by Michael Smith
Angela Kerins was born in Waterford and grew up between Cashel and her mother’s hometown of Tramore Co. Waterford. Educated at the Presentation convent in Cashel, she was trained as a nurse and midwife in England in which role she worked in the UK, the middle East, the USA and Ireland.. She is married to Sean, lives near Woodstown, Co Waterford and has one daughter and one son.
A one-time member of the Fianna Fáil party, she is a ubiquitous face on Ireland’s boards. Angela Kerins is a board member of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, a member of Comreg’s Consumer Advisory Panel and a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs NGO committee on Human Rights. She has also served as a member of the National Executive of IBEC. She is a judge on the 2009 National Media awards and even appeared on off the Rails to “see what it’s like shopping for the larger figure”. In 2003, Kerins was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws (LLD) by the National University of Ireland, University College Dublin for her achievements in the disability sector.
It is, however, for her roles in disability and equality bodies that multi-tasking Ms Kerins has been the object of some controversy. She is chair of the Equality Authority. Following cuts to its budget its chief executive, Niall Crowley, and several board members resigned. Kerins has had to endure particular criticism of her own role as chairwoman while retaining high-profile positions as chair of the National Disability Authority, board member of the Health Information Quality Authority and chief executive of the multi-million euro Rehab Group, which is her day job.
For several years, Kerins has been a favoured insider for successive Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat administrations and was known to be close to the junior ministers with responsibility for disability at various times, Mary Wallace and Frank Fahey. She is a professed admirer of health minister, Mary Harney. Kerins also has good contacts with in Fine Gael as she worked closely in Rehab with party strategist, Frank Flannery, whom she replaced as chief executive in recent years.
She earned kudos for helping former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, deliver the controversial Disability Act in 2005 despite widespread opposition from a number of groups who felt it did not provide for the “disability-proofing” of all government legislation which they believed conferred minimal and inadequate rights on those with disabilities.
In her capacity as chairwoman of the Disability Legislation Consultation Group (DLCG), Kerins helped to generate sufficient support from the sector to push through the Act which commits the government, rather vaguely, to “take account of the impact on people with disabilities” when preparing legislation and policy. While it gave individuals a right to assessment of their needs it did not guarantee any services on foot of the assessment. It also gave public bodies ten years to ensure that their buildings are accessible to the disabled.
Last year, Kerins was plunged into controversy when the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, announced the drastic cut of 43%, from almost €6 million to €3.3 million, in the Equality Authority’s budget.
Having spoken publicly of the need to retain the resources necessary to do its work effectively, Ms Kerins later appeared to accept the budget cut and was less than generous in her praise of Crowley when he did the honourable thing and resigned. His departure was followed by those of six board members including Therese Murphy of the National Women’s Council, Frank Goodwin of the Carers’ Association, two representatives from IBEC, and two trade union appointees.
In early March, in the presence of a notably grateful John Waters who claimed in the Irish Times that his agenda had come in from the cold, Kerins launched the 2009-2011 Strategic Plan for the Authority and promised that it was satisfied it could meet its targets despite the swingeing budget cuts.
“We are confident that through effective use of resources and a can-do attitude we can fully deliver on the ambitions set out in this plan”, Kerins said.
Mark Kelly is the spokesperson for the Equality and Rights Alliance representing some seventy rights and disability agencies which was formed last year in response to the budget cuts across the sector. He said Kerins and her remaining board colleagues “had no grasp of the economic reality” if they thought they could achieve their targets with a 43% cut in funds.
Kerins compounded the credibility problem when she told journalists that the Authority expected to open 450 case files this year. In 2007, at the very peak of its operations and on a full budget the Authority opened 204 cases. The plan states that 200 case files will be “progressed” every year of the plan but it is unclear how this relates to the figure of 450 new case files that she predicts will be opened this year alone.
The details of the plan also raise further questions about the future ability of the Equality Authority to fulfill its mandate and to comply with European Union standards and directives on equality. Its goals, while admirable, are largely aspirational including an aim to promote greater awareness of rights and responsibilities, developing engagement with the European institutions and engaging with “men’s” groups.
Critics of the recent budget changes and the planned decentralisation of staff to new offices in Roscrea complain that the whole exercise is designed to neuter the body which, under Crowley’s direction, caused no little discomfort to the establishment, including government departments, by its determined pursuit of equality cases against the State. Given her roles in the National Disability Authority, HIQA and Rehab, Kerins must be aware that other planned investigations by the Equality Authority under Crowley had the potential to cause her some personal discomfort.
A now abandoned proposal to examine the conditions of employment for disabled people working in sheltered workshops could have had repercussions for the Rehab Group which she heads. The NDA was supposed to have developed strong guidelines for the standards to services for people with disabilities but has notably failed to see them implemented HIQA which is answerable to health minister, Mary Harney, has a similar mandate.
Kerins enjoys the support of Department of Justice secretary general and Waterford confrere, Sean Aylward, who also had reason to find some of Crowley’s work distasteful. Last year, it emerged that the Authority had referred to the Garda a complaint that Aylward in his earlier role as Director of the Prison Service had acted improperly.
In an apparent breach of equality legislation, Aylward was alleged to have given details of a confidential file pertaining to the chaplain of Castlerea prison who was in dispute with the prison service to his Church superior the local bishop.
Many in the equality sector believe it is matters like this that have influenced the drastic culling of the Equality Authority and indeed the threats to other agencies which do not toe the departments line. Fortunately for Angela Kerins, known unkindly by some of her critics as “AK47”, she has the sympathetic ear of people in high places and is likely to enjoy her various positions for some time yet. Senator David Norris said she was part of a brass circle that does the bidding of government rather than the Equality Authority.