Michael Hall looks into claims that 'high-level' decisions made exempt from equality laws are a breach of the Good Friday agreement
SEVERAL MEMBERS of the northern assembly have conceded that the task of mainstreaming legislation envisaged in the Good Friday agreement to achieve equality within the six counties is now "unravelling".
Across a wide range of policy, they claim direct rule ministers and civil servants have successfully implemented economic and social initiatives that are continuing to perpetuate historical inequality rather than overcoming it.
Many "high level" decisions taken by ministers and civil servants, they claim, including investment, departmental budgets, health and education decisions, are exempt from Section 75 screening. In the absence of a power sharing executive, these decisions are not being probed or scrutinised.
The Equality Commission can investigate specific allegations of Section 75 breaches, but it effectiveness has been questioned.
The Northern Ireland 1998 Act forms the constitutional framework for administering political power in the north. Section 75 has been lauded as the most comprehensive piece of equality legislation in Europe.
Nationalists, non-government organisations (NGOs) and equality campaigners had envisaged the legislation as an effective mechanism to tackle the social legacy of anti-Catholic/nationalist marginalisation and wider discrimination among other groups in northern society.
It imposes a statutory duty on public bodies to carry out "equality impact assessments" on policies and practices, allowing decision makers to determine and implement options most likely to promote equality and least likely to promote inequality.
The commission is currently carrying an effectiveness review of its work and will publish it findings in March 2007.
"This extraordinary 'exemption' from the legislation has allowed senior civil servants - the gatekeepers of change in the north - to frustrate change in the north and implement policies which fundamentally undermine the chances of attaining a level social and economic playing field," said West Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Fra McCann.
"Today, Section 75 has become a paper of little irrelevance to government ministers and civil servants making big decisions."
One example, Mr McCann claimed, has been the British government's Renewing Communities Action Plan, launched by direct rule minister David Hanson on 4 April. A Special Task Force report on social deprivation in Protestant districts was released on the same day. The task force was established by then minister for social development John Spellar in 2004.
It was commissioned to carry out its report following four days of intense rioting when a loyalist march was rerouted away from a section of west Belfast's Whiterock area. In the aftermath of the disturbances, unionists claimed working class Protestant areas suffered social "disadvantage" and that this partially accounted for the violence. Both the DUP and UUP lobbied the British ministers harder for direct funding to redress the situation.
Chaired by permanent secretary of the Department for Social Development (DSD), Alan Shannon, the Task Force identified specific needs of these communities by looking at problems faced by those living in the loyalist Sandy Row and the Village areas of Belfast.
"A delegation of our party's MLAs met with Alan Shannon before the publication of his findings. He assured us that any structural respond to the report would simply be a reconfiguration of existing public services to meet the needs of Protestant communities and that no additional funding would be provided," said Mr McCann.
"I asked if his recommendations would be assessed under Section 75, he simply replied: 'We didn't think it was appropriate to screen the projects'."
Another of those present, North Belfast MLA, Kathy Stanton, points out that the main focus and justification for allocating public funding of £33 million (€47.6 million) to subsequent action plan was a unique "lack of capacity" and "weak social infrastructure" within Protestant communities. She says this premise is unsatisfactory and contrary to the government's own figures.
"Recent research, carried out by Deloitte and Touche on behalf of the DSD, found nationalists more likely to be living in electoral wards with 'weak community infrastructure' than Protestants. Nationalists make up 57 per cent of the population in designated areas of 'weak infrastructure even though they make up 44 per cent of the total population - which amounts to a 13 per cent over representation," she says.
"The government's premise for this initiative was therefore spurious and deceitful."
The problems identified within loyalist communities by the Task Force included educational under-achievement, a lack of "social cohesion", "leadership", "confidence" and the "influence of paramilitary criminality".
The three year action plan will be complemented by the £100 million Children and Young People's Fund and its funding will remainly be spent on projects in inner-city Belfast.
"What this has effectively done is sectarianise poverty," said Mr Mc- Cann.
