Platform - Equality System Losing an Opportunity

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Byline: DERMOT NESBITT ULSTER UNIONIST MLA

THIS is Community Relations Week and "equality" is associated with good community relations.

Some unionists assert that Protestants lack equality and lose out on jobs compared with Catholics. Sinn Fein asserts that Catholics lack equality, are discriminated against and are more likely to be unemployed than Protestants. Equality and good community relations have been interrelated themes for many years. In 1987, a Fair Employment Report stated: "One such argument for providing equality of opportunity is that its achievement is necessary for improved relations between the different sections of the community in Northern Ireland." In January, 2004, a report analysed criticisms of the Government's contribution (Shared Future) to community relations. As in 1987, the report commented "there cannot be good relations until there is equality of opportunity" and that "active promotion of equality can lead to good relations but not vice-versa".

Since equality law was introduced in 1976, it has been progressively strengthened on top of what was already considered the toughest in Europe. A research report (December, 2004) described Northern Ireland's equality law as "novel and internationally unique".

This law results in much effort being made every year by private and public sectors alike to complete employment monitoring returns, not to mention the consultation process associated with equality schemes.

There is a widespread view that these duties are onerous, time consuming and costly. An Irish News opinion article (April, 2003) stated that: "Northern Ireland is all consulted out. It started innocently enough, with a line in the Northern Ireland Act saying 'to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity'." The key question is, do we have equality of opportunity today? In law, it is the clear responsibility of the Equality Commission to address this question, but it has failed to implement this responsibility in any way. …