Labour Party must return to being equality and human rights defenders

It is the job of politicians to defend equality and human rights structures precisely because it’s not a populist issue. Austerity has brought increased levels of unemployment and increasing levels of discrimination. It is precisely during this period of economic crisis and consequent austerity that the effective and independent functioning of our statutory infrastructure to address discrimination and promote equality is even more critical. Defending the equality and human rights infrastructure is never going to be a populist issue, which is precisely why it is the job of people like me and my party colleagues, as national politicians, to ensure that our statutory equality and human rights infrastructure is fit for purpose.

At the moment, a number of significant changes are in train which will impact on the institutional and legislative framework to combat discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights in Irish society. A key development in this regard is the forthcoming merger of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission.

Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter established a working group to inform this merger and it submitted its report last month. The recommendations contained in the report are strong in many respects. The working group calls for the independence of the newly merged Human Rights and Equality Commission to be strengthened by ensuring that board appointments are independent and transparent and by allowing the body to recruit its own staff at all levels. This would be a welcome development and would move away from the current situation where the majority of staff in the Equality Authority are civil servants or seconded from the civil service. The report also recommends that the merged body would have adequate financial and staffing resources and is clear that current levels are inadequate.

It now remains to be seen whether Alan Shatter will incorporate these recommendations in the forthcoming legislation to merge these agencies. This merger must be about maximising the efficacy of the equality and human rights infrastructure. This can only be achieved by ensuring that the new body is able to work effectively to discharge all of its functions and by ensuring that it is able to function independently.

Civil society groups have been campaigning collectively, under the banner of the Equality and Rights Alliance, to protect the infrastructure since the massive cuts imposed by the previous government in 2009. Two weeks ago they sent a petition, signed by over 70 NGOs and trade unions, to Alan Shatter calling on him to ensure that four key standards are met to ensure the effective and independent functioning of the new body. So far they have received no response from the minister.

The Minister for Justice and Equality must demonstrate that the merger is not about finishing off the destruction of the equality and human rights infrastructure started by the previous administration. There is a danger that this will happen if this merger is driven simply by an impetus to cut costs.

The Labour Party has a proud track record in driving equality legislation and policy when in government. Labour TD Mervyn Taylor, as Minister for Equality and Law Reform, introduced the first comprehensive equality legislation covering nine grounds, which, at the time, made Ireland trailblazers across the EU. The Labour Party was also rightly vocal in its opposition to the savage cuts imposed by the previous administration on our equality and human rights bodies. We now have an opportunity in government to ensure that the impending merger will breathe life back into our diminished infrastructure and thereby support the drive to ensure Ireland emerges from the current crisis a more equal society.  {jathumbnailoff}