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The MacBride Principles: vital force or spent force?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

The setting was Hillsborough Castle. The occasion a recent British government reception to announce the creation of an Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

The new body would take over the functions of the now-defunct Fair Employment Commission. The baton was passed over well-filled wine glasses. Commission begat commission.

The Equality Commission, a fruit of the Good Friday peace agreement, is charged with tackling job discrimination but not only that. It will also tackle discrimination on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation or disability.

In a press release issued by British Information Services to coincide with the launch, North Economy Minister John McFall was quoted as saying that the future in Northern Ireland was full of possibilities, "not least the opportunity to create a society based on clear principles of fairness, equality and justice for everyone."

McFall was not referring to the MacBride Principles, a series of nine stated principles named in honor of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride and aimed at redressing the long-standing situation in which Catholics in Northern Ireland are well over twice as likely to be long-term unemployed as Protestants.

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Indeed, the press release made no direct reference to what many people in the U.S. still see as the greatest single and longest running form of discrimination in the North: That of long-term unemployment linked specifically to religious affiliation.

Under present laws in Northern Ireland, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion. But what’s written in law and what happens in the broader world is not always in harmony. And the everyday world can also take time to catch up with new laws. This apparently remains the case when it comes to long-term unemployment and the relative proportion of Catholics and Protestants affected by what both communities agree is an economic scourge.

Despite years of campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic, MacBride Principles advocates say that they are still looking at a situation in which Catholics in Northern Ireland are more than twice as likely to be long-term unemployed than Protestants. The differential has not closed significantly since the MacBride campaign took flight in 1984. Indeed, they argue, in recent times it has widened.

So is the MacBride campaign — which links various state and municipal pension fund investments to corporate adherence to the MacBride Principles — largely a failure, even after its recent triumph in California? Alternately, if the principles have indeed been beneficial in the past, are they still needed in the face of two fair-employment acts, one commission and now its successor? As is often the case with Northern Ireland’s political and economic life, the answers vary widely depending on who is answering the questions.

A few days after California became the 18th state to sign a MacBride Principles bill into law, a letter winged its way across the continent from New York City to Sacramento.

At first glance, the letter was simply a congratulatory message from New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi to California’s governor, Gray Davis.

But looking down a few lines it was also, clearly, a call to arms. Fifteen years into the MacBride Principles campaign, another major victory had been achieved. California, the so-called "jewel in the crown" for MacBride boosters, had been finally hitched to the MacBride train after several last-minute derailments at the hands of two of Davis’s predecessors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.

Hevesi is the present guardian and overseer of his city’s long-standing MacBride legislation. Davis, a former California state comptroller, was merely the latest leading politician to add his weight to MacBride’s progress. At the same time, he was also one of the most powerful.

In his letter to Davis, a fellow Democrat, Hevesi wrote that California’s embracing of the MacBride Principles was particularly timely.

It was indeed, but for more than one reason. The MacBride campaign, despite having finally won acceptance even on Capitol Hill and in the White House, was running low on steam. Seemingly gone were the days of states and cities falling like dominoes before the MacBride advance. Gone too were the days of ferocious British opposition, a rhetorical war against the nine fair-employment guidelines fueled by millions of British taxpayer pounds for battlefield service in the legislatures of Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois and other major industrial states.

Instead, there was mostly silence. The MacBride Principles campaign had certainly enjoyed success, but it wasn’t always enough to maintain momentum. The campaign, to some, had grown stale in recent years. In a sense, it had taken on the form of a small, frozen planet orbiting on the far outer edge of the system known as the peace process. Pluto to the Good Friday’s accord’s sparkling Venus.

And then, out of the void, came California and Hevesi’s reminder that the lull had been only a cease-fire.

"Despite some marginal gains, Hevesi wrote Davis on Sept. 22, "recently released figures indicate the persistence of significant disparities between Catholic and Protestant employment in Northern Ireland which current government measures have been unable to eradicate. Catholics are still more than twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants.

"The reality is that while overall unemployment is decreasing, the benefits from the economic ‘peace dividend’ are not being equitably distributed between the two communities. More forceful action is urgently required."

Hevesi stressed to Davis that under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the British government had appointed an Equality Commission that was poised to begin its operations by the end of September. The commission’s work would, in Hevesi’s eyes, be "critical" in the context of securing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

California’s entry to the fray could not have been better timed, Hevesi indicated to Davis. It was, he wrote, a "much-needed wake-up call" to those who were governing Northern Ireland.

British resistance, response

Those governing Northern Ireland would likely reply that they have long been awake to the problems of unemployment in general and the plight of long-term unemployed Catholics in particular.

