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Maybe Equality

'Yes Equality' rings hollow for asylum-seekers, people with disabilities, Travellers, or lone parents

The Government would be happy to go to the polls wrapped in the mantle of a ‘Yes Equality’ Government. The Government delivered on the marriage equality referendum. We had the referendum to beat all referendums and same sex couples can now get married, their relationships affirmed as equal. This was a remarkable achievement. Eamon Gilmore called it “the civil rights issue of this generation”. However, is it enough for Fine Gael and Labour to don the mantle of a ‘Yes Equality’ Government in search of a vote?

Aodhán O’Riordáin, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, tried to keep the feeling warm. A month after the referendum he declared the report of the working group on direct provision for asylum-seekers, set up by his Department, as another “Yes Equality moment”. This sorely diminished the mantle and, indeed, any correlative right to don the mantle. The recommendations of this report were far from any ideal for equality and human rights. The report essentially permitted continuation of this inhumane direct provision system for receiving and accommodating asylum-seekers. Only those asylum-seekers serving five years or more in the system were to be released. The mantle has since been further sullied as even the limited recommendations have not been implemented.

Direct Provision is not the only serious human rights violation that this Government has countenanced. RTE’s Prime Time exposed the gross abuse of people with disabilities living in Áras Attracta. Political disapproval owed yet action was absent. The Government ignored the 2011 Congregated Settings Report that recommended that “people with disabilities living in congregated settings move to community settings within seven years”. It ignored the costed submission of the HSE, made in 2015, seeking some €250m to implement the report.

Whenever it came to money, this Government evinced little interest in donning the ‘Yes Equality’ mantle. The treatment of the Traveller community reflected a rejection of equality and human rights by the Government. There was an extraordinary disinvestment in the Traveller community. The education budget specifically allocated to Travellers was reduced by 87% and the accommodation budget by 85%. This happened despite significant educational inequality for Travellers and the scandalous, often dangerous, living conditions they continue to endure. The tragedy of ten lives lost in the fire on the temporary Traveller halting site in Carrick-mines was not unpredictable. Even tragedy, however, failed to secure any reinvestment in the Traveller community.

People with disability fared badly. Their prospects for independent living receded. The Mobility Allowance and the Motorised Transport Grant for people with disabilities were cut. The Minister for Health and Children axed these schemes in 2013 because criteria governing the schemes were found to be in breach of the Equal Status Act in a case heard by the Equality Tribunal in 2008. The Minister did not have to axe the scheme. He promised the issues would be resolved quickly but some people with disabilities remain on the schemes found to be discriminatory and no new scheme has been provided for the many others now precluded from access to these vital supports. The schemes were central to participation in society and to ensuring people do not become trapped in their own homes.

Lone parents didn’t fine it was a ‘Yes Equality’ Government. Changes to the One Parent Family Payment caused stress and hardship for many families, that are much more likely to experience poverty and social exclusion than others. 63% of them experienced enforced deprivation in 2013. The Government effectively ended access to the One Parent Family Payment in 2015 for lone parents whose youngest child is seven or over. The financial losses for working lone parents are so significant that they are likely to give up part-time employment.

Trans people, on the other hand, did get some of the ‘Yes Equality’ treatment. Legislation secured legal recognition for them in the gender with which they identified. This was on foot of legal action taken by Lydia Foy to assert her rights. The legislation, despite its failure to respond adequately to young Trans people, compares well with the most progressive approaches to the rights of Trans people at a European level.

The legislation to ensure 30% of all candidates of each party in national elections are women is progressive. There was a touch of the ‘Yes Equality’ about this. It did not cost money but it is clear that it is causing some significant pain in male bastions. The same commitment did not extend to private-sector boardrooms, despite proposals from the European Commission for a 40% quota of the under-represented gender on corporate boards. And that ‘Yes Equality’ feeling drained away with the failure so far to address women’s reproductive rights by repealing the iniquitous Eight Amendment to the Constitution that has put women’s lives and health at risk.

This Government did inject some of the resources cut by the previous Government from the budgets of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission back into the equality and human rights infrastructure. Nothing, however, is ever straightforward when it comes to this Government and equality and human rights. The additional resources were only made available to a new, merged body, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. It seems this potential ‘Yes Equality’ moment was actually more about sweeping equality under the human rights rug.

Equality and human rights re ect two very different traditions. Equality is focused on achieving outcomes
of equality for the different groups that make up society. Human rights are about minimum standards to be enjoyed by all individuals in society. In merging the two traditions there is much talk of the logic of equality being a human right. When equality is limited to being a human right it is confined to formal equality. Formal equality is only about equal treatment and non-discrimination. Not about outcomes.

A merger of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission, based on such an understanding of the relationship between human rights and equality, diminishes any capacity for or drive towards the more substantive forms of equality that so many groups in our society aspire to and that our society so badly needs. This merger could yet be seen as a damaging move to temper ambitions for equality and diminish activism for a more equal society as it gets caught up in the more formal and expert monitoring and reporting arrangements so central to the human rights tradition.

Another opportunity for‘ Yes Equality’ is the statutory duty imposed since 2014 on public bodies to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and protect human rights. This is more sleight of hand. Civil society has long campaigned for such a duty for the public sector. It was recommended on a number of occasions by the former Equality Authority. Public bodies must now establish the equality and human rights issues relevant to their remit and identify their plans, policies and procedures to address these issues in their strategic planning.

A real ‘Yes Equality’ Government would have dynamically driven the implementation of this duty. But nothing has happened. No Government Department or Government agency has taken action on foot of it. In fact, they don’t even seem to know it has been put in place. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has yet to make it an issue, watching from the sidelines as it is breached again and again.

This has been a ‘Maybe to Inequality’ Government. It has had its moments, but those moments have not served to deepen ambition for more equality and human rights, merely to disguise the lack of such ambition, indeed the failure to understand a real equality agenda. This Government would have to have the greatest of cheek to campaign for re-election cloaked in any form of a ‘Yes Equality’ mantle.

Niall Crowley