By Niall Crowley.
Sandro Gozi, Secretary of State for European Policies in Italy, caught the spirit of it. On behalf of the Italian Presidency of the European Council he spoke of a lost decade where the main reason for establishing the European Union: the advancing of fundamental values such as equality and human rights, was forgotten. He called for a return to these guiding values.
Salla Saastamoinen, Director of Equality at the EU’s Justice Directorate was equally upbeat and more practical. She confirmed the European Commission’s commitment to prioritise unblocking of the proposed EU Equal Treatment Directive. She stated that the Commission would establish a new High Level Group on Non-Discrimination, Equality and Diversity to be operational in 2015.
This new energy for equality at European level was evident at a recent high-level event organised by the Italian Presidency and the European Commission. Our own Aodhán O’Ríordáin, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, was an enthusiastic and articulate participant. He was one of the first signatories of the ‘Declaration of Rome’.
The declaration commits the signatories to an impressive range of actions to advance equality and non-discrimination. The challenge is to make sure the declaration is signed by a significant number of Member States and to ensure that it is implemented by those who sign it.
The declaration is ambitious in its commitment to ‘mainstreaming’. This involves taking account of the situation of groups experiencing inequality when Government is developing new policies, plans and programmes. Mainstreaming aims to ensure the effectiveness of such policies, plans and programmes for these groups. It is a powerful tool for equality that has yet to be implemented to any adequate extent in Ireland or elsewhere.
The declaration commits signatories to:
“Mainstream and promote the principle of equality and non-discrimination for all groups at risk of discrimination across relevant government departments so that these concerns are integrated into all policy-making and policy-implementation, establishing, if appropriate, structures for this task and providing training and other support, as necessary, on human rights and equality-related issues, to develop mainstreaming capabilities within the civil service”.
The Minister has a useful starting point for giving expression to this commitment. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 includes a requirement on public bodies to have regard to equality and human rights in carrying out their functions. Public bodies are required to make an assessment of equality and human rights issues of relevance to their functions in their strategic plans and to set out policies, plans and actions already in place or to be put in place to address these issues.
The Minister and his department need to champion this legal requirement across all government departments. The Department of Justice and Equality should emerge as an enthusiastic exemplar in implementing this public-sector duty. The Minister needs to ensure that a standard is set in the public sector for an ambitious and effective implementation of the public-sector duty, and that necessary supports for achieving this standard are put in place across the public sector, if the commitment made in the declaration is to resonate.
The signatories to the declaration welcomed “the establishment of a High-Level Group on Non-Discrimination, Equality and Diversity by the European Commission” and committed to “support the development of common objectives for equality and non-discrimination to guide and focus the work of this Group”. Common objectives established at a European level for equality and non-discrimination could be a valuable driver for progress on these issues. They must be wide-ranging enough to embrace the full spectrum of groups covered by equal treatment legislation. They must be ambitious enough to advance progress on advancing equality for these groups.
We need new forms of co-operation at European level for equality and non-discrimination. Ireland should emerge as an imaginative leader co-operative challenging of the European Union to reconnect with its fundamental values of equality and human rights. •