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The Right to Work in Northern Ireland

6 Nov

by Caroline Parkes


On 1st November 2012, a senior prison officer, David Black, was shot on his way to work.  His murder, the first of a prison officer since 1993, showed that peace in Northern Ireland remains a fragile concept.  But this also resonates with the very specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, a place where, even over a decade after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, your life is still potentially in danger on the basis of your career choice.

Security forces, police and prison officers have long been considered fair targets for violence for first, republicans and now, dissident republicans.  In the last three years or so, Ronan Kerr, a young Catholic officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was killed in a car bomb in front of his house in April 2011; Stephen Carroll, also a Catholic PSNI officer, was killed in March 2009; Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were murdered at the Massereene Barracks, also in March 2009.  Though these deaths cannot be considered as indicative of a return to the dark days of the conflict, they are emblematic of the fact that despite significant progress made in establishing and embedding a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland, there is still more work to be done.

For some, especially in working class loyalist and republican estates, the ‘peace dividend’ after 1998 was limited.  The money which flooded into Northern Ireland did not sufficiently trickle down to these communities and the lives of many young people continues to be marred by limited educational and employment opportunities.  Research has shown that these communities, for example those in North Belfast, remain deeply divided.   As the Community Relations Council reported earlier this year:

The number of interfaces [the area where segregated nationalist and unionist areas meet]  in Northern Ireland was 22 when the Belfast Agreement was signed; today the number is as high as 88 by some estimates. We still see flags and emblems as prominently displayed during the marching season as before the Agreement. Deep divisions in housing and education also remain.

More broadly, as the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Group noted in a 2012 report:

Ninety per cent of social housing in Northern Ireland is still segregated. And while 6.5% of children now attend integrated schools, this means the other 93.5% are separated into Catholic and Protestant schools. Sectarian division persists too in electoral politics. No new political party has emerged since the 1998 Agreement, and the stability of Northern Ireland politics, [ …] is to do with the equilibrium achieved between the two blocs rather than any reconciliation between the two political cultures.

After the murder of Ronan Kerr, there was a rally in Belfast city centre where commitments to peace were re-affirmed and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called for people in Northern Ireland to be able to work without fear of intimidation, violence or death.  As the murders of Ronan Kerr and Stephen Carroll showed, these fears were not unfounded.   A former young colleague of mine, from a family she described as nationalist, was keen to join the PSNI.  She decided that there were members of her extended family, for whom such job would mean she would be a legitimate target for violence, and thus she would not risk enrolling.  I have another Catholic friend from West Belfast who told me that no-one apart from his wife knew that their son was a serving police officer.  What does it mean then to have a job where you check under your car each morning? Where you are issued with body armour and a personal protection weapon? Or where you can’t tell your friends and neighbours who you work for? Where you have to drive miles to ensure you work in an area where you won’t be recognised?

Those who join the PSNI or the Prison Service are undoubtedly aware of the dangers they face. reinforced, for example, by the attack on Peadar Heffron, a Catholic Irish speaker and captain of the PSNI Gaelic Athletic Association team, who was badly injured in the dissident car bomb attack in January 2010.  Without cross-community recruitment into these services, the chances for  developing representative policing and prison service, which reflects all of Northern Ireland’s communities, remains a distant dream.

But increasing and diversifying recruitment to agencies which previously represented sectarian dominance is difficult.  Attempts to cleanse these institutions of their sometimes murky pasts have proven problematic.  Large scale redundancies of the old vanguard of prison officers has proven very expensive, and recruitment of new Catholic officers has been limited.  A focus on cost-cutting measures, such as bringing in new, young officers on lower salaries rather than effectively addressing the lack of community diversity within the Prison Service, may reveal the depth of the commitment to diversity.  Equally, while the recruitment of Catholic officers into the PSNI has met the threshold (of 30%) set out by the Patten Commission, research has found that this recruitment is not representative of the Catholic community as a whole and this recruitment is offset by the relatively high numbers of new Catholic officers leaving the within a short period of time.  Similarly, those who took the Patten severance package, developed to enable a new generation of younger, more representative (and arguably less sectarian) police officers to be recruited, were often re-hired as agency workers.   Research also found that while the badges and emblems of the PSNI changed, and training undertaken on human rights, equality, community policing, sectarianism is an ongoing part of ‘canteen culture’.

The protests within Maghaberry Prison, David Black’s workplace, by dissident prisoners has resulted in an ongoing battle with the Prison Service; extending outside the prison gates, with a number of prison officers having to move homes after intelligence showed they were under threat.   A rejection of strip searches by prisoners and concerns over restricted movement led, in 2010, to a delicately brokered deal between prisoners and the Prison Service.  However, this deal later collapsed with accusations that the Prison Service had failed to uphold their part of the agreement.

Dissident republicans may be in the minority and at the extreme but there are some in Northern Ireland who believe that little has changed since the conflict.  Nationalists continue to be the subject of undue harassment, the use of ‘supergrasses’ undermines the criminal justice system, families bereaved by the conflict remain disappointed by efforts at state sanctioned truth recovery, allegations of collusion between loyalists and the British government continue to seep out like a poisonous cloud over reconciliation efforts, and the Bill of Rights process remains stalled. This was summed up in a post by the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a Belfast-based human rights group:

The proved or alleged human rights abuses that were perpetrated by the UK state during the conflict include state sanctioned murder, torture, collusion with non-state armed groups, detention without trial and denial of a fair trial, accompanied by a culture of impunity, together with toleration of religious and other forms of discrimination. The exposure and holding to account of elements of the state for these crimes is a so far uncompleted task.

More needs to be done to both effectively address this legacy and to thoroughly develop a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland.  Dissident violence cannot be blamed solely on these unresolved issues, but their continued momentum within communities in Northern Ireland speaks to entrenched social, economic and political inequalities which remain unaddressed.  Freedom to choose one’s place and kind of work, without threat of violence or intimidation should be a given for all in Northern Ireland.  The fact that there remain those who are denied this right should be seen within the wider difficulties and failures of this peace process.

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