Equality and Northern Ireland - Speech delivered in New York City, March 13th, 1999

In building a new, pluralist Northern Ireland it is important that issues of equality are treated with seriousness and that any fears and misconceptions are allayed. But there are still considerable difficulties in building that new society - it would be strange if it were otherwise after 30 years off bitter division and terrorism.

As of Monday all of the changes necessary to fulfill the terms of the Belfast Agreement have been put in place. Four Anglo-Irish treaties were signed in Dublin, establishing the British Isles Council, the North South Council in Ireland and establishing a set of unique cross-border bodies to develop closer co-operation.

On Monday legislation was passed at Westminster to transfer functions to these bodies. We are ready now to transfer power to the uniquely inclusive Northern Ireland Assembly. All this constitutes one of the most genuinely pluralistic sets of political arrangements anywhere in the world. Imagine a US state in which Republicans, Democrats, Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan all agreed to participate in an executive and you can begin, although only just begin, to imagine the pluralist parliament for a pluralist people which we have constructed for Northern Ireland.

I wish I could also tell you that we could now move beyond setting up these new institutions. Unfortunately one piece of our complex jigsaw is still missing.

All the commitments in the Agreement must be honoured. That must include the commitment to peaceful means now and in the future. The retention of private armies, or vast private arsenals pose a threat to democracy. It is clearly contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Agreement.

As the Taioseach, Bertie Ahern, has said, ‘we did not sign up to an armed peace’. Bertie also said to the Sunday Times two weeks ago, ‘our view is that decommissioning in one form or another has to happen’.

All we ask is that Sinn Fein and others deliver on the commitment they made in the Belfast Agreement to, and I quote, “the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations”.

This needs to happen soon. We are trying to build a system where violence for political ends is over and done with, a system where everyone should feel at ease, a system which will be inclusive.

Surely no one group will stand aside from this great enterprise.

The new system will promote equality. But there are deep differences both within and beyond Northern Ireland in views on the extent and causes of inequality. These differences are not only between the Unionist and Nationalist communities, but it is a sad reality that different conclusions about reality in Northern Ireland are drawn.

We need more dialogue on this issue, and for this reason I am pleased that this conference is taking place in the United States where there has often been misapprehension about conditions in Northern Ireland.

And we must however be clear about what equality means.

Three types of Equality

Traditionally, equality is linked with ideas of liberty and individual freedom, equality before the law, the rights of the individual and a sense of the dignity of man.

The sense of the essential equality of worth of the individual stems from the enlightenment and quickly became a foundation stone of the Anglo-American world. It is reflected in Robbie Burns’ a mans a man for a’ that and in the commonplace sentiment that an English man’s home is his castle.

This concept was revolutionary in its time. Through Locke and Hobbes it was part of the ideology of our revolution, and through Thomas Paine’s’ Rights of Man was integral in yours, finding a stirring affirmation that in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

Of course the idea was only applied partially in practice, but the ethos of equality of the individual survives in a way that many societies would envy. It survives in the individualism which characterises American and British societies and has allowed them to excel globally in creative activities.

Equality of Opportunity

If equality in the sense of individual rights was the first meaning of equality, the second, which has dominated much political debate in liberal democracies during this century, has been equality of opportunity.

Equality of opportunity has been the keystone of British public policy in the second half of this century, applied in a widening area of public life, starting with education.

The Education Acts of the 1940s are widely cited by nationalists in Northern Ireland as allowing free access for less well-off Catholics to grammar schools and universities. While many Catholics did benefit so too did large numbers of Protestants, including myself.

Equality of opportunity has always been an important principle in my own political outlook. It is and will remain a foundation stone of our political life and I believe we will remain in the forefront.

Equality of Outcome

The aspects of equality touched on so far are uncontroversial. But the third meaning of the word is more problematic. This is when equality is taken to refer not to equality of opportunity, but to equality of outcome or achievement.

In certain basic requirements of civilised life there is general agreement that all men, and women, should indeed receive equal treatment, although such a consensus can vary from one society to another. Health care would be within that consensus in Northern Ireland.

It is when the idea of equality of outcome is extended into economic life that it can become positively dangerous. In future years the twentieth century is most likely to be remembered for its great failed experiments in social engineering to produce an equal society. The search for complete equality is we now know is a fool’s errand. As Anthony Trollope said in his autobiography, ‘make all men equal today, and God has so created them that they shall be unequal tomorrow’.

It has been the less equal capitalist societies which succeeded in securing high and widespread levels of prosperity. Even within the west it is the less equal US, UK, Canada and incidentally the Republic of Ireland, which have succeeded in creating the most jobs and achieving the lowest unemployment. Countries like Germany or Sweden with income distributions only half as wide as the UK or US are creating few jobs and have serious problems of high unemployment.

It is too little recognised that Northern Ireland with a distribution of income similar to the USA now has an unemployment rate one third lower than most of the major states in the continental EU.

Fair Employment in Northern Ireland

A contentious issue in Northern Ireland is that unemployment rates remain twice as high for Roman Catholics as for Protestants. This has been the case ever since records on unemployment by religion first became available in the 1971 census.

This difference in unemployment rates has remained virtually unchanged, despite the introduction of Fair Employment Acts, the shrinkage of the Protestant employing engineering sector, the great expansion of the public sector with scrupulously fair employment practices.

It is often assumed that unemployment differences must indicate the presence of serious discrimination. But, if this diagnosis is flawed, we may fail to solve the problem of high Catholic unemployment. At the same time acting on a flawed diagnosis may inadvertently exacerbate the very distrust and divisiveness we seek to eradicate.

