CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: With all due respect - pluralism and parity of esteem (Report No. 7)

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With all due respect

Pluralism and parity of esteem

A defining issue

Clearly the most key player in defining parity of esteem in Northern Ire land is the British government itself. On behalf of the (outgoing) government, Sir David Fell, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, refers to Sir Patrick Mayhew's speech of December 16th 1992, on culture and identity, in which he identified four significant lines of division:

  • national identities - where the divisions were between those who primarily identified themselves as British and those who saw themselves as primarily Irish;

  • religious traditions - where historic antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants had been maintained longer, and with more intense feeling, than in most parts of Europe;

  • cultural traditions - where Gaelic, Anglo-Irish, Scottish and English influences were reflected in language, sports, music and literature, though these patterns were complicated by the urban/rural divide and the influence of the international mass media; and

  • socio-economic divisions - with disadvantage more pronounced in the Catholic community, though the recent growth of a professional Catholic middle class and changing employment patterns complicated the picture.

Sir David claims that the government's approach to the divisions in Northern Ireland is based on equality of opportunity, equity of treatment and parity of esteem. In applying the latter principle, he argues the government recognises the validity of the majority community's predominant wish to remain British, as well as the minority community's predominant nationalist aspiration; does not discriminate in favour of particular cultural traditions in terms of government policy and financial assistance; provides legal redress against discrimination by government or in employment, on grounds of religion or political opinion; and seeks to reduce socio-economic differentials between the communities.

For the government, however, this does not imply identity of treatment. At the constitutional level, Sir David contends that there are limits to the application of parity of esteem: a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only come about only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Though the British government has indicated that it has no 'selfish strategic or economic interest' in Northern Ireland and agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of 'self-determination' on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, parity of esteem for the British and Irish national allegiances/identities in Northern Ireland must be placed within the context of United Kingdom sovereignty, based on consent.

It should hopefully be clear from the comments in the first chapter that this paragraph, while a fair representation of what appears as a robust and cogent position, is in fact intensely problematic. For it is strewn with concepts-majoritarianism, self-determination, sovereignty-which have already been shown to represent a language inadequate to the resolution of conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland.

After government, church leaders must be principal definers of parity of esteem, given its primary focus is on the equilibrium, or otherwise, between the two religiously defined communities. To Dr Sean Brady, Catholic archbishop of Armagh, parity of esteem means that the political and religious views of people should be treated with respect. The expression of these views alone, or in groups, should be granted full liberty and tolerance within the bounds of public order and public morality.

For Dr Brady, parity of esteem also means that elements such as religion, culture, race, gender and status, which are markedly different, and some of which have been accorded greater weight, might be henceforth given equal weight and equal respect. It means that equal respect would be shown to people, so that all citizens would be equal before the law. Dr Brady argues that parity of esteem ensures that no one is discriminated against on the basis of their religion or their culture, or their race or gender.

Lord Eames, the Church of Ireland primate, conceives of parity of esteem as meaning two things:

First, how I view my own community. Unless the community has self-respect, confidence and a historical basis which it can live with, and can be content and happy with, it is not going to have its own parity of esteem ... Secondly, it is looking from within your community to another community and saying 'you have an equal right, you have an equal core, you have an equal esteem' ... and to be able to say, because you are confident in your own community, to another community ... I respect what you believe.
Therefore, parity of esteem is "first to be treated equally by the law, to be equal culturally, to be treated fairly in all such things as employment, in all such things as answerability to the courts and above all else to be treated fairly in human relationships".

As far as Dr Henry Allen, outgoing moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, is concerned, parity of esteem similarly "should mean the respect of, and acceptance of, each other, regardless of differences". So far, so unproblematic.

But Dr Allen believes that parity of esteem has been "hyped up politically" and he warns how the concept has become something of an intercommunal cudgel rather than a shared aspiration: a phrase to be "bandied about ... and it really has almost little or no meaning

[T]here is the danger that people can claim a parity of esteem and not be prepared to give it. But parity of esteem really for me, is respect for and acceptance of the differences of other people."

Many agencies established by government under what has been called the 'new constitutionalism' of direct rule have obviously been concerned with the many-faceted intercommunal balance in Northern Ireland. Thus Bob Cooper, chair of the Fair Employment Commission, is not sure that parity of esteem has a single meaning.

Mr Cooper however believes that it means that "one community is not regarded as inferior to the other", and that a community's fears and aspirations are respected, so that "each community behaves decently to each other". In his opinion, "some of the old inequalities, not all of them", disappeared with the original civil rights agenda-unfairness in the allocation of houses, unfairness in allocation of jobs, unfairness in electoral systems. But the psychological dimensions of the conflict remain, the "aspects of how each community looks at the other".

