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Commissioners advance human rights agenda

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

In the beginning, Northern Ireland was known because of its violations of human rights. But now, according to Joan Harbison, chief commissioner on the Equality Commission, "equality is at the very heart of government" in Northern Ireland.

Harbison was in the U.S. this week to explain to officials in the State and Justice Departments and at the UN the work of the commission, set up under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement. It has subsumed the Commission for Racial Equality, the Fair Employment Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission.

She was accompanied by Ciaran Bradley, the commission’s senior information officer.

The new commission has 19 other commissioners. Its remit now includes cases of discrimination based on gender and disability, as well as religious and racial bias. It includes issues of age and sexual orientation

"We have a huge amount of complaints from these new areas," said Harbison, who before coming to the Equality Commission served as chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and deputy chair of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. She said that the commission was an attempt to realize the aim at the heart of the Good Friday agreement: to make Northern Ireland an "inclusive society."

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"There is a statutory duty to promote equality that exists nowhere else in the United Kingdom," she said. "Or indeed, the world."

For his part, Bradley said that one measure as to whether the commission is succeeding in its efforts to eradicate discrimination is by looking at the composition of the workforce.

"The participation of Catholics in the work force has been rising an average of 1/2 percent per year since 1990," he said. Though they have no precise figure for what it is at the moment, he said that it is around 40 percent. "This is closer to what it should be — about 42 percent — than ever before."

But the final figure won’t be available until the new census results are made public, which will be in 2002.

However, both admit that many problems remain to be solved.

"As long as there is sectarianism in the community, there’ll be cases to be dealt with," Harbiso said. She recognized that sectarianism was a "structural" problem in Northern Irish society. But she said she was heartened by the fact that there was a "total acceptance of the [equality] legislation" now in the wider community.

Other problems have emerged, including racism, mainly directed against members of the 13,000-strong Chinese community in the North.

Currently, the commission is dealing with 90 cases of alleged racism, she said.

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