As an example of the complexity of the situation we can by comparing the 1971 and 1991 census figures analyse the changes in the distribution of jobs. During those 20 years there was a net increase in employment of 22 thousand. The number of catholics in employment rose by 24 thousand while the number of protestants in employment fell by 2 thousand. This, however, had no impact on the unemployment ratio because during this period the total catholic population rose significantly.

This shows that the imbalance in employment can only be solved by a large increase in the total number of jobs in the economy. Investment, not disinvestment must be the message.

We will dedicate ourselves to solving all problems of high unemployment, importantly including the problem of high unemployment in the Roman Catholic community. The new administration will set as a priority the task of restoring full employment and eliminating high and persistent unemployment for all communities.

While the most important levers of economic control remain with the Government in London, the regional administration in Belfast will be able, especially with the international goodwill created by the Agreement, to vigorously and effectively create jobs and regenerate local communities.

Already the omens are promising. The unemployment rate in the UK as a whole is only half of the EU average and Northern Ireland’s unemployment is well below the EU average for the first time in 25 years.

Arrangements for Equality in the New Administration

Even before the Agreement, much was done in the last 10 years in Northern Ireland on equality issues. The 1990 Fair Employment Act considerably extended the range and strength of powers in the 1976 Act and only a few weeks ago the 1998 Fair Employment and Treatment Order extended the scope of equality law into such areas as the provision of services, including the sale of property.

As well as new legislation the last decade has seen a raft of administrative reforms. The Targeting Social Need programme focuses government policy on the groups in greatest need in a more intensive way than would be the case under the normal operation of social and economic priorities.

The Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment ( PAFT) initiative was introduced in 1994 as a means of integrating considerations of equality effectively into policy formation and the administration of government at every level, with the aim of ensuring that all sections of the community enjoy equal opportunities and fair treatment.

Then, under the Agreement, the wide array of government agencies and non-governmental bodies dealing with equality are being brought together into a new and powerful single body, the Equality Commission, with a remit to promote equality of opportunity, affirmative action, and to eliminate unlawful discrimination.

The new Assembly has reinforced this Commission by establishing an Equality Unit at the heart of government in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. Although final decisions have still to be made, my intention is that the Equality Unit will have a junior minister in charge, answerable to Seamus Mallon and myself. My preference is that this minister should come from the SDLP.

In addition, I consider that we should enhance within this unit the PAFT testing of the policies of the various Departments. Hitherto while the guidelines on PAFT have been determined centrally, each Department has “PAFted” its own policies. But I doubt if a Department will seriously challenge its own policies. So I am going to propose that the new unit will have a supervisory role looking individual PAFT appraisals across all Departments with the right to draw to the attention of the Executive Committee any policies where it considers the appraisal flawed. Thus Seamus and myself will be sure that true equality applies throughout the administration.

The problem with equality will not be a lack of power or governmental commitment. It will be confidence – convincing all sections of the community that each section will be treated fairly and decisions will be based solely on relevant and proper considerations.

Human rights

The most important change on human rights in Northern Ireland has been the least noticed. This year the United Kingdom has incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms into domestic law. The incorporation has taken the form of ensuring that the Assembly or a minister has no power to legislation or do any act incompatible with convention rights. The European Convention is more far reaching than the UN charter and is the most highly developed of the world’s regional human rights instruments. Henceforth any person in Northern Ireland who thinks his rights have been infringed will have an effective remedy in the courts.

The Convention is reinforced by a powerful Human Rights Commission, the membership of which has just been announced. Unfortunately it has run into problems. The Act requires that appointments be representative of the community. But while nationalists, republicans and even the human rights industry are well represented unionists are not. Only one of ten members could be regarded as representative of the 60% of the population who are unionist This, believe it or not, has been a regular feature of direct rule throughout the last 25 years. It is one of the reasons why we look forward to the end of direct rule.


In the short term the Royal Ulster Constabulary will remain a reserved matter outside of the control of the new administration, but we hope that it and the criminal law generally will be devolved soon. The Patten Commission is considering policing and it will report later this year. As you know it has visited some US cities and hopes to benefit from your experience.

One issue it will have to consider is broadening the composition of the force so that it more closely reflects the composition of society. To achieve this all sections of society must encourage and support widely based recruitment into the police. One cannot expect many more Catholics to join the RUC if they continue to face social exclusion with the Catholic community. Change here is just as important as eliminating any lingering anti-catholic ethos within the force. Such broadening cannot be at the expense of the professionalism of the police force or any diminution of the high standards it regularly attains.


The Belfast Agreement ushered in a new era in the history of Northern Ireland. For the first time in our history it is possible for all communities to pull together.

Pluralism and inclusion are the principles at the heart of what we created last Good Friday.

We have, I believe, learned from our mistakes and created a society with true equality of opportunity. A society where all are cherished, and in which the contribution of every individual from whatever background is valued.

We must embrace the future with the enthusiasm it requires, and avoid the mistake of walking into the future facing backwards. The cold house for Catholics which I referred to in my Nobel Prize speech has I believe become a welcoming house. I hope that every person of goodwill will support us in the creation of the new administration which will pursue genuine equality of opportunity with vigour and with enthusiasm.

For my own part I see myself as the First Minister of all of the people of Northern Ireland irrespective of religion or of any other characteristic. A pluralist people deserve a pluralist First Minister as well as a pluralist Parliament, and I shall see to it that this is exactly what they will get.

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