Socio-economic issues, and more specifically rights, have been central to understanding the Northern Ireland conflict. The conflict emerged against the backdrop of discrimination in housing and employment in particular. It was also most intense in areas of socio-economic deprivation and it exacerbated economic and health problems creating a long-lasting social impact in this jurisdiction.
There have been numerous efforts to introduce reforms addressing these concerns. The Housing Executive was created and adopted an allocation process based on objective need. Fair employment legislation was enacted to address discrimination in employment on grounds of religion or political opinion. The Fair Employment laws were gradually strengthened resulting in the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) 1998. The Fair Employment legislation provides for robust legal intervention in the workplace through monitoring, and recent reviews of the labour market show that inequalities in this area have reduced. The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 1998 (GFA 1998) introduced some important provisions in relation to socio-economic rights, and more particularly equality.
The Agreement provides for a (then ground-breaking) equality mainstreaming obligation. This was legislated for in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, requiring designated public authorities to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity across nine grounds. The Agreement also provided for a single equality commission to monitor and enforce equality and anti-discrimination law, including disability law. The equality legislation does not protect socio-economic rights or prohibit discrimination based on socio-economic status, but the protection of equality and socio-economic rights are in practice intertwined. The Agreement also includes commitments on economic, social and cultural ‘issues’, including regional and economic development and social cohesion, protecting the environment, employment equality reform, linguistic diversity (especially on promotion of the Irish language), and on the use of symbols and emblems.
While the 1998 Agreement and subsequent agreements have provided some support for socio-economic rights and equality rights, the local political context of power-sharing government has to be considered. In numerous respects there has either been inaction or actual slippage in the protection of socio-economic rights and equality.
The EU is directly relevant to the protection of socio-economic rights and equality. There is especial significance in relation to equality law. EU support for economic and social development in Northern Ireland, and for cross-border programmes, has also been important for maintaining socio-economic standards.