Dr Mari Fitzduff, outgoing director of the Community Relations Council, has a rather different brief from that of Mr Cooper - a focus on intercommunal relationships, rather than intercommunal differentials. And the concern for parity of esteem has been associated with the latter, not the former.

It is thus not surprising that Dr Fitzduff manifests some ambivalence about the idea of parity of esteem:

When you talk about parity you talk about two flags, you talk about two anthems and I think some people are going to try and use it like that. But the reality is that in all of our different districts we vary in our numbers and strengths ... so I don't think it is as simple as 50/50, split it down the middle in terms of our actions or symbols ... That's not the way we are in our communities, so I worry about the word 'parity'.
Patrick Loughrey, as controller of BBC Northern Ireland, is acutely sensitive to how the corporation in Northern Ireland faces questions of 'balance' wholly more exacting than elsewhere in the UK. Alongside UTV, of course, BBC provides the most widely consumed source of cultural images in Northern Ireland and therefore its output is at the heart of the parity of esteem debate. His comments are thus notable for their stress on mutuality and gradualism.

Mr Loughrey argues that for there to be parity of esteem there has to be "recognition, mutual recognition, and mutual regard" of each tradition's culture and identity. Ultimately, this means that all institutions in Northern Ireland "must recognise the diversity that is real in this community, and not overcompensate unduly in recognising one and disregarding the other". But Mr Loughrey recalls a policeman telling him that road accidents were seldom caused by actions, rather reactions: "It is when we swerve to avoid something that we have a crash and ... I think society at the moment is in danger of over-correcting, and creating alienation and unease by over-correction, and we should, in our attempts to correct society, be more patient."

Popular culture - in its male-dominated form - when not about TV, is often about sport, again highly charged in Northern Ireland, given its associations with communal antagonism. Eamon McCartan, of the Sports Council of Northern Ireland, is thus again highly conscious that the issue is not only inequality but also division. Mr McCartan thinks parity of esteem must mean that both sections of Northern Ireland's divided community recognise the value and worth of each other "and it is about the actual living of the statement".

For him, sport is first and foremost a social activity:

So if we live in a divided society, which is divided by symbols and a whole host of other things, then ... I believe you will have that in sport. And that is not to put a qualitative judgement on it, whether that is a good or bad thing. I think it I sport I will be a mirror image of societyl. I think I Nelson] Mandela has been quoted as saying 'there is no such thing as normal sport in abnormal society', so therefore it depends which premise you come from. If you come from the premise that Northern Ireland is an abnormal society, then obviously sport will have an abnormal element ... We are an abnormal society, we are a divided society, for better and/or for worse.

The various measures taken over the period of direct rule to try to ameliorate intercommunal divisions and inequalities have largely been introduced over the heads of Northern Ireland's elected representatives. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that this 'democratic deficit' is unsatisfactory in terms of liberal-democratic norms of accountability and participation and so the London and Dublin governments, as well as the international community, support efforts to assuage that deficit via new constitutional arrangements, if such could be established through inter-party dialogue.

The views of party spokespersons are therefore important for two reasons, albeit neither as immediate as for those with their hands on government or exercising agentised authority Firstly, if they are unable to generate a common discourse which can adequately address questions of pluralism and parity of esteem, they will by definition be unable to arrive at a macro-constitutional deal. Secondly, if they were to prove incapable of dealing with the working out of these issues in government, then any such deal would be vulnerable to shocks and early collapse.

Jonathan Stephenson argues that his party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, seeks parity, or equal treatment, for the "two traditions in Northern Ireland"- in employment opportunities, social and human rights, and political rights, as evidenced in political institutions. Although the phrase itself has achieved prominence in political discourse in recent years, Mr Stephenson identifies the underlying connotations in the civil rights movement and the "disparity of esteem" which existed in almost every area of public life in Northern Ireland in the late 60s - perhaps an interesting reminder, in contrast to the rather past-tense reference to civil rights by Bob Cooper, of the longevity of the sense of grievance in the Catholic community.

In local government, Mr Stephenson wants to see parity of esteem given institutional recognition through the sharing of the symbolic posts such as mayor and deputy mayor. He points to the SDLP's record in sharing out such posts in councils where it holds majority sway. Institutional expression, however, of parity of esteem at a regional, or archi-pelagic, level - as against in local government - may, however, raise more difficult issues, as subsequent discussion indicates.

