State papers: MacBride campaign helped fair employment change

Posted By: August 25, 2016

The success in the US of the MacBride Principles played a key role in a new Fair Employment Act in 1989

Éamon Phoenix. Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, August 25, 2016

Seán MacBride

THE success of the campaign for the MacBride Principles in the US encouraged the British government to introduce a new Fair Employment Act in 1989.

Named after Nobel Peace Prize recipient Seán MacBride, the fair employment principles act as a corporate code of conduct for US companies doing business in Northern Ireland.

State papers show how Sir Antony Acland, the British Ambassador to the US, wrote to Northern Ireland secretary Tom King in 1987 about continuing controversy in the US around fair employment in Northern Ireland.

Acland said US interest in Northern Ireland had declined following the signing of the Anglo- Irish Agreement and was “no longer anywhere near the top of most American politicians’ agenda”.

But he said among several areas for concern fair employment was “the most difficult” and “finally, and most important, MacBride”.

Acland welcomed King’s decision to “shift the emphasis of British efforts [in the US] away from the Principles” and to the MacBride campaign’s impact on investment in Northern Ireland.

On the MacBride campaign, the ambassador’s view was that “even with increased resources, we would have little or no chance of halting the campaign altogether. We shall still be dealing with legislators who see no reason to change their embedded view of NI”.

David Fell, head of the Stormont Department of Economic Development, circulated a confidential memo on MacBride commenting on the British ambassador’s remarks.

He acknowledged that in face of the mounting campaign, “the credibility of HMG’s commitment to fair employment is now a major objective”.

“An important consequence”, he wrote, “has been the need to secure real progress on fair employment on the ground”.

But he added: “It must be pointed out that, for whatever reasons, there has been no new US investment in NI since 1984.”

In his view, a political decision was required whether to adopt a laissez-faire approach to MacBride or continue resistance which would be very costly.

In reply to Acland in November 1987, King favored a more “laissez-faire approach”, adding: “All the indicators are the MacBride lobby will not give up and I would rather put the resources into our fair employment effort in NI than dissipate them further to no good effort in the US.”

The result was the 1989 Fair Employment Act which established a strong Fair Employment Commission and imposed a statutory duty on both the public and private sectors to end direct and indirect discrimination based on religious belief or political opinion.