Institutional care scandals continue to shame society
None of the bodies was perfect by any means. Some performed better than others in holding authority to account, or shining a light on discrimination. But it was hard to escape any other conclusion than that the economic crisis was the perfect cover to embark on asset-stripping of the most cynical kind.
So what lies ahead? The Government says a new body will replace the merged Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission.
A working group produced a report last year which stressed the importance of ensuring the new body would have real teeth in tackling discrimination and human rights violations. It also emphasised the importance of its independence and laid down a method of appointment of its members – through open competition adjudicated by an independent group – at arm’s length from the government of the day. The chief commissioner, who would chair the commission, should also be appointed in the same way, it said.
Yet already there are worrying signs. Sources say the budgets for both bodies remain frozen at levels which just about keep them ticking over. There seems to be a real lack of urgency in appointing commissioners to the new body and there are indications that a new chief commissioner may be head-hunted rather than appointed in a transparent manner.
In the meantime the work of the existing bodies is being run down. The number of cases supported by the Equality Authority has fallen by 66 per cent since 2008. At present it has no legal officer available to deal with cases, say those familiar with its work. The Equality Tribunal – a forum which hears complaints of alleged discrimination – is to be merged with a new body that will focus on labour law. Many are concerned that its function to hear complaints relating to the Equal Status Act could be shipped over to the District Courts.
We should have learned by now: having groups with teeth whose task is to combat discrimination and human rights violations could make a real difference in how we deal with the austerity programme and reconstitute our society.
For too long we have exposed historical human rights abuse in this State decades after they’ve been perpetrated: the Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, and the State’s failure to investigate abuse of children by clergy are part of this shameful legacy. On each occasion we’ve said “never again”.
But without strong, independent and authoritative watchdogs there is every chance we’ll be confronted by future scandals concerning how we failed to protect the most vulnerable in our midst.
Carl O’Brien is chief reporter