Structures of Discrimination

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

an interview with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Against The Current: You’ve said that the MacBride Principles campaign was modeled after the Sullivan Principles for investment in South Africa. Can you expand on that?

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: The MacBride Principles campaign is more than a campaign on foreign investors in Northern Ireland. We have campaigns inside the country, too. I remember a campaign we had against the British store, Marks & Spencer. People would go into Marks & Spencer filling up their trolleys, and then not buy the goods.

We got the idea from a member who works in a retail establishment. You see, the inventory is all based on what’s on the shelves. A manager goes by a couple of times a day. When he sees a shelf empty, he orders more from stores.

Well, by the time they get around to putting the stuff back that was in the trolleys, the shelves are full again or the stuff is on the way from stores. There is nothing more costly than constantly having to move inventory back and forth.

ATC: Has the ceasefire had any noticeable impact on the MacBride Principles campaign?

BDM: No, there’s been no noticeable impact on the MacBride Principles. The British will continue to oppose them. Whether there will be any greater support from Irish American legislators, we’ll just have to wait and see. The campaign is centered at home on Equality. We’re a very small group–we have access to a wider network, but the core is no more than twelve people.

The first position we clearly saw coming from people like John Hume [leader of the Social Democratic & Labor Party] is that there is no need for the MacBride Principles before the Washington conference [to discuss plans for N. Ireland’s economic future]. He had an article in the Irish Times undercutting the principles.

Ford was the same thing. Ford wouldn’t sign the MacBride Principles. `We’re not against equality,’ they said, `we’d just like to write our own.’ We said `No.’ The whole thing with the problem with the MacBride Principles, they said, is that they are seen as coming from Irish republicans.

In John’s article, there was the removal of key phrases from the principles. By the date of the conference, jobs equality was gone from the agenda. It was only a fight by the Irish American Unity Conference that got it put back on as a workshop.

Equality was the only group excluded from the conference. Through the Irish American Unity Conference and others we made debate around that. We gave them a deadline. We said we had to know by such and such a time or it would be too late for us to attend.

To get off the hook, they invited us when it was too late to go, except we knew that’s what they were going to do. We got the fax that we were invited an hour after our deadline, but that wasn’t our deadline at all. We were telling small lies . . .

At the conference Oliver [Kearney, honorary chairman of Equality] got in a confrontation with John Hume. The head of the American delegation came to Oliver and said the last thing we want is Irish nationalists fighting among themselves. Oliver agreed but said `if you use the conference to undermine the MacBride Principles, you’ll have a fight on your hands.’

They came back later with assurances that there would be no attack on the MacBride Principles, and a scheduled attack on the MacBride Principles was removed from the agenda. We look at that as a small victory, but they will continue to attempt to attack the principles.

ATC: I recently talked with Jerry Campbell [Equality member, Ford worker, chairman of the Transport and General Workers Union in Northern Ireland] about the campaign against discrimination at Ford in West Belfast. He described a ten-year fight to raise the percentage of Catholics in the workforce from 39 percent to something close to their percentage in the area population [West Belfast is eighty percent Catholic]. He said Ford is starting to get the numbers right, but during the same period employment at the plant has dropped from over 1400 to 617. Is it impossible in the context of Northern Ireland to fight for an end to discrimination and for more jobs?

BDM: No, it is not impossible to do both, but you have to end up taking a position on which is most important. We aren’t a job creation agency. That’s John Hume’s argument, that you can only fight discrimination in an expanding economy.

Discrimination in Northern Ireland is not based on not liking someone. It is the state structure. From 1922 the state is clearly against Catholic employees. The state and the economic structure of the state are based on controlling Catholic access to the labor market. The state controls the socioeconomic upward movement of Catholics, which means it controls the access to the nonviolent evolution of society.

People ask me, `as a socialist, why do you care for upward mobility?’ That is not the issue. The issue is the state controls access. The motive for discrimination is not prejudice. It is power.

So we did research to show that, not by looking at local employers but by looking at international firms like Ford, which has no interest in discrimination. What does Ford care who goes to church where? It is the existing mechanisms and structures of the state that cause the imbalance. It doesn’t have to be conscious. The same thing with women.

The solution is to set goals and numbers to redress the balance. The argument is not about how many Catholics it takes to make a Ford. The argument is on the structure of the state.

When Equality made a formal submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, we were not asking for the end of discrimination. We were asking for a structure that prevents this group being disadvantaged. Legislation makes it very difficult for a Catholic to allege discrimination against a Catholic employer.

The MacBride Principles apply to Catholics or Protestants or women or whatever. We’re asking for a mechanism for defining who’s underrepresented in the workforce and a means for firms to apply themselves to addressing goals to redress the imbalance. We need a way to measure their progress.

One of the MacBride Principles says the employer must provide a safe working environment. That leads to a new debate. A safe environment means not simply not flying the Union Jack, it also applies to an environment that is sexist; it applies to unsafe working conditions; it applies to pollution.

It is not a question of demanding more jobs. That’s a different thing. I can’t say I don’t care, but this fight is the same whether there are more, less, or only three jobs. It is about principles and the state’s responsibility.