Since the late 1980s, various British governments have been consistent in their claims that the MacBride Principles campaign is redundant because the employment problems facing Catholics in particular are now being tackled by a series of fair-employment initiatives dating as far back as 1976, the year that London introduced its first Fair Employment Act in the North.

That act, and the Fair Employment Agency that emerged from it, was rooted in a 1973 document, the Staubenzee Report, which had been initiated by the British Conservative government led by Edward Heath. The Heath administration, and the Labor government that followed, had both identified inequality in the workplace as a major obstacle in the way of normality in Northern Ireland’s troubled society.

However, both Conservative and Labor governments were to be equally criticized by fair-employment activists in the years following passage of the ’76 act. The criticism had reached a crescendo by 1984, the year that the MacBride campaign was launched simultaneously in Northern Ireland and the U.S. This criticism was to continue in the following years, despite passage of a second Fair Employment Act in 1989.

In their 1990 report, "Enduring Inequality," compiled for the British National Council for Civil Liberties, Vincent McCormack and Joe O’Hara concluded thus: "The process which led to the 1976 Act and that which preceded the 1989 Act show striking similarities between the Government’s attitudes then and now. In both cases the Government of the day expressed firm commitment to change. On both occasions, official committees, appointed by government, recommended appropriate mechanisms. On both occasions, the substance of their advice was ignored."

Two years later the Irish National Caucus released a report for members of Congress entitled "The Failure of British Fair Employment Laws and the Need for the MacBride Principles." The report cited British government fair employment laws for "deliberately" hampering "serious efforts to eliminate gaps in opportunity between Protestants and Catholics." American companies doing business in the North were also "very much part of the problem," the report stated. It concluded that the MacBride Principles were "more important than ever."

Seven years later, the situation has not improved from the perspective of the MacBride camp. Indeed, by some estimates in has worsened.

In an Aug. 12, 1999 letter to North peace broker George Mitchell, California State Senator Tom Hayden wrote that from 1994-97, "the percentage of Catholics among the long-term unemployed rose from 60 percent to 72 percent, and the likelihood of Catholic males being unemployed in comparison with Protestants increased from 2.4 to 2.9."

Hayden argued that the equality provisions of the Good Friday agreement wouldn’t cure the problem. He urged strengthened U.S. commitment to the MacBride Principles and greater American investment in areas of long-term disadvantage, whether Catholic or Protestant.

The combination urged by Hayden — more MacBride and more U.S. investment — flies in the face of the argument, most notably enunciated by SDLP leader John Hume, that the application of the MacBride Principles, regardless of altruistic intentions, has been, and remains, a deterrent to U.S. companies looking to set up operations in the North.

Interpreting statistics

Both sides can produce statistics to support their respective positions. In many respects, the entire argument surrounding MacBride boils down to statistics and the most salient one remains the 2.9 times differential between long-term Catholic and Protestant unemployment.

But is the statistic a valid basis for the MacBride argument? No, according to Dermot Nesbitt, a member of both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Ulster Unionist Party’s negotiating team.

Nesbitt, who is quick to stress that he wants nothing short of equality of opportunity for all in Northern Ireland, says that the 2.9 figure is deceptive because it does not take into account the two very different pillars of the Northern Ireland labor market, one being the flow in and out of employment, the other being the "stock" of unemployed.

Nesbitt points to what he says was a huge difference in the numbers of Catholics and Protestants coming into the labor market between 1971 and ’91. Due to a higher Catholic birthrate — one that is now tailing off — the number of Catholics seeking work in that period had increased by 30 percent, the number of Protestants by just 3 percent.

"Look at it as if eight Catholics were seeking work in that time and two Protestants. Only five jobs are available, all are equally qualified and all get an equal opportunity. That would mean four Catholics and one Protestant gets a job. It would also mean that four Catholics and one Protestant don’t. All things being equal, more Catholics are going to end up unemployed.

"As it stands, 42 percent of the active economic population in Northern Ireland is now Catholic but the percentage of the employed population that is Catholic is about 40 percent. That is the cause of the 2.9 differential."

The 2.9 statistic, Nesbitt says, is based on the stock of unemployed, and is not linked to equality of opportunity, or its opposite, which is discrimination.

"Of course there is discrimination and that’s why there are laws against it. But just because you break the law does not mean you live in a lawless society. It’s sad that Catholics feel discriminated against and sad that Protestants feel they are being got at as a result."

Nesbitt argues that Northern Ireland now has the strictest equality laws in western Europe and, as a result, there is no need for the MacBride Principles campaign. At the same time, he acknowledges that it could take some time, 15 years or more, before the 2.9 differential fades to insignificance.

"I’m not saying all this in any antagonistic unionist way," he said. "Don’t think we don’t recognize that there was discrimination and that there still is. We do. But don’t use the 2.9 unemployment differential to support MacBride, because it is not a valid basis for argument."

