Category Archives: Inez McCormack

Changing Times, Changing Realities by Inez McCormack

The following article by Inez McCormack was printed in last week’s Irish Echo and kicks off a new campaign to organize Irish America’s participation in a new drive to encourage and support equitable investment in the “new Northern Ireland”:

This should be a time for change and hope for all who live in the North. I am writing this article for two reasons- one is to honour the significant contribution made by Irish Americans and others such as President Clinton and New York City Comptroller Thompson in making hope for just and inclusive change into tangible realities of peace and opportunity. The other is to argue that this time and these opportunities will not come again and we must now once and for all grasp them to build an inclusive and modern future. For over 30 years now I have argued for real, measurable change that people can feel, taste and touch in their daily lives. This core foundation for such a future, based upon equality, resonates with three decades of lost opportunities in implementing necessary and agreed change.

Strategies and interventions that bring the legacy of a difficult and divided past into such a future need to be built on both what has successfully worked in making change and on what is the agreed mandate of the people as the context for that change. That mandate has been given expression in the Good Friday Agreement, now more than ten years old. It is not too much, to expect that the inclusive equality provisions of that agreement are implemented with urgency and finality. They are also the key building blocks for stable economic and social development

Irish Americans are being asked by me AMONG others to support and call for investment in the north to build prosperity and support peace in this time of historic hope. There are now clearly emerging opportunities for profitable investments in billion dollar commitments to build new infrastructure within the next decade. There is a determination and commitment by all political parties in the new devolved administration to bring external investment and new companies to the North and encourage the growth of local small and medium size companies to take advantage of new opportunities as well as increase trade and investment between North and South on the island.

Twenty years ago Irish America responded to calls to make fairness in employment a reality here. Together we argued it was neither feasible nor acceptable to have a society and economy based upon exclusion and discrimination. Those who then ran Northern Ireland rejected our arguments, claiming that there was not a problem. But the stark realities revealed by official census figures showed brutal patterns of exclusion, discrimination and poverty experienced overwhelmingly, though far from exclusively, by Catholics. At that time I described the plight of unemployed Protestants as disastrous, and that of Catholics as catastrophic. Instead of tackling this economic disadvantage based upon objective need, the authorities used all their resources to attack the messengers. We were accused of scaring off investment, worsening sectarian division and destabilising the possibilities for peace. These were the alibis that time was not ripe for change.

Voices for peaceful and just change from within Northern Ireland, unaided by powerful external support, were ruthlessly swept aside. Irish Americans steadfastly refused to accept any of these arguments, particularly the doctrine of unripe time. Through the MacBride Principles campaign they declared they were no longer prepared to have American dollars support discriminatory practices. Together we went one step further. The MacBride Principles required that Americans investment in Northern Ireland should actively promote affirmative action and produce measurable change, I recall with great gratitude the chorus of support for such change ultimately reaching the highest office in the United States. Such voices from an early stage included the City and State Comptrollers office in New York, Irish American organisations, and a growing number of state and city legislatures who passed and implemented the MacBride principles. That campaign and pressure led to new and tough affirmative action domestic legislation and disciplines on expenditure of public monies. The MacBride legislation is still there as a guarantor of real change: American companies were and are required still to show how state and city pension funds are promoting the reality of fair employment in Northern Ireland.

Irish American pressure to mainstream and promote equality of opportunity, and to insist upon implementation of tough policies played a major role in the interventions of the Clinton administration. George Mitchell, amongst others, saw the importance of inclusive economic and social opportunity in creating confidence that peace could work , especially for the communities and areas of greatest deprivation that had suffered most in the conflict. Such measures then became part of the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, the promise in the Agreement to bring forward “a range of measures aimed at combating unemployment and progressively eliminating the differential in employment rates between the two communities by targeting objective need” was one of the few explicit commitments in the document.

Continuing resistance to accept responsibility for structural change by placing the causes of disadvantage on the shoulders of those who experience it — the blame the victim approach — was rejected by the political parties and the people in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, the recent St. Andrew’s agreement reinforced this commitment by agreeing objective need as the prerequisite for allocation of resources and investment.

I write this not to bring up old history or old problems but to emphasize the huge contribution of those who argued that fairness in action was not only right in itself but crucial to building prosperity, and would contribute to the potential for building an inclusive peace from which all would benefit and all could own . They also argued that a sustainable business model must effectively integrate economic, social and environmental practices.

This seems so obvious and modest a proposal now. Yet the inability to accept responsibility in implementing that change, in spite of its huge democratic mandate backed up by statutory imperative, remains deep and systemic. The patterns of exclusion that spurred us to action have widened in the decade since the Good Friday Agreement. This is the unstable and unhelpful legacy bequeathed to the fledgling political institutions in Northern Ireland.

The reason I address Irish America now – and of course the coalition that so powerfully joined with us to argue that peace was not possible without justice and equality – is to ask all of those who helped to create the potential for peaceful change to now ensure that in the hope in which so much has been invested is implemented. This requires that economic investment, both internal and external, is used and measured deliberately and consciously to make those hopes for fundamental and irreversible change into reality.