A Department of Social Development spokesman denied this saying the government targets deprivation
"where it is serious, irrespective of religious or political considerations. All policies continue to be the subject of Section 75 screening in the usual way".
However, a spokesman for the Equality Commission confirmed to the Irish Democrat it was currently "in contact with the Department of Social Development on the allocation of funds and equality screening". It is understood an investigation is ongoing.
Sinn Féin politicians are not the only people alarmed by the initiative.
George Newell, a Protestant community worker with the East Belfast Community Education Centre, said:
"The initiative is divisive, as nationalists will be asking why their needs are being met separately. There is obviously a political agenda at play here.
"But in real terms, £33 million spread over three years is peanuts and will have little impact on social deprivation in these areas.
"What the initiative is really about is spin. The government is trying to create a perception of doing something by simply moving money allocated to one public body to another.
"One week before the announcement ministers further cut the budgets of the five Education and Library Boards. Now over £60 million (€87 million) will be cut over the next two years," Mr Newell pointed out.
"The money spent on the action plan was a drop in the ocean," agreed Chrissie McAuley, a veteran of community politics in Belfast and a former city councillor, "but it set a very worrying precedent".
"The initiative did two things. Firstly it signaled that the Labour government were willing to pursue a cynical strategy of 'divide and rule' in pursuing its objectives. The government is decimating public services, increasing rates and introducing water charges while attempting to placate unionists in doing so.
"Secondly, and as a consequence, it completely supplanted the principle of delivering services and funding on the basis of objective need."
In a 2003 Labour Force Survey, commissioned by the Office of the first minister and deputy first minister of the assembly and published last year, showed Catholics to be 1.8 times more likely to be unemployed than their Protestant counterparts.
Figures also released last year by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency showed nine out of ten of the most deprived areas in the north were located in north and west Belfast. Six of these areas were predominantly Catholic.
The most recent report by the Special European Union Programmes Body also found a direct correlation between community background and inequality. According to the report Catholics make up only 19.5 per cent of the population in the 500 most affluent census output areas.
During a press briefing before the launch of Renewing Communities Action Plan, a senior civil servant admitted that Noble indices, used to determine levels of social deprivation, showed 70 per cent of areas considered socially deprived were predominantly nationalist.
"It has been accepted by voluntary and community organisations that funding on the basis of objective need is the way to address inequalities in the North," Ms McAuley said.
This forms the basis of the government's Targeting Social Need policy, in tackling unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.
"But the policies and working agendas of ministers now remain poles a part.
"The fact that funding for community enterprises in north and west Belfast is being withdrawn and allocated elsewhere on the basis of political decision taken by ministers under pressure from unionist politicians, says a lot," Ms McAuley said.
"There is either a lack of political will or know how to put forward a coordinated programme of delivering public services and investment on the basis of objective social need and alleviating poverty."
Figures also suggest that the government's industrial development body Invest NI is re-enforcing structural and geographical inequalities in the north.
A breakdown of the body's performance statistics for 2003-2004 showed the unionist heartland of East Antrim to have received double the investment of the combined, predominantly nationalist border consituencies of South Down, West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Newry and Armagh.
The figures also showed five of the top six areas for inward investment to be the predominantly unionist constituencies of South Belfast, East Antrim, South Antrim and Upper Bann. Belfast received the largest amount of monies, with east and south Belfast gaining the majority in total.
A spokesman for the North's Strategic Investment Board, which has a £16 billion (€23 billion) Public Public Partnership (PPP) capital investment budget, told the Irish Democrat that it did not carry out equality impact assessments before making 'strategic' decisions in allocating to money to projects.
"The equality screening process is the responsibility of the contracting authority, for example, individual government departments and other bodies," he said.
In other words, there exists no overall strategic equality screening procedure to redress historical disparities in east-west economic development in the north.
"Equality and social justice are the keystone of a peaceful society. Those who are denying change are actively working to undermine the peace agreement," said Fra McCann.
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Copyright © 2006 Michael Hall