Sometimes, in our joy at headline change, we forget what’s going on at the bottom of the story. The election (and re-election) of Barack Obama caused a tumult of delight, particularly among African-Americans. But if you look at educational attainment, prison population, unemployment, you’ll still see an unsettling story about the African-American population of the United States. In 2011, for example, it was reckoned that there were more African-Americans in prison than were enslaved in 1850.
Is there a similar gap between the attainment of nationalists/republicans in the political sphere and those stuck at the bottom of the social ladder? I attended a meeting yesterday that suggests there is, and that the dispossessed find great difficulty when they try to get a response from those in power.
The title of the meeting was “Accountability in Northern Ireland” and it was sponsored, if that’s the word I want, by the Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation. I’ve written before about this organisation, founded by the late and lovely Inez McCormack. It exists to try to address the social and economic disadvantage that seems built in to our society. There was a range of speakers: Dessie Donnelly, the Director (Development) of PPR, Sam McBride, who’s the political correspondent for the News Letter, Laura McMahon who is a barrister working in Belfast and London, and Bette Graham, who is a resident of North Belfast and a founder member of the Right to Work: Right to Welfare group (R2W).
The speakers ranged widely in their discussion. Sam McBride talked about the way in which libel laws can cow those in the media, whether that’s professional journalists like himself or unpaid bloggers like me. Direct one loose accusation at someone and you could find yourself up before the beak. Dessie Donnelly talked about housing, and cited the case of a single mother of two children, living in unfit conditions but helpless in the grip of an unresponsive system. Laura McMahon spoke of the link between the cost of public inquiries and the reluctance of governments to put all the relevant information on the table. Betty Graham emphasised the need for government to be transparent in what it did, making clear their reasons for what that they do and showing themselves accountable to those who elect them.
One of the speakers from the floor was Bernadette McAliskey, a woman for whom I have enormous admiration, and who these days works tirelessly on behalf of immigrants in the Dungannon area and beyond. She urged the need for the revival of a Civic Forum, so that government could be scrutinised and where necessary called to account.
What it all boiled down to was that we mustn’t see democracy as voting for our various candidates every four or five years. True democracy demands that social injustice and inequality be tackled with real determination, and that the gap between those we elect and those who struggle to survive from day-to-day be bridged. With that in mind, the PPR have organised another meeting on Tuesday 6 May from 11 a m to 1 p m, in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings. If I tell you that the meeting is titled “Equality Can’t Wait: Residents Tell Their Stories – A Call For Action”, you’ll see how determined the PPR is to give a voice to the voiceless. You might even want to attend, in which case send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.