Chief Commissioner´s speech at the ECNI Annual Conference
In approaching its Annual Conference this year, the Commission looked to the fact that this is the year of Equal Opportunities For All as both a time to mark where we stand on the journey towards a more equal society and, also, to revisit the meaning of equality, to situate it anew in the world of today and, perhaps more importantly, of tomorrow.
In the more than two years I have been in the post of Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission, I have learned a great deal about what equality is and can be in the life of a community. Even more, I have learned about what it is in the minds of those who think and speak of it.
I have said before that an immediate, but abiding, impression was of those who look upon equality as a limited commodity; such that the more that one person or group receives, the less is available for the other. I say “abiding” because that view, that interpretation, that internalisation of equality still exists and wields a significant impression. It is important constantly, not only to challenge it, but to point out that its direct opposite is the truth. Equality is an unlimited concept whose greater enjoyment by those from whom it was withheld enhances us all.
I will take the risk of repeating myself in one further comment when I say that there is something of a “Looking Glass” syndrome at work here. When we look into a mirror, we see only what is behind us; we cannot see across to the other side. Thus, we understand only what we see – ourselves. This is a phenomenon not unknown to us in this community and it colours the approach to the understanding of equality. Equality becomes an issue only insofar as it relates me or my community to another, insofar as it gives me some measure of where I stand relative to somebody else. And my test of its achievement can only be by way of measuring how I do or how my side does.
These are perceptions of equality that are hopelessly old-fashioned; rooted in a culture, in an approach to society that no longer holds value or purpose; a symbol, a reflection of community challenge, of relative perception, of them and us. True, there is much in this that characterises enduring ways of thought and of action but as an approach to equality, it is wholly deficient.
It is time to move on.
There are, of course, issues that affect the different sections within the Northern Ireland community, that reflect themselves through or that can be counted through community difference. But that is not the only measure. These are important issues and cannot be overlooked – but they cannot forever determine or dictate the way in which this society conducts its discourse with itself about how an equal society is created or how it measures its achievement.
Let me spell some of this out;
- Sectarianism exists. It is not a one-way street. It operates both ways. It is vile. It is a stain on a modern society. Attacks on innocent people, on places of worship, on places where communities gather should find no place, nor any support, in our society.
- There is real apprehension that differences of religion will express themselves or find reflection in differences of opportunity.
- The intolerance that breeds and allows sectarianism can and, regrettably, does find new outlets as the shape and composition of the population changes.
But the fact that these realities are still with us cannot bind us to the past (the whole point is to liberate ourselves from aspects of the past), cannot limit our sense of equality and, more to the point, our sense of inequality.
A society in which everyone is absolutely the same is neither desirable nor possible. Let us not misuse the notion of equality and let us challenge those who may be tempted to misuse it so as to discredit it for being unrealistic or unachievable.
Making the choice for equality, for the entitlement of all people to achieve the fullness of their potential, is not an easy option. It is a decidedly hard option. It is all the more so in a time when society looks as if it is becoming more individualised and values becoming more commercialised. But we live also in a time of great hope and expectation when it behoves us to take stock of what our priorities should be and to be honest with ourselves in our appraisal of what we have achieved.
Few would have predicted twelve months ago that Northern Ireland would now be facing its future with such promise and confidence. There is a new political environment; a new approach to sharing; an openness to work with former opponents; greater diversity in the population; optimism about the economic future; increasing job opportunities; greater opportunities generally for self-advancement and for self-expression; people feel part of a wider world.
It is wonderful and right to delight in these developments whose recital is so starkly different from the weal and woe that many might have thought of, however wrongly, as the full story of Northern Ireland and the life its people led not too long ago. Wonderful, too, to emerge from conflict into a society where, although all is not yet perfect and many of the legacies of conflict are still with us, so much that is positive is now part of the real picture.
And that is the key point. All that is good and affirming and positive is but part of the picture. We live in a society where much inequality still exists and where not everybody has an equal opportunity to develop their talents to the full. For some, that can be difficult to understand or to accept as also it can be difficult to have a vision of equality that is broader than and more comprehensive than the issues of equality, still important though they be, that were particularly linked to aspects of the period of conflict.
This, too, prompts us to look for the meaning of equality of opportunity in the impact of its absence. This is what urged the Equality Commission to publish in tandem with this Conference a Statement of Key Inequalities. Important in itself, it is also a pathway to a greater understanding of the real meaning of equality in our contemporary society. The statement seeks to convey a fuller extent of what equality means and to identify those areas where so many people come face to face with inequality in their daily lives. Its purpose is to move beyond the restricted sense of equality to which I have already referred and to see the broader vision, the wider areas of relevance and application and to recognise the enduring – in some cases new and growing – realities around us.
Its purpose, too, is to call on all of us who have any measure of responsibility for the present and future of Northern Ireland to keep these inequalities ever-present in our consciousness. Not so as to minimise the real achievements being made but so as to ensure that these very achievements can play their part in eliminating inequality.
That many are denied the opportunity to share fully in the richness of contemporary life is all too evident around us. It is right and necessary to set this out so that we do not let it slip from our consciousness. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz – and how appropriate it is to quote a Polish poet two days after the important exercise of democracy in that country, an exercise in which so many people living in both jurisdictions on this island took part – Milosz said ;
What is pronounced strengthens itself;
What is not pronounced tends to non-being.
It is to ensure that the daily facts of unequal life do not “tend to non-being” that we are launching this statement today. It is not a set of criticisms, other than being, in the broadest sense, a critique of our contemporary world. It is not an assault on or a challenge to individuals or specific authorities, public or private. It is, however, a call and a challenge to ourselves, to all of us who live in and shape the character of Northern Ireland, to be aware of the context in which we live our lives and do our work.
