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Niall Crowley says merging equality and human rights bodies will add no value

The minister for Justice, Equality and Defence – Alan Shatter – has announced a working group to advise him on the merging of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission. There is no evidence that this merger reflects any commitment to the necessary renewal of the equality and human rights infrastructure. It seems to be just another instance of austerity politics.
The Minister’s announcement reflects this in referring to the need for a ‘streamlined’ body. The merger is presented as a means to save public money on two bodies deemed to have ‘overlapping functions’. The new Government seems determined to finish out the project initiated by its predecessor to neuter our equality and human rights infrastructure.
When this merger was first mooted by the Minister in September, concern was raised that the roles foreseen for the merged body made no ref- erence to providing legal support to those taking cases of discrimination or cases in relation to human rights abuses. The Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission have been remarkably reticent about providing such support in recent times. The Authority reported a 78% reduction in cases supported in 2010 as compared with 2008. The Commission reported only one case supported in 2010, It is nonetheless a vital function for the effectiveness of the infrastructure.
The announcement of the working group states that the new merged body will retain the statutory powers and duties of the existing bodies. However this is undermined when the terms of reference ask the working group to offer a view whether greater use of codes of practice or strategic court cases might achieve the best outcome. The terms of ref- erence disturbingly note that ‘court cases tend to involve the State in one way or another’.
The composition of the working group is crucial
in such a context. It is confined to members of the Boards of the two Bodies and officials from the Department. There are no representatives of civil society such as trade unions who play a key role in implementing equality legislation or the Equality and Rights Alliance which has done detailed work on this issue.
The lack of ambition from the Government is evident in the envisaged role for the new body ‘encouraging’ public bodies to put respect for human rights and equality at the heart of their policies and practices. This is a remarkable dilution of the commitment in the Programme for Government to ‘require’ public bodies to have due regard to equality and human rights in carrying out their functions.
There are lessons from mergers of equality and human rights bodies in other jurisdictions, such as Britain and Denmark. Mergers that are contrived to facilitate financial savings degenerate into turf wars between two traditions that are significantly different.
They result in confusion rather than coherence. Mergers that fail to evolve and make coherent the powers to promote equality and protect human rights result in a loss of focus rather than increased effectiveness.
The renewal of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, after the depredations of the previous Government, should have been a priority of the new Government. It does not appear to be. Five tests will demonstrate whether renewal or further retrenchment is proposed in this merger proposal. Renewal requires:
•Retention of the current powers of both bodies alongside a levelling up of the powers that relate to the promotion of equality and to the protection of human rights.
•Broadening of the remit for the bodies such that socio-economic status is a protected ground for discrimination and a focus for promoting equality and human rights.
•Introduction of a positive duty on public sector bodies to have due regard to human rights and equality in carrying out their functions. A commitment to independence in Board appointment, staff recruitment and the body’s accountability.
•Allocation of adequate resources.