Perspective - Dealing with Difference
Experience in Northern Ireland indicates that when society is riven with sectarian hatred and violence - themselves indicators of how little diversity is prized during conflict - concerns of ethnic minorities and those with disabilities are marginalized while discrimination against women merits less attention than religious or political prejudice. Discrimination, harassment, intimidation and murder are the worst excesses of lack of respect for diversity.
The signing of the Agreement in 1998 heralded an expectation that political attention would turn to building an inclusive society. Inherent is the challenge to realise peace through respecting diverse backgrounds, valuing and developing relationships across difference and managing diversity constructively to encourage and include the full potential of all. Leadership for the vision of a new, inclusive Northern Ireland is to be found in groups representing the most marginalized among which there is willingness to celebrate diversity, transcend differences and build common cause in their search for equality and parity of esteem.
Inclusion and diversity cannot be seen apart from equality and human rights; a society that claims it respects diversity must evidence its commitment through application of high standards in rights and anti-discrimination. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 introduced far-reaching provisions on equality. It imposed duties on public authorities to have 'due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity' across divers situations and identities, and 'regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group'.
Primacy is given to equality as the fundamental prerequisite upon which good relations are based. The inclusiveness of the equality duty means multi-dimensional identities can be expressed, reflecting diversity and common cause at one and the same time. The unique coupling of 'equality' and 'good relations' holds the potential to break new ground in embracing diversity.
New equality procedures introduced under the Act enable political leaders and public policy makers to demonstrate a new approach to building an inclusive society. These leaders are in the driving seat of applying the equality and good relations duties, under the watchful eye of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. They must ensure rigorous attention to equality considerations during policy development. They have the opportunity, and responsibility, to introduce greater diversity from civic society into dialogue on policies. Success also depends upon leading progress through consistent articulation of commitment to upholding and advancing equality and good relations.