Concern grows over human rights policing vacuum as merger crawls to conclusion

Leadership is critical to making the new equality and rights body work

Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 14:47

The merger now underway of the Equality Authority (EA) and Human Rights Commission (HRC) to form the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) is unique in the European context. First proposed in July 2008 by the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition, merging two independent and active statutory bodies poses a novel set of challenges.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has stated that drafting of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Bill is at an advanced stage and he expects to bring it to Cabinet in the near future.

Addressing concerns earlier this month that the process lacks urgency, the Minister assured the Dáil that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “has full confidence that the Government is approaching the issue in the right way and considers our approach as a best practice model for other countries”. For both the EA and HRC, resolution on how the merger is going to be achieved cannot come soon enough. The backdrop to a protracted process of organisational reorganisation begun in September 2011 has been a steady erosion in the effective operation of both bodies.

Slow developments

That this is complex legislation is not in doubt but observers

in Ireland and internationally are increasingly apprehensive about the slow pace of developments and the impact of the delay on the work of the two existing bodies.

The Equality and Rights Alliance, a coalition of 171 civil society groups, reports a steady dismantling of Ireland’s equality and human rights infrastructure since 2008. The change in government and announcement of the merger in late 2011 appears to have done little to reverse this process.

Mr Shatter has committed to ensuring that the IHREC will “more effectively, efficiently and cohesively promote human rights and equality in Ireland”. The merger is estimated to save “in the region of €500,000”. However, the Minister also acknowledges that the €4.409 million funding made available to the EA and HRC this year may not meet the new body’s essential staffing and operational needs.

Recent assurances by Mr Shatter that the budget will be shielded from further rounds of public sector cuts have been welcomed. However, it remains to be seen whether such concessions will be enough.

Until recently, the EA and HRC were both active in public life, with the EA particularly singled out for praise prior to 2008 in combating cases of discrimination against the Irish people. However, punishing budget cuts imposed when the financial crisis hit Ireland plunged the two bodies into a crisis – from which they are still to emerge.

Both organisations have been unable to sustain formerly established levels of expertise. The commission has seen its staff dwindle from 21 to six and its budget cut by more than 40 per cent. For the Authority, the budget has been reduced by 48 per cent, staff numbers have dropped from 55 to 29, and its failure to fill the post of legal director since 2009 has been coupled with a perceived scaling back of its legal work.

Neither the EA nor HRC has had a board member or commissioner in place since July 2012. For the commission, some suggest that the vacuum may be in breach of UN guidelines and the Good Friday Agreement given its important A-status under UN principles. Others flag up a risk of future imbalance, with the remnants of the HRC ending up as a small appendage within the new body.

Plans on how to combine the two bodies are being prepared and put in place to address concerns. In turn, the independent selection panel, which “stepped aside” last July following concerns raised by the UN, but is back in place, is actively selecting members for the new commission.

Strategic plan
Successful applicants are expected to be initially appointed to the two existing bodies. They will begin work on a strategic plan in anticipation of statutory enactment of the new body, a task that may be complicated by a lack of clarity over its statutory mandate.

Debate on the new commission has chiefly focused on how it will be established. Without question, formal independence and allocation of resources will be important. However, they are no guarantee of effectiveness.

Critical to making the merger work is leadership, both in achieving the merger and in re-establishing an effective equality and human rights presence in the state. The highly credible selection panel, which is chaired by Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, issued a call for expressions of interest in mid-November. Since then, there has been little indication of progress, with no public consultations sought by the panel.

Reports suggest that the panel has failed to identify a suitable contender for chief commissioner out of a pool of about 25 applicants. Initial speculation suggested that the panel was to embark on an informal process of “head-hunting”. Well-placed to identify suitable individuals, the panel may have felt that this was the best course of action given the time-sensitive nature of their work.

However, possibly in response to doubts over the integrity of such a “tap on the shoulder” approach and whether it accords with UN principles, the panel will now re-advertise the position. It has also requested that the bar on previous members of the EA or the HRC applying for the post of chief commissioner be removed as it may have narrowed the pool of qualified candidates.

When the chief commissioner and the new IHREC are finally established, they will face a daunting task in a climate of austerity-driven equality and human rights policy.

l Thomas Pegram is assistant professor in Political Science (International Relations) at Trinity College Dublin. He is investigating the merger of the Irish Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission as part of an international research team examining equality and human rights structures across Europe, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.