Standing up for victims of inequality

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: NIALL CROWLEY:SOMETIMES THE spin machine is almost tangible. When it whirred into action against Niall Crowley, it was clunky but effective. Sure, the chief executive of the Equality Authority knew he had ruffled feathers over his 10-year tenure. Even so, when he felt honour-bound to resign in December over an unparalleled 43 per cent cut to the organisation’s budget, even he was surprised at the spinners’ creativity.

“It was extraordinary. There was a piece about the bats, for instance . . . It said that I’d raised an issue in connection with temporary premises in Roscrea [to where the Equality Authority is being decentralised], that it was infested with bats – which I had and it was. But the story was that this was the reason I didn’t want to go to Roscrea and therefore this was the reason I had resigned.”

Then there was the piece suggesting that Crowley was indulging a whim, hounding golf clubs (ie men-only Portmarnock) through the courts at the expense of such vital resources as Garda overtime. “I can’t pay Garda overtime so I’m not paying for legal battles against golf clubs,” went the Mail on Sunday headline, in quotes, suggesting the line had come directly from the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern. It was a piece with a purpose: “It was reported as the principled stance of a champion of the poor refusing to countenance the slashing of his budget in his fight for equality. But now it has emerged that Niall Crowley . . . had a request for €110,000 to mount an appeal against Portmarnock Golf Club’s male-only policy turned down by the Minister for Justice the day before he quit . . . ” it read.

Then there were the figures stitched into the Dáil record, suggesting the Equality Authority had been profligate with taxpayers’ money; its budget had soared from €378,000 in 2000 to €5.8 million before the Budget cutbacks; it had lavished money on such self-indulgent fripperies as PR (€220,000) and consultants (€100,000) in 2007. Crowley grins ruefully.

“The spin on Portmarnock is just bizarre,” he says describing the final meeting with the Department of Justice. “It was actually a very calm meeting. There was a very impressive array of Department of Justice people there – the Minister, the Minister’s advisor, the secretary general, two assistant secretaries and a principal officer.”

The Equality Authority put forward its own proposal for a compromise 32 per cent cutback, rather than 43 per cent, adding that it needed an additional €700,000 in non-pay funding to operate at minimal level. “We suggested that they could give us the €700,000 and up our budget or – if that was embarrassing or involved loss of face – they could pay some of our bills, such as the rent, or matching funds for an EU project we had, or Portmarnock [currently under appeal by the Equality Authority to the Supreme Court] – and Portmarnock was only a risk factor, it wasn’t a bill.”

They also requested a delay in decentralisation, since the inevitable loss of expert, committed staff, they felt, combined with the cuts would have been unsustainable. “We got the fairly straightforward answer ‘no’ to both.”

He warned those present that the authority would be unable to carry out all its core functions, then remarked that while he could understand that there had to be heavy cutbacks, he could not understand the disproportionate nature of them. “There was no answer to that.” None at all? “There was lots of talk about the gardaí and the difficulties facing the gardaí . . . [the Minister] didn’t refuse to fund the Portmarnock challenge; the court challenge didn’t even come up . . . He said ‘I can make no further money available to the Equality Authority’, not ‘I’m not willing to fund that or this or the other’.”

FOR CROWLEY, IT WAS the end of the line, even though he took 24 hours to think about it. “There has been an attempt to spin the resignation as something petulant, or self-interested – or as foolish even, when you look at the bats story. That’s a fog screen . . . I resigned to draw attention to the fact that the Equality Authority is being dismantled. The Department of Justice at no point has explained the 43 per cent [cut]. They’ve gone back and tried to talk about Portmarnock, or bats, or garda overtime . . . that’s not the issue, it’s a distraction.

“There was nothing petulant about my decision. You don’t move away from that type of job petulantly. And I mean that type of job at a very basic level – job security; but also in terms of a job that fascinated me, inspired me, gave me a huge sense of fulfilment and excitement. That’s something that takes a lot of time to force yourself to say ‘no’ to, and right up to the last minute I was wondering if the time had come. But after that, I knew I had to go. I would never pretend to operate an entity that was failed . . . ”

His anger manifests as a kind of genial, rueful powerlessness. “I suppose I’m still shocked by it . . . I didn’t think they would push [the cuts] to that point. Part of me knew they would but what we offered them was so possible, in the end I couldn’t believe they said no. It was shocking – and sad.”

