not employ Catholics.
Comptroller Goldin enlisted Civil Rights lawyer
Paul O'Dwyer., who suggested that Nobel Prize
winner Sean Mac Bride be invited to give name
to the principles. A series of measures aimed
at direct hiring discrimination, recruitment practices,
intimidation at the work place etc were developed.
A staffer Pat Doherty was assigned as a strategist,
coordinator and lobbyist for the campaign.
The British condemned the campaign as an IRA plot
and fought it relentlessly. They claimed that
discrimination was already illegal under British
Fair Employment legislation. Token Catholics,
like politicians Bob Cooper, Paddy Devlin, John
Cushnahan and Sean Neeson, would be trotted out
to states and cities and paid to deny that there
was sectarian discrimination in employment. John
Hume was induced to make a statement that the
campaign would discourage American investment
and should be blocked.
crown even announced that the Mac Bride Principles
were illegal under British Fair Employment laws.
Affirmative action, a staple of authentic anti-discrimination
enforcement was redefined as "reverse discrimination"
questioned why a British government which proclaimed
its intent to end sectarian discrimination would
be so actively opposed to an American initiative
with the potential to move towards the laudable
goal of equal opportunity. Americans questioned
why the crown would draft anti-discrimination
laws which outlawed affirmative action and any
effective enforcement. Americans questioned whether
the real cause of British opposition to the Mac
Bride Principles, was fear that the campaign might
The campaign grew. Comptroller Goldin was able
to secure approval from the New York City Pension
trustees to put their economic clout behind the
cause of justice for the North of Ireland. Councilman
Sal Albanese presented a New York City Council
Bill, while Assemblyman John Dearie would sponsor
state legislation, supported by then Assemblyman,
later New York City and now New York State Comptroller
Alan Hevesi. These bills would become models since
followed by states and cities across the United
In states like New York, Illinois, Connecticut,
New Jersey, Ohio and Washington DC, this columnist
gave testimony stressing that employment discrimination
was fundamental to the system of British rule.
Ultimately the Mac Bride Campaign became central
to the Irish American Agenda and was endorsed
by President Clinton during the Irish American
Presidential Forum which helped secure his election.
Thompson would note that civil rights activists
advised him during his trip, that most of the
progress over the last thirty years had come about
because of American pressure, and the Mac Bride
campaign. Success had occurred despite British
laws and not because of them.
The Stormont Deal, signed over a decade later,
was portrayed as the start of a new era. Much
of the Stormont Deal was devoted to an equality
section that reprised language long ago pledged
and promulgated in various Fair Employment Laws
already on the statute book. However this time,
it was claimed, British actions would match the
rhetoric. The British promised a new dispensation
and a parity of esteem. The sectarian system was
to be consigned to the past. Stormont chief David
Trimble, accompanied by his deputy Seamus Mallon
toured the United States seeking grants and investments.
were monies solicited not only as part of a financial
peace dividend, but also to give jobs to those
who had been the victims of Britain's sectarian
It was claimed that with Sinn Fein in the Stormont
Administration, and an equality agenda there was
now no further need for American campaigns about
discrimination .Others were concerned that the
long history of broken British pledges would be
extended not ended. Others were concerned that
the real British agenda would be to preserve the
pro-British unionist majority while doling out
to jobs, positions and patronage to nationalists
only in such measure as to keep them on board
in a parody of esteem.
Now eight years into the Stormont Deal and twelve
years after the first Irish Republican Army ceasefire
two reports have been published.
Comptroller Thompson published a status report
on the Mac Bride Principles after a fact-finding
mission that followed the publication of the CAJ
report, Equality in Northern Ireland: The Rhetoric
such reports given the new peace dividend investments
and new British dispensation on fairness would
show that the reality was moving towards the rhetoric?
The statistics are stark. Catholic unemployment
is still at one and one-half times the rate for
Protestants. Catholics are underrepresented in
more than half of the north's fifteen largest
companies. Most of these companies benefit from
or depend upon large government contracts and
would be forced to hire Catholics if crown officials
simply invoked contract compliance provisions
under their own Fair Employment Act.
slammed the British government for a lack of commitment
to ending sectarian discrimination. Table after
table illustrated continued discrimination .
Some recommendations highlighted are the refusal
of British civil service to use investment or
procurement to achieve equality.
No employer has been barred from public contracts
or grants for failure to comply with the Fair
Perhaps most damning are the proposed British
investment plans which target future funding to
areas which are predominately Protestant.
reality still contravenes British equality rhetoric.
Supporting not supplanting a pro-British majority
through sectarian privilege remains at the core
of British policy.
One of the chief arguments put forward to explain
how the Stormont Deal could be a stepping stone
or transitional phase to a re-united Ireland,
is premised on the claim that the British want
to leave and that by ending unionist privilege
and administering British rule under Paisley,
Republicans will pave the way for Britain to go.
not in a state of denial should recognize that
these statistics are a damning indictment of British
equality pledges and ask why Britain continues
such policies if there were truly a new dispensation
and not merely a new cosmetic façade for