Human rights cuts harm image

Wed, Nov 25, 2009, 00:00

THERE IS a perception abroad that Ireland has “fallen from grace” because of sweeping cuts to the Equality Authority and Irish Human Rights Commission, a London-based human rights lawyer told a conference in Dublin yesterday.

Colm Ó Cinnéide, a member of the European Committee of Social Rights, said Ireland’s equality and human rights institutions had previously been acclaimed throughout the EU as best practice models. “At conference after conference across Europe, it was emphasised to me and to others about – from an external perspective – how strong the institutional architecture was in Ireland and how impressive the representatives of both the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission were throughout the 2000s,” he said.

Mr Ó Cinnéide, a lecturer in law at University College London, was speaking at a conference organised by the Equality and Rights Alliance, an organisation set up last year to campaign against the “dismantling” of statutory bodies working in equality, rights and social justice. He said there was now widespread acceptance that Ireland’s current institutional machinery to protect and promote equality could not deliver on its requirements.

“There has been, frankly, the perception . . . of a fall from grace from European best practice models to a set of circumstances that gives rise to questions,” he said.

“There are concerns when a country in good international standing like Ireland carries out sweeping budget cuts to its equality and human rights institutions because there are issues of precedence,” he said.

“When countries with perceived good records do something, then it means that countries who are perceived to have not such good records have a precedent.” He said Pakistan had recently cited Ireland’s blasphemy law as an example of best practice, at a UN gathering.

“Ireland has a history of leadership in international institutions in the UN and the Council of Europe on equality and human rights matters,” he said. “But then you have facts on the ground and you have government ministers in other countries saying ‘Well, is there a tension here between the rhetoric and the delivery?’”

He said it was the job of bodies such as the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission to be the “grit in the oyster”, to challenge and to ask the difficult questions.

Earlier, the conference heard a call for the introduction of a Community Reinvestment Act, similar to the one which operates in the US. It rates banks negatively if they engage in unfair lending or other discriminatory practices.

British social justice activist Karen Chouhan said banks with low ratings would not be allowed to expand or develop their businesses until their rating went up.

Niall Crowley, who resigned as chief executive of the Equality Authority over its 43 per cent budget cut, said Ireland had reached “a low point” in its ambitions for a more equal society.

He called for new equality legislation which would include discrimination on a socio-economic status ground. He also called for a new equality body that would incorporate the roles of the Equality Authority and the Combat Poverty Agency. He said this body should be independent.