But not entirely surprising. The “storm clouds” had been gathering since September 2007, when the entire 12-member board was replaced. “That is very, very rare . . . Then during 2008, legislation was brought in to increase the size of the board and four new members were brought in, including for the first time, a Departmental official. That was certainly odd. Shortly after that, there was the merger proposal. And shortly after that, a €400,000 budgetary cut.”

In the meantime, the new chairperson of the all-new board, Angela Kerins, managed to swing a brand new stipend for her board members [€9,000 each], from the Department of Finance. Whose idea was that? “It’s the chairperson’s prerogative and the department’s. It certainly emerged as a significant burden for us because of the €400,000 cutback in the same year. The stipends would have added up to at around €115,000 [or around €145,000 when the full 16-member board is paid]. When you compare the sting in that in terms of the spend on Portmarnock, it’s kinda strange . . . ”

He consoles himself with a sense that the “spin hasn’t stuck, that the mainstream media has spotted the spin”. But that figure of €220,000 for PR has stuck, for one. He gives a wintry laugh. “I have no idea where that figure came from. None. We don’t buy in PR support. We do our own.”

And the €100,000 for consultants? “What we do is provide consultant services to small and medium enterprises, to help put in place equality policies. We weren’t engaging them to tell us how to run our business. That’s a different notion of consultants.”

And that soaraway budget, from €378,000 to €5.8 million in just eight years? “They are inaccurate figures. The €378,000 was for setting-up costs. The operational budget for 2000, our first full year, was actually €3.8 million.”

His relationship with the board has clearly been fractured. “There have been elements of the board that have been very supportive through the whole difficult period,” he says. How many? “I’d say about 50 per cent.” And the other half? “I wouldn’t have experienced their support in the same way . . . ”

For Crowley, the question that rankles is why the Equality Authority received special attention. “I can only hypothesise . . . The reason given – it’s a time of prioritisation and they’re not prioritising equality – never held water . . . It still doesn’t explain the level of the cut and the nature of the approach to us in that, in a time of cutbacks, of prioritising crime, you’re still finding the mean cutback across non-crime bodies as between two and 11 per cent. And then you look at ours – 43 per cent. Decentralisation is virtually stopped for anyone who doesn’t have permanent premises; yet we’re still having staff decentralised.”

His theory is that there are “elements at political level, and elements at administrative level that have real difficulties with conferring individual rights on people and supporting people to exercise those rights”.

That’s a serious allegation. “Yes. It is. That’s why the whole experience is shocking. It’s shocking personally because of personal change and a sense of loss. But it’s also shocking as a member of society where serious damage is being done to what is essentially a limited set of rights that people have . . . ”

The hostile elements come from across the statutory sector, he claims. “There are senior civil servants that have difficulty with it . . . There has been extraordinary hostility, and I think it has to be there at political level as well . . . I know in a lot of the discussions we had around why the 43 per cent and could it be reversed or done in a way that didn’t dismantle the Equality Authority, it kept coming back to ‘well, you’re doing this or that case, or that case is really aggravating or you’ve really pissed your man off with that case’ . . . A lot of those discussions came back to cases taken against the public sector . . . ”

He gives, for example, cases in relation to fixed retirement ages in the Garda, the annotation of the Leaving Cert for pupils with dyslexia and partnership rights for gay and lesbian couples, in terms of access to social welfare benefits. “It’s straws in the wind rather than specific evidence . . . But my analysis from 10 years’ experience is that yes, it was the cases and the thinking that was being developed in the Equality Authority that was perceived as a threat. And yes, I do think that is shocking.”

The authority was pretty successful in the main. Statistics show that claimants were successful in 83 per cent of the cases backed by it before the Equality Tribunal in 2007. Interestingly, nearly half its employment equality case files and 69 per cent of its files under equal status law, involved allegations of discrimination against the State or public bodies.

IT IS ALMOST POIGNANT now to look back at the cuttings around Crowley’s appointment 10 years ago, by the then minister for justice John O’Donoghue. He was seen as an interesting and surprising choice; a civil engineering Trinity graduate (“I was good at maths”) who had spent all his working life in the service of the poor and marginalised, from Mozambique and Nicaragua back to the fledgling Dublin Travellers resource centre, which grew into Pavee Point during his 12 years there. “They certainly showed an openness in appointing me [to the authority] . . . They did take a risk,” he agrees.