The current reality is, that ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement and a few months into the historic political accommodation that we have all worked and hoped for the patterns of disadvantage are widening. The last decade has been a time of increased investment and growing prosperity. Yet as in the eighties government’s own figures show an ever increasing gap between the haves and the have nots within both communities and growing differential in disadvantage experienced between the Catholic and Protestant communities in the decade since the Good Friday Agreement.

This growing inequality is a direct consequence of deliberately ignoring the commitments in law and policy on fairness and opportunity. Instead of the last decade being used to integrate economic and social development and using these tools of change agreed by the mandate of the people to lay solid foundations to underpin an inclusive peace and a stable economic base, the patterns of past investment and resource allocation are virtually undisturbed.

The ever widening gap means those suffering the greatest deprivation, again predominantly Catholic, but also with a significant number of Protestants, are spectators of prosperity not participants.

New policies and laws were agreed based on the need for structural change and on the urgent requirement for structural measures . They simply have not been implemented in a way that measured action against impact. Our campaign for targets and timetables, so carefully constructed to produce real change within a reasonable time span, has been met with inaction.

The recent report by the Committee on Administration of Justice – Rhetoric and Reality – spelt out this failure in cold terms and hard figures.

The evidence in the report came from figures and facts analysed in four government reports. So these continuing patterns of unacceptable realities are well known. There is simply no evidence that resource allocation and policy are being directed to change them, as required by the Good Friday Agreement, the St Andrew’s Agreement and the law of the land in Northern Ireland. In fact the current allocation of resource and investment is virtually in inverse proportion to these figures. Resources are going to where they went before in the old status quo and the mandate of the people for a new and inclusive status quo has been ignored.

The data produced by the government’s own body the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2005 gives the following results. Based on their analysis of a range of factors, including income, employment, and access to services, NI was divided up into almost 900 equally sized areas in order to map out “regional inequalities”.

• Out of 900 areas in total, 19 of the top 20 most deprived areas are in North and West Belfast or Derry.
• Of the top 100 most deprived areas in NI out of a total of 900, over three quarters are within North and West Belfast or Derry.
• Of the top 50 wealthiest areas in NI, none are in North and West Belfast or Derry.
• In fact, of the top 100 wealthiest areas in NI out of a total of 900, only one, is in North and West Belfast or Derry, namely, the Covehill part of North Belfast, which is an historically affluent part of the city, surrounded by some of the poorest areas that suffered both economically and physically during the conflict.

As I know only too well from work I have been involved with there recently, the population there has not sniffed the changes that they were promised and that they could expect in relation to investment and opportunity.

What this data shows is serious geographic and regional differences in terms of inequality in Northern Ireland. Moreover, these regional inequalities also provide a proxy measure for community inequalities. Cleary there are correlations between where these poorer areas are, and the profile of the people who live in them.

A report by the Special EU Programmes body also showed that there is a direct link between how poor an area is, and the proportion of Catholics living in the area.

Catholics make up 19.5% of the population in the 500 most affluent areas in NI.

Catholics make up 72% of the inhabitants in the 500 most deprived areas in NI.

With irrefutable detail these cold hard facts and statistics reveal the depth of daily realties of humiliation and exclusion experienced by those outside the golden bubble of the new good times.

Bringing a difficult past into a new and inclusive future is not easy. But if we do not learn from the lessons of the past then the new future we are all working for is destabilised from the beginning . There is a depressing sense of déjà vu about what is happening. In the eighties government figures showed that over 45% of Catholics, and around 25% of Protestant males were without work. The campaigning that we carried out over those two decades was meant to ensure that those in power faced up to their responsibility to shift the figures. They had the resources – moral, legal, and economic, to do so. Yet many of those excluded in that past are excluded still. The gap between their realities and growing prosperity of some areas and communities are the stark and undeniable reminder in the last decade that new times of peace and hope brought them crumbs not comfort.

Based upon our shared experience of the possibilities of change, there are a number of practical and effective steps that the devolved administration can take now in modernising the economy and stabilising the peace. Public resource allocation can be planned as envisaged in a way that requires govt departments to measure and structure their actions against their impact on reducing inequality and building prosperity .Tools of public procurement that integrate practical equality and social requirements can be effectively used to involve the long term unemployed and economically inactive and thus build a new skills base.

New York City Comptroller Thompson, on his recent visit to Belfast declared his support for a sustainable business model that integrated, economic, social and environmental practices. It is what his office has supported all over the world through their investments and has been fiscally and ethically successful. This is the context of his strong support to bring direct investment to the North and to influence companies to look at the potential for investment on the island of Ireland. Irish America is calling for support for investment opportunities and there will be an international investment conference in the coming year in the North to turn some of the good will in America and elsewhere in the world into practical and tangible investments by companies

In asserting once again that prosperity and fairness must be intertwined in the impact and allocation of such investment. Once again the ball is in Irish America’s court to again assert and require that hope and opportunity must be within the grasp of all. That this is the time for long overdue change in the daily realities of exclusion and that this is good for business and good for peace.

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