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Ireland undervalues equality

The equality agenda is collapsing

The Equality Authority has been rendered unviable. The Combat Poverty Agency has been subsumed into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The budget of the Irish Human Rights Commission has been cut and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism has been abolished. Non-governmental, community-based organisations find their funding diminished and their room for manoeuvre restricted. The attention of the Trade Union movement is taken up with the economic crisis and the challenge to develop an economic plan to address this crisis. We face a situation where some of the key drivers for equality in Irish society have been immobilised – a situation where gains made over the past decade in promoting equality, valuing diversity and combatting discrimination are being reversed.

It is a moment of economic downturn. Unemployment is rising rapidly. The public sector finances are in disarray. The Irish debt burden is increasing. Systems that served as pillars to our current model of development are collapsing. We face a situation where equality is posed as a luxury item, a concern for the good times and expendable in the current situation. A hostility to individual rights and the excercise of such rights is evident. Dissent is discouraged.

Why Equality is important

Equality should be identified as a key feature and concern within any response to the current economic situation. This is necessary because the current situation is already characterised by significant inequalities; because equality is central to individual well being and societal cohesion and because equality and diversity contribute to business success.

A constant refrain in debate about the public finances is that ‘We are living beyond our means’. However any correction to the public finances could usefully start by assessing who holds these ‘means’ and who is actually ‘living beyond’ these means. The Community Platform ( a community and voluntary sector network involved in social partnership issues ) recently published “A Better Ireland is Possible”. This publication set out some key data in this regard.

The Community Platform highlight a context of very significant inequality. They identify that “the top 1% of the population holds 20% of the wealth, the top 2% holds 30% and the top 5% holds 40% of the wealth’. They further conclude that the “Celtic Tiger” years further increased inequality with a ‘concentration of income growth among those 0.5% super rich top earners”. They establish that groups such as lone parents and people with disabilities are at particular risk of poverty.

If equality is not a concern in addressing the current situation of the public finances then groups without adequate means will be subjected to undifferentiated strategies seeking to ensure “we live” within “our means”. If equality is ignored then current inequalities will merely be reinforced by these strategies and will be transmitted to future generations. An inefficient model of development will be pursued that actually blocks rather than enables the contribution of all. Individual well being and societal cohesion will be compromised.

There is a strong business case for equality to be a central concern in any response to the current economic crisis. Research carried out by the Equality Authority and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance has identified that ‘policies in relation to positive action and equality appear to enhance organisational performance’ (The Business Impact of Equality and Diversity, K.Monks). Other research has found that diversity and equality systems in companies enhance labour productivity and workforce innovation and reduce employee turnover (New Models of High Performance Work Systems, P.Flood et al). Business survival in difficult economic circumstances can be enabled by an effective pursuit of equality and diversity.

Equality is not deemed important

It is increasingly clear however that equality is not deemed by Government to be an important element in responding to the current economic crisis. This is most evident in the apparent strategy to dismantle and to diminish key institutional drivers for equality in both the state sector and the non governmental community sector.

Niall Crowley

The budget of the Equality Authority has been cut by 43. This disproportionate cut has never been adequately explained. The Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform has stated that the Government’s priority is crime and the prevention of crime and this is the area that will be prioritised for funding. However this does not explain why other bodies, under the auspices of his Department and with no role in crime prevention, did not experience similar cutbacks – for example the National Disability Authority was cut by 2%, the Legal Aid Board by 1% and the Data Protection Commissioner by 9%. Under cover of public sector cutbacks, a hostility to the excercise of individual rights, in particular the excercise of these rights against public sector bodies, is evident in the experience of the Equality Authority. This 43% cutback provides clear evidence that equality is not deemed to be important in the current economic crisis.

The Combat Poverty Agency has been subsumed into the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs. Kevin O Kelly, former director of the Combat Poverty Agency, has said that this “had all the characteristics of a hostile takeover” (Irish Times 1/11/08).

He noted that: “There were times when there was political resentment at our comments around budgets or government policies. But that is our role: we are an independent body and if the system isn’t working we have to say so”. Again, the demise of the Combat Poverty Agency suggests that equality is not seen as important.

The non-governmental community sector is another key driver for equality in Irish society. Organisations in this sector provide an important mechanism to ensure that the voices and interests of communities experiencing inequality are effectivly articulated and have influence. Last year the Equality Authority published “The Role and Aspirations of the Non Governmental Sector in Articulating and Responding to the Interests of Groups Experiencing Inequalty”. This publication highlighted how the role of this sector in contributing to equality was being diminished.

Funding available from the state sector is limiting the role of organisations in this sector to service provision. The time and effort of these organisations is increasingly being concentrated on applying for and reporting on funding. There is a perceived tendency on the part of the state sector to restrict the capacity of these organisations to be critical. Again, a commitment to equality is absent.

Need to focus

One positive recent development has been the formation of the Equality and Rights Alliance. This has brought together over 75 national non-governmental organisations to challenge the dismantling of the equality and human rights institutions. Joanna McMinn, chairperson of the alliance was recently quoted as saying that “when such fundamental decisions as the dismantlement of our human rights machinery are taken behind closed doors, democracy is stifled, accountability muted and equality undermined” (the (Irish Times 1/11/08). Effective economic development requires a focus on equality issues. Effective democracy requires adequate drivers for equality in society. The current dismantling of our equality infrastructure diminishes democracy and allows an ineffective pursuit of economic development in the absence of any real concern for equality.

There is a challenge to rebuild this equality infrastructure or to develop new drivers for a more equal society. This is required if we are to respond effectively to the current economic crisis in a manner that breaks with current inequalities, that enhances individual well being and societal cohesion and that enables business survival and success.

Niall Crowley resigned as chairman of the Equality Authority in December 2008.