The story of a very quiet coup


CURRENT AFFAIRS: IVANA BACIKreviews Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to HeelBy Niall Crowley AA Farmar, 141pp. €14.99

THIS IS THE story of a coup, a very quiet coup that has brought a prominent statutory agency to heel after barely a decade. In 1999, when the Equality Authority first opened, the appointment of its chief executive was a surprise to many. Recruited from outside the Civil Service, with an activist background in Travellers’ rights, Niall Crowley was never going to accept a minimalist interpretation of antidiscrimination law. Rather, under his leadership, the authority set about promoting equality, pushing out the boundaries of the legislation and supporting numerous individuals in their search for justice.

In this powerful book Crowley charts the short history of the authority as a force for progressive change in Ireland. He tells the stories behind particular cases it supported, which resulted in successful outcomes for many, such as the hotel receptionist sacked when she became pregnant, the woman denied a bank loan because she was over 65, the gay couple seeking an allowance paid to unmarried heterosexual couples and the blind para-equestrian rider whose legal win meant that she could compete again.

Apart from these individual stories, he also writes of the organisational changes that came about through the authority’s work in advising companies about implementing antidiscrimination policies – resulting in greater productivity, more innovation and decreased staff turnover. As Crowley says, the business case for equality is clear. This was confirmed by Irish research carried out even before the publication of Wilkinson and Pickett’s influential book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which presented irrefutable evidence that societal wellbeing is greatly diminished by inequality.

Crowley argues, therefore, that “we need to stop viewing equality as a cost and begin to understand it as an investment. Economic recession should trigger an increased focus on equality rather than being used as a cover to dismantle our capacity to promote and advance equality”. The logic of this is compelling.

Notwithstanding the obvious public benefits of the authority’s work with individuals and companies, its overthrow was plotted over several years, after a series of entanglements with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, one of the more dramatic being the department’s unsuccessful attempt to move Crowley on in 2004.

Despite these setbacks, 2007 marked the high point of the authority’s work; that year alone it dealt with nearly 5,000 requests for information and opened 200 new cases.

By then the coup was already in motion, however, with the “decentralisation” of staff to Roscrea in May 2007, and an entirely new set of board members appointed that September. It culminated in October 2008 with the dramatic 43 per cent cut to the authority’s budget – way beyond any other cut to comparable organisations.

Crowley writes that the board then offered a management plan to the minister, accepting a 32 per cent cut – but this was rejected outright and the full cutback confirmed.

In a courageous move, Crowley resigned the next day, stating that the work of the authority had been fatally compromised. The only credible explanation for the cut was that the authority’s casework, particularly in litigation against public-sector bodies, had been seen as a threat by senior civil servants and the Government. In his words the authority was being “silenced for being an awkward witness to the inequality and discrimination in our society”. Fortunately for us, he was not prepared to be silenced in the same way.

He took a brave decision to resign rather than accept the fatal compromise – but he has been vindicated. Since 2008 the authority has become a pale shadow of its former self. By contrast Crowley has remained a prominent champion of the rights of the powerless. He has also done us a great service in telling the true story of a quiet coup – a must-read for anyone concerned with creating a more equal Ireland.

Ivana Bacik is a Labour Senator for Dublin University, a barrister and Reid professor of criminal law at Trinity College Dublin. She is the author of Kicking and Screaming: Dragging Ireland into the Twenty-First Century (O’Brien Press, 2004)