So might he have contributed to his own downfall? “That’s a question you have to ask. But you have to look at what we did. Did we go beyond our legal mandate?” Well, was Portmarnock a bit of an obsession, as some suggest? “I would see that as one of the most important cases we took in relation to the issue of gender. It wasn’t just because of access to a golf club, which is of limited value. One, it was very much a symbol, in terms of a society that purports to have a commitment to gender equality and yet, could co-exist with a State-licensed, high profile institution that ran completely counter to that commitment. Two, in very practical terms going beyond golf, there are, I think, significant issues in terms of business networking, business contacts, business status that flow from an institution like Portmarnock, that women don’t have access to . . . I would say that was and still is, a very important case.”

Nothing in Niall Crowley’s background suggested he might become a thorn in the establishment. He might have been a pillar of it, like his father. On his death in 1998, Niall senior was hailed as “a giant among his peers”, a scion of the Kennedy Crowley accountancy firm, the “inspirational force” who led the various mergers that eventually melded into SKC, a chairman of AIB, a man festooned with awards including a CBE, one whose funeral drew the cream of Irish political, business, media and clerical life.

Four of his six children followed his footsteps into financial services or related professions: Vincent at Independent Newspapers; Maurice in AIB; Peter, formerly of IBI and now a businessman; and Emma, formerly a partner in McCann Fitzgerald. Philip, who is in the Department of Health (and also worked in Nicaragua) and Niall took a different path.

If anything, a glance at the latter’s career might tempt a pop psychologist to conclude that he rebelled against everything his father stood for. His father was a member of Portmarnock golf club (among others). Among his father’s honours was a pontifical doctorate from Maynooth, suggesting a Catholic devotion beyond the call of duty. Asked now if he has any religious faith, his son gives a concise no. “None at all. I don’t really want to go into it. I just don’t.”

His mother’s influence, he says, was her “strength of purpose – and being true to that working through difficult situations”. His father, he says, taught him about “the importance of people. That always came first for him. He was an amazing personality. We went very different ways but as a key influence, I think the big thing he gave me was a sense of the value of people – which I think is the starting point for equality. I think these are very different times as well; how he would operate in today’s banks I don’t know, but I do know he had very strong core values and obviously deeply influenced me.”

By his own account, the 20-something son probably wasn’t the easiest of company after his four years with Agency for Personal Service Overseas (APSO) in Mozambique. That was when he decided that he “couldn’t be engaged in issues around poverty, inequality, social justice and also be an engineer”, a process that culminated in a community work course in Maynooth university. “I think I was very difficult after coming back from Mozambique. There was the shock of the change . . . working things through, and that takes a bit of chafing off other people. You’re a bit selfish.”

A bit argumentative even? “Yeah . . . Finding out where I wanted to be and testing it out. I would have found myself a little bit difficult all right,” he says with a laugh. “Without a doubt, my parents were concerned. They certainly wouldn’t have seen it as a major career move. But they were also very supportive as well . . .” The fact that he was signing on for the dole for a short time, while “working for free” (at the Travellers centre) probably didn’t go down too well at home either. “I would defend it in terms of actively seeking work,” he says with another rueful laugh. “It was the only way of getting a job . . . I eventually did get a paid job there.”

A look back at the tributes to his father, all of which mention his charitable works for Pavee Point, traveller accommodation, Mozambique and Nicaragua, suggest that at some point, the father may have been inspired by the son. “Maybe I did inspire him. He was a very open person. I worked for Pavee Point in the early 1990s and we used to discuss my involvement a lot. It was through me that he got involved and that was a big move for him at a later stage in his life . . . but it wasn’t just because of me. In fairness, he was involved because he bought into the issue. It was a very interesting move for a very significant business player to make. And it was made consciously, not just to help out his son – which it did – but because he thought he could do something about the issue.”

For now, the son is left to explore his options within the social justice sector, where he wants to remain. He has more time to spend with his wife Melanie Reidy, whom he met in Trinity 30 years ago, and their sons, Liam (15), and Lorcan (21), who like a chip off the old block, is studying maths in Trinity.

He and Melanie have just joined a table tennis club and he enjoys historical novels – one about the scientist Nikola Tesla is high on the list as well as The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella. Film is also an interest. Predictably, he has just seen Che. “But I love Love Actually,” he adds startlingly. Say what you like about Niall Crowley; it takes a real man to admit that.