Bill McGimpsey, a non-party Unionist living in New York, believes that it is now hard to see what contribution the MacBride campaign can make given the evolving peace and the North’s fair-employment laws.

McGimpsey recognizes that MacBride has been a means for Irish America to exercise a "responsible level of involvement" and leverage in Northern Ireland and he expresses understanding why Irish Americans would be reluctant to give such things up.

"I would stop short from saying that it [MacBride] was mean-spirited from the beginning, but it has definitely served its time," McGimpsey says.

Beyond sell date

This view is even echoed from within the MacBride camp. Rita Mullan is a Belfast native living in Washington who believes that the MacBride campaign is beyond its sell date.

Mullan supports the nine fair-employment guidelines more than ever. But more now in terms of words than deeds.

Mullan says that the need for movement toward greater equality still exists and she still accepts the pro-MacBride argument that the campaign was crucial in forcing the British government to accept that something had to be done, particularly, she points out, in the first eight to 10 years.

"MacBride has served a very useful purpose, but 15 years down the road there is much greater awareness in Northern Ireland about fairness in hiring," she said.

"The California success did not impress me. I’m not an authority, but it seems to me that California is more symbolic at this point."

Mullan believes that Irish Americans should now redirect their energy into the politics of the peace process.

"I’m more interested in what lies beyond MacBride and where do we go from here. The Good Friday agreement, the common good and an end to violence is where we go from here," she said.

MacBride backers do not take issue with the importance of peace and an end to violence. Indeed, one of the key arguments for the campaign over the years is that it has been a non-violent means to promote positive change in Northern Ireland.

And MacBride, they contend, has been a stronger force for economic equality than has the British government.

Pat Doherty, a prime architect of the MacBride campaign and one who oversees New York City’s MacBride campaign on behalf of Comptroller Hevesi, believes that successive British governments have been too complacent about employment disparities in the North.

MacBride, he says, has led to many positive gains, much greater awareness and "a dent in the quite thick shell of cynicism surrounding the Catholic community."

"We recognize that the [British] government has a role but it was not playing that role when MacBride began," he said. "One of the direct results of MacBride is the fair-employment legislation, now supported by many Protestants, and the widespread recognition in Northern Ireland that discrimination is not fine.

"Every single unionist party member voted against the fair-employment acts in ’76 and ’89. Now they go around boasting about having the strongest fair-employment laws in Europe. Well, that’s one big change brought about by MacBride.

"There has been progress but not enough. We are still concerned over the potential for complacency. American oversight and monitoring of fair employment is absolutely needed and this effectively comes from MacBride. Besides, this monitoring and oversight is legally mandated by laws passed by 18 states and 30 cities.

"The British government," adds Doherty, "has been very hesitant with regard to affirmative action, although, ironically, the Patten Commission has gone beyond that by recommending quotas [for the RUC]. The Northern Ireland Office seems ready to embrace this but only in reference to the RUC."

Changed dynamic

More Catholics in RUC uniform has become a pivotal issue for Fr. Sean McManus and the Irish National Caucus. But the group’s absolute commitment to MacBride remains unchanged.

"The enduring significance of MacBride is twofold," McManus said. "MacBride has changed for all time the dynamic of discrimination in Northern Ireland. Not because discrimination has ended — it has not — but because there is now outside leverage, mainly American, against discrimination."

MacBride, McManus argues, has become the standard for all U.S. aid to, and dealings with, Northern Ireland.

"Now, because of MacBride federal legislation, the president of the United States has to certify to Congress that recipients of foreign aid, through the U.S. contribution to the International Fund for Ireland, are in compliance with the MacBride Principles. Because of state legislation, 18 states must certify that their investments in companies doing business in Northern Ireland are in compliance with the MacBride Principles.

"The MacBride campaign will continue until all States have passed the MacBride Principles and until all discrimination has been eradicated in Northern Ireland."

A no holds-barred position for sure. But what of the British government? Is it yet ready to fight MacBride at every turn in every state? Certainly that was the case in the 1980s and well into the ’90s. But the British approach to MacBride has cooled in recent years.

A parliamentary question to former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam earlier this year asked if it was still British government policy to "advise" U.S. states and cities to turn aside MacBride legislation. The reply, issued on her behalf, was that this was indeed still British policy "where possible and appropriate."

This answer could be interpreted as a degree of recognition that MacBride is now a fact of life in terms of the relations between Britain and Irish America. If that is the case, the MacBride campaign will likely enjoy more success, not because it is being driven harder, but because the opposition is less direct and frontal.

At the same time, some would take the view that the campaign was most relevant, most alive and vital, when that opposition was at its fiercest, and that the more apparently reasonable arguments prevailing 15 years down the line could easily lead to a little drift, perhaps even drowsiness and sleep, at the MacBride wheel.

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