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Senator Bacik speaking on "Human Rights Issues: Motion"

04 February 2009

Private Members Motion

Senator Ivana Bacik: May I give the last minute of my time to Senator Doherty? I welcome the Minister to the House. It gives me great pleasure to support Senator Norris's motion. It is a very important time for us to debate the Government's commitment to human rights. We have all acknowledged we face a deeply difficult economic period, but at a time like this we need to renew our commitment to human rights and ensure it is not undermined. The most vulnerable are being targeted disproportionately by the Government's economic package through imposing levies on even the lowest paid in the public service. We need to remind ourselves of the need to ensure a commitment to equality, human rights and social justice throughout Government policy at national and international levels. Senator Norris's motion powerfully reminds us of the many ways we need to ensure a commitment to human rights, nationally and internationally. He has brought a wide range of issues into the motion, which I do not hope to cover in detail, but I will pick out a small number of them.

The Government's amendment to this motion is disingenuous and misrepresents the reality of the cuts that have been imposed on different national bodies and on our overseas aid budget, which were announced yesterday and which undermine the stated or professed commitment to equality. There is a theme running through the Government's amendment and the words of the Minister and those on the other side of the House tonight, namely, rhetoric as opposed to reality. I welcome the very powerful pro-human rights rhetoric from the other side and the Minister, and it is very important. The problem arises where the reality does not match that rhetoric and we see swingeing cutbacks imposed on overseas aid budgets, the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission, etc. We must then ask ourselves whether the rhetoric has any substance in reality.

There was an extraordinary use of language by some Senators on the other side, who spoke of the strengthening of the human rights institutions of this country, at a time when their budgets have been cut and the chief executive of the Equality Authority has had to resign because he says his authority can no longer function. It is extraordinary to listen to those on the Government side suggesting that equality and human rights measures and institutions have been strengthened in some way

We must bear in mind the language used here.

I want to speak about the Equality Authority in more detail. Saturday's Irish Times carried a very powerful letter by the seven saoithe of Aosdána, among them Louis le Brocquy, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and Camille Souter. They expressed grave concern at the position of the Equality Authority following the recent resignation of its director, Niall Crowley, and the subsequent resignation of several board members. In their letter the saoithe, who speak with a voice of moral authority, asked the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to restore adequate funding to the Equality Authority as a matter of urgency. I support their call.

The resignation of Mr. Crowley, a well-respected chief executive who had developed for his authority an international reputation for its commitment to implementing equality legislation, was on principled grounds because the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform cut his budget by a staggering 43%, a disproportionate cut compared to those imposed on the other agencies of the Department. The authority had also been singled out in the decentralisation programme, with its move to unsuitable and inaccessible offices outside Roscrea continuing even when the programme had been abandoned for other State agencies. The Department has offered no satisfactory explanation for this extraordinarily hostile approach to the Equality Authority. This is not this Minister of State's direct responsibility but I ask him to take the comments and concerns expressed by many of us on this side about the treatment of the Equality Authority to the Minister. The only conclusion one can come to is that there was some particular reason for singling out the Equality Authority. It could not have been simply due to financial constraints, as suggested in the Government's amendment and in Ministers' speeches here and elsewhere.

Other explanations have been suggested. Elsewhere I have written that it seemed to me a quiet coup was orchestrated against the Equality Authority, or perhaps better described as a “GUBU” coup, in the words of the late Conor Cruise O'Brien. The sequence of events leading up to the cut to the Equality Authority and Mr. Crowley's consequent resignation was grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. There was the appointment in September 2007 of an entirely new set of board members headed by Ms Angela Kerins, who is also chair of the National Disability Authority and chief executive of Rehab. Senator Norris has already spoken about her position and I do not want to labour the point. Following that complete change of board personnel one can see in retrospect that the writing was on the wall. The board's reaction to Mr. Crowley's resignation was rather restrained, to say the least.

The credibility of the authority and its continued efficacy as an agency is in question. Not only will this have consequences for people in Ireland suffering discrimination, it will have consequences for the Government at EU level. There will be negative legal consequences for us in the European Union if equality directives are not seen to be adequately implemented because there is a lack of a credible and strong voice for the disadvantaged in supporting people making claims of discrimination. That is a serious matter for the Government to deal with.

I turn to the treatment of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, NCCRI, which has been effectively abolished. It is a difficult and dangerous time to undermine a body that has been so effective in tackling racism and has worked so hard in educating and informing us about racism and anti-discrimination measures. When we see in Britain a very disturbing rise in demonstrations against so-called foreign workers being employed, one can see that in an economic downturn new, immigrant communities tend to be targeted by those who feel their jobs are under threat. That is a real worry for us and shows the need to ensure continued commitment to tackling racial discrimination. The Minister said the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for integration will carry out the same programme. I have my doubts about whether the Minister can be as effective as the NCCRI had been, given its wide remit and the very experienced personnel it had. We are losing the experience and expertise of those personnel, all of whom effectively have been sacked, just as we are losing that of so many people on the equality legislation side with the downgrading of the Equality Authority. It seems such a waste.

On so many other issues, the Middle East, prisoners' rights etc. we need to see a match of reality with rhetoric. I ask the Minister to do that.