From a Sinn Féin perspective, Jim Gibney prefers to speak about "equality of treatment" - a clear hint of the concern within the republican constituency that parity of esteem should be more than warm words, that it should have real, material significance. For Mr Gibney, it concerns the plight of "people who in this state are Irish nationalists, or Irish nationals living in this state against their wishes under foreign occupation by British government ... [and] have lived to all intents and purposes in a system which discriminates wholesale against them - discriminates against them in terms of their identity and their culture".

Thus the republican conception is that this is an issue of power, perceived as ultimately stemming from the 'British presence' but manifested most evidently in loyal-order parades: "Because these marches [controversies] are really not about just routes ... these Orange parades and Apprentice Boys parades essentially are about equality, about respect and I think that in their own way they symbolise the core of the problem in this society. And basically what it comes down to is that one section of people in this state want to lord over another section and Drumcree and the lower Ormeau and Garvaghy Road is what this conflict is really all about."

Ian Paisley Jnr, of the Democratic Unionist Party, takes a wholly contrary view, however, decoding parity of esteem as the alienation of the Protestant community: "[T]he community is conditioned to think that it means equality, but I think the political meaning is quite simply the alienation and the lowering of British and Ulster identity and the elevation of a nationalist identity."

Observing from his party standpoint the changes which have taken place under direct rule, Mr Paisley detects this process in the actions of government, quangos and certain institutions - for example the removal of God Save the Queen from graduation ceremonies at Queen's University, the suggestion that the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary should be changed or that the 'royal' should similarly be dropped from the Royal Courts of Justice, and the number of visits to Northern Ireland by the republic's president, Mary Robinson. He interprets all these as being "designed to condition people here to just accept [that] nationalism has to be elevated while unionism's identity, not so much [its] politics but . . .[its] identity, has to be denigrated".

This view is shared by many unionists. Initially, when Bob McCartney, leader of the United Kingdom Unionist Party, heard the term 'parity of esteem' he could not understand what all the controversy was about, since he considered himself a pluralist, and he believed in parity of esteem' for every individual. He believed there should be equality of economic and employment opportunity, equality before the law and equality of educational opportunity - in other words that "every citizen, regardless of his own specific political aspirations or ambitions, should be entitled within the state to have all the same rights as everybody else and that should include liberty to express his own cultural and ethnic preferences".

But, in a comment perhaps again revealing the impasse towards which the equation of liberal democracy with majoritarianism can lead, Mr McCartney says:

[G]radually I came to realise that what they [nationalists] mean by 'parity of esteem is not parity of esteem for the individual but parity of esteem for the constitutional identity of the state. I don't know of any democracy which says that the minority shall be allowed the same rights as the majority in determining the constitutional and political identity of the state itself, [for] that seems to me to be a concept that has got nothing to do with civil rights, protection of individual rights or protection against majoritarianism ...
Jeffrey Donaldson of the Ulster Unionist Party interprets parity of esteem in a similarly hyper-political way-from the other side of the divide-to the fashion of Mr Gibney of SF. For Mr Donaldson, it is a phrase developed by nationalists to mean that the "Irish nationalist minority in Northern Ireland should have equality in terms of their treatment, in terms of their identity and their involvement in political institutions". And he makes the equal but opposite linkage to British jurisdiction:
Now that is where unionists, and I as a unionist, encounter difficulty with this idea of 'parity of esteem' because I think [of] parity of esteem ... and the idea of an 'Irish dimension' as in fact being ... a political ruse for arguing for the creation of all-Ireland or north-south institutions, the purpose of which would not be to encapsulate the Irish dimension so much as to create a dynamic towards the ultimate creation of some sort of political entity that embraces the whole of the island ... Therefore when nationalists talk about parity of esteem ... [it] is in fact about the diminution of the British identity of Northern Ireland, and the British identity held very dearly by the unionists in Northern Ireland, [so as] to elevate the Irish dimension to the point where political structures created to accommodate that Irish dimension in fact actually lead towards the attainment of the political objectives ... of Irish nationalists.
Concerns with a raft of other inequalities - notably class - seems to lie behind the notably more relaxed attitudes of the 'fringe' loyalist parties to parity of esteem. Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party thinks of it in terms of "equal citizenship". And while considering parity of esteem to be "about recognising the people outside of your own culture and political group", he wants to see equal treatment irrespective of class, creed or sexual orientation, at all levels of the community: "what parity of esteem means for me ... is ... respecting someone else's opinion."

David Adams of the Ulster Democratic Party similarly defines parity of esteem as "total equality across the board" and "particularly in the Northern Ireland situation equality as regards people's treatment and respect for people's religion ... their political views ... [the right] to pursue their political views by peaceful means ... [and the right] to practise their religious beliefs". He recognises, however, that what is seen as a gain for one side is seen as a loss for another, "so we have almost moved to a position now where both nationalists and unionists call for parity of esteem. Both Protestants and Catholics talk in terms of getting a raw deal in comparison to the other side, so it's very much a winners-and-losers situation. Whereas, to my mind, parity of esteem is not about winners and losers: it is about everyone being winners."

