Emily Logan has her work cut out to lead independent and strong agency

What can the new head of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission hope to achieve?

 Emily Logan has been appointed to lead the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Emily Logan has been appointed to lead the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:01

After 10 years as Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan is to become chief commissioner of a new State body responsible for promoting the human rights and equal status of everyone in society.

The new body – the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission – has been formed following the merger of the existing State agencies. It has the potential to play a crucial oversight role in challenging public policies and highlighting the mistreatment of citizens.

There is no shortage of State-sanctioned injustice across society today: the intellectually disabled, those with mental health problems, asylum seekers, children with special needs or learning difficulties have all felt excluded or discriminated against in various ways.

But swingeing budget cuts have undermined much of our equality and human rights infrastructure – and raise fundamental questions about whether the new commission can ever hope to be effective.

Paying tribute

Campaigners have paid tribute to Logan’s work in investigating and challenging how public services are delivered to vulnerable young citizens, such as children in care, detention or in homeless services.

Despite fairly limited powers, cultural change has flowed from much of her office’s work: children are now to the fore in decisions affecting them and public bodies know they will face robust scrutiny where they fall short.

Delivering meaningful change though in the wider terrain of human rights and equality for all citizens will be even more daunting .

Ministers and senior civil servants tend to regard bodies such as the commission as stones in their shoes: groups which receive State funding and then have the temerity to highlight State-sanctioned inequality or discrimination.

In the months after the economic crash, for example, the Equality Tribunal’s budget was slashed by almost half, while the Irish Human Rights Commission’s was reduced by more than a third.

The government of the day also demolished the Combat Poverty Agency – which had been critical of public policies – and bulldozed away the State advisory body on racism, which had clashed with some ministers over their pronouncements on immigration.

The result has been a cliff-face drop in the allegations of human rights abuse or discrimination that State agencies have been able to investigate.

Real difference

We should have learned by now. Groups with teeth whose task is to combat discrimination and human rights violations can make a real difference in how we deal with austerity 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 have said “never again”.

Logan will have her work cut out in ensuring the new commission is in a position to become a strong, independent and authoritative watchdog.

It will involve a delicate balancing act of challenging the State – and maintaining working relationships with those in power.

A failure to do so means we will be left with ineffective oversight groups – and future scandals concerning how we failed to protect the most vulnerable in our midst.