Very many children are born into a life which will struggle to give them their basic requirements let alone full equality of opportunity. The life-enhancing and transformative power of education is absent from the experience of far too many children in Northern Ireland. 29% of children live below the official poverty line (60% of UK median income). Under-attainment in education is a reality for very many children and will represent a barrier to access and advancement in employment in the future.
Disabled people continue to be confronted by very real obstacles in realising their capacity to participate in daily life. 40% of people with disabilities have no qualification - more than twice the figure for those without disabilities. While 79%of people without disabilities are in employment, only 32% of those with disabilities are employed.
Too often, to be a woman is to face inequality in pay and income and to bear an unequal share of the responsibility for childcare. Women are disproportionately numbered among those who work part-time and issues relating to gender constitute the single biggest category of enquiry to the Commission.
Those with mental health difficulties are particularly vulnerable and can face isolation that erodes opportunity. The Bamford Review has found that issues of mental health and learning disability affect one in four of the population and concluded that levels of investment in this area were lower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK.
Older people, too, risk isolation and a perception that theirs is a limited potential to be part of society. More than half of Northern Ireland’s older people identify loneliness as the major issue affecting them. Older women face particular issues in terms of work-related pensions.
Those who are different, because of race, religion, sexual orientation, can face hostility and attack. The PSNI figures should cause us all to pause and reflect on how prejudice and our attitudes to difference can bring misery to the lives of so many.
Geography can have a significant impact on securing or diminishing access to important services. And so the list goes on.
What the statement of inequalities reflects is, of course, at its heart a statement of lost opportunities for so many; an indication of the way that the paths of life can so sharply diverge. And whereas all are born into possibility, its realisation for many is lost or diminished. It represents, in the words of the young Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey,
….. a delicate unravelling of wishes
That leaves the future unspoken and the past
Unencountered and unaccounted for.
That is the point of this exercise; that the future not remain unspoken but that it can be influenced and shaped and made to accommodate fairly all who will inhabit it. And that the past remains neither unencountered nor unaccounted for; not the past that we speak of in historical or political terms, but the past actions that have caused or contributed to the way we are today. Because everything has a consequence. All policy decisions by Government, by public authorities, by large private companies, whether international or national; all decisions by communities, by small companies, by individuals – all our actions have consequences that affect others, whether we wish it so or not. This is a call to those with responsibility to remember the reality of inequality, to have it in mind in the decisions they take and to adjust or modify those decisions so that they can reduce its consequences in the lives of people. The future, Séamus Heaney said, is “a verb in hibernation”; we all have a role in making that verb active and transitive.
Investment decisions, by private investors or by public authorities, also have their consequences. Public investment is not neutral and it is not only about the economy. All investment has social consequences and, while recognising the realities of the market and the entitlements of individual investors, this paper calls, particularly in the case of the investment of public moneys, for a policy of awareness and commitment to enhancing equality of opportunity and good relations in the investment decisions being made.
It is also well to remember that in many cases the only investment needed to improve peoples’ chances in life is the opening of our minds to new possibilities.
The inequalities that this statement addresses are very real. Their consequences for the lives of individuals, families and communities are also very real. It is all too easy to forget the daily burden that continuing inequality represents. And, in forgetting the burdens, we may also forget those who bear them most. As W H Auden said “who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” The inequalities we address act as profound and persistent barriers to equality of opportunity. These barriers are exacerbated by poverty and socio-economic disadvantage. And although neither of these finds expression in equality legislation they cannot be absent from the framing of public policy or from the decision-making of public authorities. At the very least, they act as major obstacles to achieving equality of opportunity for those categories that the law recognises.
It is much more than a cliché to say that equality is for everybody, that equality for all is the goal. It is a real challenge to us as a community and to each of us as individuals. Equality is not a partial framework. Whatever the messages of history may be; whatever the perceptions of some may be; whatever the apprehensions that it is differential in its interest or application, our task must be to make it a reality in the daily lives of everybody. As I said earlier, this is not an easy task; it is the hardest option of all available. There is, as Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said a couple of days ago speaking in the context of inter-faith dialogue “nothing leisurely or abstract about this”. We are trying in this focus on inequalities to hear the unspoken voices of those who live with the daily toll.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd.
Had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard.
Auden wrote these lines in his poem The Unknown Citizen. We cannot always be confident that we can hear what things are wrong. We cannot be certain that in the myriad of decisions we all make, some of which may have long-lasting influences, the needs of those who are not enjoying the fullness of their potential will be taken into account. We need, therefore, to focus on some basic principles that should animate our thinking and our actions so that our society can become a more equal place and so that people and groups can relate well one to the other. I offer these as a starting point:
- All human beings are entitled to equal respect
- Equality of opportunity is an entitlement that derives from our inherent humanity
- Nobody is just an economic unit whose dignity, value or rights are determined or measured solely in terms of contributions to the economy
- The real value of a successful economy is in the opportunity for growth and development it offers individuals
- The test of our response to a successful economy is the extent to which we use its bounty to give people equal opportunities to share in it
- Difference is a source of richness not the basis for unfair treatment
- Treating everybody as if we were all identical is neither the meaning nor the measure of equality
- The persistence of inequalities diminishes us all
Securing greater equality may always be more challenge than fulfilment. What we must do is believe in the destination and be willing to take the journey. I quoted Sinéad Morrissey earlier. Let me conclude with her words as well.
We have wrought it as surely as any family
Forges something wholly themselves and wholly different.
That is at once the challenge and the opportunity; to create a Northern Ireland that is inclusive, that embraces those who are newly come among us, that remembers the needs of those whose lives are limited by the inequalities that surround them and, in the process, to create a place true to its genius and traditions but wholly new in enabling everyone’s potential to flourish.