Just over 20 years ago, Ireland’s equality laws came into place. They were progressive and far-reaching at that time, going beyond the EU obligations that were required.
These laws are now under review by the Minister for Equality to see how appropriate they are in today’s Ireland. The year 2022 will be key for equality in the State, and over 600 submission have been made to this review.
This work needs to honestly assess our anti-discrimination laws and, if they are found wanting, as I expect they will be, bring about radical change on how we promote and protect equality.
These laws will set our benchmark as a society for decades to come for how we in Ireland demand our friends, families and strangers are treated and will set out the equality safety net, which we should all enjoy.
The organisation I lead, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), is also just over 20 years old, if you count the establishment of our legacy bodies. And this is no coincidence.
There was a push to improve the rights and equality landscape in Ireland and Northern Ireland at the time of founding. Indeed, it was a requirement of the Belfast Agreement. The cross-Border rights equivalence that it created has been a relatively unspoken but crucial ballast on the ship of peace that we’ve sailed over these last two decades. So this review comes at an important time, as our shared island enters a new phase: post-Brexit.
Weaknesses and loopholes have emerged in the key pillar laws – the Equal Status Acts and the Employment Equality Acts. For example, while the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) adjudicates on almost all discrimination cases, if you’re turned away from a licensed premises and consider yourself the victim of discrimination, you currently have to take your case directly to the District Court. This is more difficult to access and generally requires legal representation. Ask any Traveller in Ireland how this issue affects them and have a listen to their experience.
The consultation of the review asked about how well equality law and the nine grounds have worked, how well-known it is, and specific questions on intersectionality and exemptions.
Exploration of a new socio-economic ground is included in the programme for government
There will be a lot of discussion on the protected grounds which define where discrimination is explicitly illegal. Exploration of a new socio-economic ground is included in the programme for government. Those opposed to this new ground complain of floodgates, but the experience across Europe tells a different story. It has long been the obvious missing ground in Irish equality law. Our accent, our address, our socio-economic background act as barriers for many people looking to participate in society or advancement in employment. Each year, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission receives complaints of socio-economic discrimination in various areas of education, employment and services. But none of these complaints are actionable as socio-economic status is not a protected ground.
One of the more potentially controversial areas that will feature in this review is gender identity. Whether as a new separate ground, or an adjustment to an existing ground, it is essential that our trans community, one of the most marginalised in Irish society despite progressive legislation in recent years, is explicitly protected in our equality law. Again, access to services, employment and education is a constant uphill struggle for many members of this community.
There have been some positive evolutions of our laws, but they need strengthening. We saw a new ground introduced in 2015 which outlaws anyone being discriminated against on the basis of being in receipt of housing assistance payment (HAP) or other welfare supports, throughout the rental process. Today, however, we see situations where people cannot identify their landlords to take a complaint.
And a year earlier, in 2014, Ireland introduced a positive obligation on public sector bodies to eliminate discrimination and to protect the rights of staff and services users. The Public Sector (Equality and Human Rights) Duty has the potential to transform the public sector but that potential, seven years on, has barely been realised.
The IHREC has a specific role to play in implementation and increasingly in the enforcement of the Public Sector Duty, and in many other areas of equality law. We are the State’s national equality body, a status recognised by the EU and the UN for specific responsibilities in monitoring how the State performs in this area.
Although it's important to have a system that allows for justice to be sought, a much better approach will be to prevent the discrimination happening in the first place
We will ensure that the review covers the broader effectiveness of equality law in Ireland, and that it doesn’t become a narrow review of the grounds. Those who experience discrimination are often less able, for a variety of reasons, to seek remedy. So although it’s important to have a system that allows for justice to be sought, a much better approach will be to prevent the discrimination happening in the first place.
More than two decades on from Ireland’s equality laws being signed into force, Ireland is a more diverse society and the experiences of inequality and discrimination have changed. For example through the development of the digital sphere and the pandemic, which have exposed and increased structural inequalities.
This review is a rare opportunity to level up our equality laws for those who are persistently downtrodden. Survey data we have just published shows that 91 per cent of us agree that, no matter who you are or where you come from, you should be treated equally.
A surety of equality is the promise of our people, let it also be the letter of our laws.
Sinéad Gibney is chief commissioner for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission