The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Equality Agenda: British Rhetoric and Reality

Martin Galvin • 13 November 2006

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?

Last 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.

There 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.


The 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 religious discrimination.

Meanwhile Stormont premier Basil Brooke would voice the real agenda which would be pursued with the crown's blessing:

"Many 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."

The British gave the unionists free reign to impose these sectarian policies which served British interests, while ignoring their own laws which outlawed such policies.


Within 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.


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 impact.

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.

British 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.

The 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" and outlawed.

Americans 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 succeed.

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 States.

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.

Comptroller 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.

These 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 system.

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 and Reality.

Surely 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.

CAJ 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 Employment Act.

Perhaps most damning are the proposed British investment plans which target future funding to areas which are predominately Protestant.


The 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.

Those 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 British rule.



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

19 November 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Bogeyman
Anthony McIntyre

Believe It Or Not
John Kennedy

Contra Con Artists
Anthony McIntyre

The Wrong Kind of Republican?
Ivan Morley

Equality Agenda: British Rhetoric and Reality
Martin Galvin

A Deal Done By Quislings
Mick Hall

Dr John Coulter

Deadline? Pull the other one!
David Adams

Political Policing
Martin Ingram

It's Not The Taking Part
Anthony McIntyre

Who Can Get Dr No to Say Yes?
Dr John Coulter

Equality or Equity
Michéal MháDonnáin

Michael Gillespie

Revolutionary Unionism
Dr John Coulter

Who Needs Enemies
John Kennedy

The King's Threshold
Robin Kirk

7 November 2006

When It's Time for Change, No One Is Irreplaceable
Mick Hall

Date Fixed For Flawed Landmark Case
Michael McKevitt Justice Campaign

Souper Sinn Fein
Eoghan O'Suilleabhain

Dr John Coulter

St Andrews Agreement & 'the Left'
Davy Carlin

Shotgun Wedding
John Kennedy

...and to create the space for a diversity of views...
Noel Dolan

'Undo the Great Betrayal, Free the Occupied 26'
Dr John Coulter

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Anthony McIntyre

Power & Powerlessness
Patricia Campbell

The Constantine Institute
Terry O'Neill

Mary Robinson Spotlights Human Rights Abuses in Darfur
William Hughes

Fearless Speech
Anthony McIntyre



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices