Equality is central to social cohesion, the economy and greater democracy


Niall Crowley responds to Michael McDowell's recent broadside against the notion of equality.

Equality is about celebrating diversity rather than imposing homogeneity. It is about securing real choices for all groups in our society rather than merely allowing opportunities that are all too often illusory. It is about dismantling the barriers of discrimination that flow from individual prejudice and action and from institutional practices and systems.

The search for a more equal society focuses on access to resources, a wider participation in decision-making and an enhancement of democracy, a new valuing of difference and diversity, and on according a respect to the diversity of groups in society.

The Equality Bill 2004, which is currently being considered by the Dáil, marks a new and valuable ambition in this search. It allows for positive action to achieve "full equality in practice" for all nine grounds covered by the legislation in both the workplace and the provision of goods and services, accommodation and education.

Access to resources focuses our attention on groups which currently experience inequality in securing jobs, incomes and career progression. It involves access to education, health and accommodation. Participation in decision-making seeks to ensure that all groups have a say in shaping their communities and those institutions that resource and provide leadership to these communities.

Valuing difference and diversity involves a status being accorded to the diversity of groups in our society. It requires that adjustments are made and facilities provided to take account of the practical implications of this diversity. Access to respect is about replacing relationships of hostility, abuse and mistrust between groups with relationships of respect, trust and solidarity.

Equality is an important factor in the development of any society. The arguments for this are economic, political and cultural. Equality is necessary for economic growth.

Everyone is enabled to make their contribution as employees, entrepreneurs and paying customers. Poverty is removed as a drain on economic resources.

Equality underpins a democratic legitimacy, as all groups are enabled to buy into society's institutions, and the quality of decision-making is enhanced by including the perspective of all groups. Equality is a key part of a value base that prizes people and their diversity and that seeks to replace relationships of abuse and hostility with relationships of respect and solidarity.

This rationale for equality is evident in the current evolution of the European Union and in developments in Irish legislation, policy and practice.

During the coming weeks, there will be a significant focus on the concluding negotiations for a new European Constitution.

The current draft constitution highlights equality as a value and an objective for the European Union. Article I-2 states that the Union is "founded on values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights".

The draft constitution states that the Union shall aim to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origins, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

This focus on equality can be linked to concerns at European Union level about democratic legitimacy and economic growth. The focus on equality is seen as enhancing the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. It reflects a commitment to be relevant to the experience and situation of the individual citizen just as its incorporation into the constitution provides a legal basis to respond to the needs of the individual citizen.

Equality and the achievement of equality is seen at EU level as central to economic growth. This is reinforced in the European Employment Strategy, which requires member-states to work towards the objectives of full employment, quality and productivity at work, and social cohesion and inclusion, and which states that "equal opportunities and gender equality are vital for making progress towards the three objectives".

Irish equality legislation prohibits discrimination in both the workplace and the wider community where goods and services, accommodation and education are provided. It has set an important lead for the European Union's commitment to combat discrimination. It covers the nine grounds of gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, sexual orientation, race, religion and membership of the Traveller community. This legislation has a particular concern with access to jobs, education, accommodation and other key services.

It has been accompanied by a broad variety of legislative and policy initiatives that seek to promote equality in Irish society. These include new education legislation, national anti-poverty strategies, investment in positive action programmes to address labour market inequalities and a range of strategy reports on improving the situation of groups such as women, people with disabilities and Travellers.

Access to decision-making has been a focus for attention in this pursuit of a more equal society. In 1996, for example, the social partnership model was expanded to bring in the community and voluntary sector, and with it the representative organisations of women, people with disabilities, younger people, older people, Travellers, gay and lesbian people. These voices have contributed to shaping national agreements since 1996.

A cultural dimension is also evident in this search for equality. Inequality is clearly seen to be in discord with society's value base. As racism became more overt and virulent in recent years, the Know Racism campaign was established. This was a public education campaign that sought to stimulate new relationships of respect and solidarity between majority and minority communities. Similar goals also inspired investment in the Citizen Traveller public education campaign.

All this involves a significant commitment to - and investment in - equality. It reflects the centrality of equality in achieving economic development, social cohesion and greater democracy. It gives expression to a business case for equality and a significant demand for equality across society.

Niall Crowley is CEO of the Equality Authority

What Mr McDowell said

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr McDowell, told the Irish Catholic:

"A dynamic liberal economy like ours demands flexibility and inequality in some respects to function." It was such inequality "which provides incentives".

"Driven to a complete extreme, the current rights culture and equality notion would create a feudal society. A society so ordered, static, and where the Government tries to order everything by law, it would become as atrophied as a feudal society."