While most people in Northern Ireland assume parity of esteem is reducible to relations between Protestants and Catholics, Mr Adams points out that there are also growing minorities of Chinese, Indian sub-continent and travelling people in Northern Ireland. This is an important point, not only for the minorities concerned but also in terms of the issue flagged in chapter one of the fear of consolidating 'two teams thinking if 'group rights' are entrenched. A big gain in thinking through parity of esteem in terms of international conventions is that these are inherently addressed to any kind of ethnic minority - not just Protestants and Catholics - and implicitly invoke a broader multi-cultural pluralism. In particular, they refuse any notion that there might be a hierarchy of group grievances - an important worry in Northern Ireland in as much as any such implication could be viewed as a disincentive against non-violence.

Patrick Yu, of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), takes up precisely this point. MrYu finds that in Northern Ireland "racism is always the issue at the bottom of the pile", and he claims that ethnic (in the narrow sense of racial) minorities in the region have low self-esteem because of the racism they encounter. This is compounded by other hurdles, such as the language barrier faced by the Chinese community.

Mr Yu feels that the problem of racism is not focused upon at all-the delay in introducing the Race Relations Order might be thought to have borne that out-and, indeed, that many people believe that racism does not exist in Northern Ireland. Through bitter experience, Northern Ireland's ethnic minorities, he argues, have come to fear that if they adopt a high profile they will simply become a greater focus for racist attacks. Therefore, they have tried to remain anonymous, only alerting the police to such attacks when life-threatening. Ironically, these appeared to intensify in the wake of the republican and loyalist ceasefires.

The order, in contrast to the original British legislation, encompasses the existence of travellers in Northern Ireland. Michael Noonan, of the Belfast Travellers' Education and Development Group, insists that parity of esteem-which he defines broadly as meaning equality of respect for the various cultures and ethnic/religious groups in Northern Ireland - "has to be translated into policies and guidelines ... if it is to be anything other than an empty phrase". And even if in theory now protected, Mr Noonan points out that the traveller lifestyle "isn't accepted as legitimate. It's often looked on as either deviant or archaic ..."

There is a further difficulty here with the concept of parity of esteem, even if sensitively defined to include other ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. For there is still an implicit hierarchy of grievance since gender and other inequalities not readily falling under a 'cultural' (or violence-related) heading remain excluded.

Thus Evelyn Collins of the Equal Opportunities Commission, while interpreting parity of esteem broadly - as "treating people in the same way regardless of their background or allowing people the same opportunity regardless of their background, or valuing differences" - believes it "would be a very narrow entity in relation to women" because it does not recognise the particular gendered needs of women:

That would be a very narrow definition because there are instances where equality of opportunity is not about treating everybody the same because it doesn't recognise that people have different starting points. So, for example, you can't treat a pregnant woman in the same way you would treat a man because men don't get pregnant and so on and the [industrial] tribunals got themselves terribly mixed up in the 80s about that. So I think the simple concept of equal treatment is sometimes not that easy in relation to equality issues. What you are looking for ... is equality of outcome ... and that is different from equality of treatment ... You can say quite easily we treat everybody the same knowing quite deliberately it will disadvantage one community or another … Equality of outcome is actually different - that is a much more serious approach to equality.
This question has no easy resolution. At one level, it points up the need to boost the agenda inaugurated by the Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment guidelines, embracing as these do a diverse range of sources of inequality, gender included, sustaining at least formally a 'parity' between them. We return to this issue in the conclusion.

At another, however, it reminds us that parity of esteem can neither be perceived as coterminous with social equality nor as exhausting all concern with coping with social difference. Thus, for example, if the delay in governmental response to the demand for race relations legislation in Northern Ireland was highly regrettable, there has been essentially nil response to the demands by the EOC NI for reform of equal opportunity law. While it is true that the latter issue has been related to wider UK arguments, it is nevertheless again suggestive that, sotto voce, a hierarchy of inequalities/differences is indeed taken for granted in reality.

From all these interpretations of what parity of esteem means, it can be seen that there is agreement that it should embrace mutual recognition of, and respect for, the culture of other traditions in Northern Ireland. But it is already clear that differences of interpretation bedevil the argument, even at this level of generality.

And, as we move from the universal to the particular, our interviews show that any attempt to produce an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance for the Other's culture and identity is undermined, as we shall see, by a marked reluctance to accept the allegiance or identity of the Other as defined by the Other.

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