Shorts [a heavy equipment manufacturer with contracts with New York], in order to comply with New York law, had to apply certain measures. Right across the board Shorts has improved, which is much more significant than Ford’s figures.

Shorts is an engineering industry. Not only have we seen an increase in the number of Catholics, but we’ve also seen an increase in the number of women. Shorts set up a system to redress underrepresentation. They set up apprenticeships, scholarships, etc. An increasing number of the scholarships are being won by young Catholic females.

The idea of the company going into the schools to recruit workers would never have been applied except for the MacBride Principles.

@9BODY = A lot of Catholic employers covertly object to the MacBride Principles. They come to us and say, “Look, we don’t want to get into this, because we have an imbalance, we have a lot of Catholics.” We say, “We know. So you have to set up a program to find out why Protestants are underrepresented.” When you set up the program you learn if the same factors apply across the board.

That yields a new question. Is there a different situation, where counter-arguments apply, or is it like Derry, which is majority Catholic but where Protestants are overrepresented in the labor market? If there is a factory in Derry that is predominantly Catholic, you have to ask: “Are there Protestants on the labor market?”

We do not deny the overall nature of employment, a minimum wage or anything else. Equality is not a philosophy. It is a single issue campaign.

Apartheid Without Color

Up to 1972, there is a consistency with which, regardless of education, geography or age, the state maintained a pattern of Catholic underrepresentation in the labor market. If all Catholics were Black and Protestants white, you would visually see the apartheid. Of course, we all look alike so you don’t see it.

The state is built around one population, which was a certain percent short of workers. So subordinate workers were let in, in a controlled fashion.

[For example] We targeted Northern Bank. From 1922-1972 it maintained a labor force that consistently was 16 percent Catholic. That figure kept coming up no matter at what company or part of the economy we looked. Nationally, the Catholic population was 33 percent in 1922. In 1972 it was 45 percent, but the percentage in that bank’s labor force was consistently 14-18 percent. In middle management the percentage was 7-10 percent.

That is not individual management prejudice. That is a political system. The people responsible for it were the government, not the employers.

ATC: Since the ceasefire, you’ve been critical of the Sinn Fein leadership–

BDM: No, I haven’t. I’ve been critical of the strategy.

ATC: Well, when you criticize the strategy, aren’t you implicitly criticizing the leadership for adopting that strategy? Your distinction here is a little too fine for me to understand.

BDM: My criticism is of the strategy. It is not a leadership question. A change in leadership would not bring any change in strategy, because Sinn Fein from top to bottom supports the strategy.

ATC: So you don’t see any similarities to the Palestinian situation?

BDM: In Palestine, a defined part of the movement opposed the strategy from the beginning. In Ireland, nowhere in the republican movement is anyone saying the strategy is wrong. Of course, criticism of the strategy is criticism of the leadership, but it is not a leadership issue.

ATC: There has been a rich and complex popular movement in Northern Ireland dealing with all kinds of community issues. There is a sense here that the ceasefire has given the movement more room to operate. Some people were surprised to see a report on a gay pride march in Derry this year, for example. What has been the impact of the ceasefire on the popular movement?

BDM: The gay pride march in Derry has been going on since before the hunger strikes. You didn’t see it because you didn’t look for it. All you were interested in was fighting.

My criticism of the strategy of Sinn Fein is because of its effect on the popular movement. Equality is one of the few organizations that refuses to deflect its efforts into the peace process. When we heard what the strategy was, we said: “It doesn’t work, but what can we do?” We’re getting on with our own work.

A large number of organizations had their energy dissipated by the need to move the peace process forward. Decommissioning [i.e. getting rid of weapons] is not a real issue, but it distracts people.

Des Wilson’s conference on the way forward a number of years ago was an effort to define what we want. That debate has now been shelved in order to not prejudice issues before we get to the table. If now you say what you want, you are accused of setting preconditions. The energy is deflected into how we engage in talks those who don’t want to talk.

But what do you do? Gay rights marches have been held in Derry at least since the hunger strike. Those things were there, but it was difficult to focus attention on them because of the war.

The decision to end the war should have been made by the community. It wasn’t. Sinn Fein made a decision unilaterally. That is a fundamental breach of democracy and of the sharing of the struggle. If it hadn’t made that mistake, it mightn’t have made the others.

You have to make the oppressor stand under the light. The oppressor got to be the oppressor by lying, cheating and abusing people of decency. When he invites you into the dark, you tell him to come into the light. You don’t go into the dark with him.

But that’s what Sinn Fein did. That error was made because of not having a core respect for democracy. Let’s cut this off now so others can participate and we can talk more freely.

Last question: What can Americans do?

BDM: The first thing Americans should do is demand that Mr. Clinton use his presidential pardon to pardon the Irish who are here. Then tell him, while you have that presidential pen in your hand, pardon Leonard Peltier [long-time Native American activist framed in the killing of an FBI agent] as well. Because we do not simply believe in democratic rights for the Irish. We believe in democratic rights for all people.

Second, support the MacBride Principles. We don’t just want jobs. We want just jobs.

ATC 61, March-April 1996