A reply to a reader’s correspondence on discrimination
25th January 2005
Thank you for your correspondence on my articles titled ‘No more discrimination any more’ and your expression of agreement with my analysis. You observe that the articles were ‘overly complex and hard to follow.’ For the latter I must confess to my share of responsibility for any lack of clarity, but the complexity was due to my wish to provide an appreciation of the arguments and findings of the book. I did not want to present judgements which might have been easy to follow but which would have left the reader wondering about their validity and unable sensibly to come to any view of their own. I did not however try to substitute my review for reading the book itself and, as in all such circumstances, those interested have an obligation to read the book itself. In other words the review may have been complex because the material was also complex.
This for example can be seen in your own summary of what I have to say. You speak of ‘underrepresentation’ and ‘overrepresentation’ of Catholics in various categories of employment, but a quantitative recording is required to convey its extent and by how much it has changed, since it was around these issues that the political arguments in the book revolved.
You locate my difficulty in my not having an ‘up-to-date socialist theory’ to base my critique upon and therefore building my analysis ‘back to front.’ I am tempted to ask: what up-to-date socialist theory? The position I roughly started from is the section of the programme Socialist Democracy published in 1996 in ‘Ireland: The Promise of Socialism’, specifically the chapter on sectarianism. The book by the Equality Commission makes claims which would render some of this out of date. To see whether this was so was the purpose of the review – to acquaint myself with the latest research on religious disadvantage and to convey this to readers. Only knowledge of such facts could allow an ‘up-to-date’ socialist policy to be formulated. I would therefore contend that my approach was not ‘back to front.’
It may well be that Socialist Democracy should publish a new policy statement on discrimination, but this was not the purpose of the review nor the place to provide it. I did nevertheless, in the concluding part of the review, make some general observations on the political meaning of the research for socialist analysis and perspective.
Your recommendation that a look back at the record of Stormont would be worthwhile seems to contradict your claim that an up-to-date policy statement is required, unless it is a call for a means of comparison with what the situation is now. If this is so, then once again determining what the situation is now is the most pressing task since Socialist Democracy has already made a statement on discrimination and disadvantage as it existed a decade ago and much has been written about the practices of Stormont before that.
I will not attempt a policy statement here but will provide a number of comments which I believe would form important elements of one. You and other readers are encouraged and welcome to make contributions to clarifying our and your own views on this matter.
The starting point must be the quest for workers unity and the damage that discrimination and relative disadvantage plays in preventing and undermining such unity. In particular the role of the State in preventing such unity and maintaining relative disadvantage must be at the centre of analysis and policy. This is because it is the state which is the ultimate political weapon oppressing the working class and it is political unity, not merely industrial unity, which is the objective of socialists. The claims of the state to have eradicated discrimination and disadvantage therefore deserve special attention.
The central role of the state means that opposition to sectarianism and discrimination in state policy must be central to the socialist programme, and concretely opposition to the thoroughly sectarian Good Friday Agreement. Socialist Democracy is in very much of a minority on the left in its opposition to the GFA and acceptance of its parameters on socialist policy. It is unique in the very prominent place it has put such opposition in our politics. This I believe is a reflection of our anti-sectarianism and refusal to allow any legitimation of sectarian thinking or practices.
Our unwillingness to pass over or minimise Catholic disadvantage is also very much a minority position on the left, but contrasts with the position of republican opposition which is more and more taking on an openly sectarian hue.
We have an example of this today in the open letter to the British government, published in the ‘Irish News,’ by the republican Una Gillespie from the West Belfast Economic Forum. Her letter is a response to rumours that the British intend to give £70m to the UDA under the cover of economic and social regeneration of working class Protestant areas. Her letter basically comes down to the argument that Catholics are worse off and the money should go to them. While acknowledging that more Peace funding goes to Catholic areas and the ‘community infrastructure’ is stronger in Catholic areas, she wants more because no adequate measure of a weak community infrastructure has been elaborated to use as a means of justifying money to ‘loyalist’ areas. Her complaint is that the UDA has produced no evidence that Protestants are worse off than Catholics. One can only draw the conclusion that until they do, all money should go to equalising the poverty of Catholics and Protestants by giving it all to Catholics.
The letter amounts to no more than a sectarian appeal to the sectarian state that is responsible for presiding over the poverty of both Protestant and Catholic areas and the relative disadvantage of the latter. She does not even question the right of the UDA to represent working class Protestants who they routinely intimidate and exploit nor does she characterise what is happening as the British rewarding their death squads in ‘peace’ for their loyalty to the requirements of the British state in war. Her sectarian demands are presented as a return to the demands of the civil rights movement and equality of sectarianism is equated to the demand for an end to sectarianism.
So much is already the property of Socialist Democracy’s political programme. The latest research raises the question more forcefully whether equalisation of sectarian privileges, or lack of them, contributes anything to workers unity. Outside of a socialist perspective experience would suggest that it does not, whatever objective grounds it may firm up for future socialist perspectives by reducing material differences.
What is posed is whether the demands for positive discrimination that received the endorsement of one of the antecedents of Socialist Democracy, Peoples Democracy, is a correct policy for today. In answering such a question it would be helpful to examine the experience of positive action programmes in the US where the mass of black people have become poorer while a sizeable black middle class has reaped the rewards. The situation is South Africa is even worse. The growth of a Catholic middle class in the North and the growing gap, not between Catholic and Protestant workers, but working class and middle class Catholics raises questions about positive discrimination measures and who benefits.
What is the significance of these trends for socialist policy? What would be meant by positive discrimination anyway? An up-to-date socialist policy would need to address and answer these questions.
Perhaps you can now appreciate that elaboration
of socialist policy is not an easy task and that outside of a real acquaintance
with the facts such attempts can easily become the repetition of dogma.
Such an elaboration is a collective task, which is why I am a member of
a political organisation. But Socialist Democracy is a small organisation.
We do not have all the answers and I would again invite you and other readers
to make their own contributions to our elaboration of a policy.