I met Niall Crowley, the CEO of the Equality Authority, in the spanking new offices in Clonmel Street, where the walls spoke the gospel of equality. I knew Niall had started his career in engineering. What route had led him to equality?
‘It was partly my involvement with Mozambique–I went there for four years–which brought up both issues of global inequality and the treatment of black and white people. Then I was twelve years in Pavee Point, where there were obvious equality issues. For my last six years there, I was involved with the social partnership areas–there was a broad equality agenda which would include travellers, but which would go beyond it. I suppose I travelled quite a bit from engineering, not from not liking it, but because it wasn’t a gateway to the sort of issues I wanted to be involved with. But it is a training that is useful in many different areas.’
Niall spoke of the newness of the Equality Authority. The staff were still finding their way, but they had good financial resources, a committed and expert staff and a lovely building. That made for a very positive start and he hoped they would learn fast.
I asked him about the role of law in the promotion of equality. ‘Without law you cannot progress to the other parts. It’s the bottom line in establishing rights and ensuring they are promoted and defended. But on its own it isn’t a guarantee of equality; it has to be allied to other strategies–which in fairness are being built in. Legislation does have its limitations.’ How resources are used and who they are targeted at is also important, as is the impact of mainstream laws on inequality. The Equality Authority will be part of the strategic framework for equality-oriented actions.
We talked about rights and the need for rights to go beyond the ‘freedom from’ dimension. Just being free from discrimination won’t bring about equality, but the new Equal Status legislation has huge potential.
Which group did he feel suffered the greatest amount of discrimination? ‘I actively wouldn’t choose–I feel there’s no hierarchy. Once discrimination happens you’re generating the exclusions and marginalisations that we see in Irish society. The important thing is parity of esteem and of visibility. Specific groups do have particular interests but there are common elements. I’m interested in developing themes that will move forward all nine groups in an integrated way–not just for administrative simplicity, but because this is the way to capture people’s multiple identities.’
We discussed positive action in the workplace which the Employment Equality Act allows–but does not require–for women, people with disabilities, travellers and older workers. He saw positive action as a key process for the Equality Authority–without it there would be no redress of past discrimination nor accommodation of diversity.
A greater consciousness of rights and an effective casework strategy would be essential in making the new legislation work. It was a question of changing people’s attitudes, as a lot of treatment which had been considered normal in the past becomes illegal. Confidence and a rights ethos would be crucial. ‘Whatever the outcome, it’s got to be seen as normal to take a case, normal to seek to have your rights vindicated. The Equality Authority will support individuals who are willing to take cases. It should be easier for individuals to take cases under the Equal Status Act than under the Employment Equality Act–the latter involved a work environment to which a person had to return, and that has to be managed well. It would be easier to take a case on refusal of accommodation, for example.’
Changing the general ethos involves education. The Equality Authority has a communication strategy which involves creating a profile for itself and making an impact all the way across Irish society. Niall Crowley emphasised partnership, both with bodies like trade unions and business interests and with people experiencing discrimination.
When we turned to the specifics of disability, Niall Crawley said that, after gender, it was the ground which generated the most queries. The Equality Authority was hampered by the lack of data and was anxious that this should change. They would support individuals who approached them, they would seek to involve people with disabilities and would initiate positive action in the workplace–some of the family-friendly policies already being introduced might be relevant.
We discussed the costs of disability and the interface between poverty and inequality which the Equality Authority hoped to explore under the poverty agenda. Niall Crowley pointed to a working group established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) which he thought would be crucial in improving disabled people’s incomes.
Many parents and disabled people have been disappointed that a complaints mechanism was not set up under the National Disability Authority. Niall Crowley believed that it should be possible to process such complaints under the Equal Status Act and that the Equality Authority was in a good position to advise on a possible case. ‘The key thing is that people should not see coming to the Equality Authority as a decision to take a case. Coming to us is a way of exploring whether you can do it and gathering a body of information so you can then make a decision.’
I put it to Niall that parents might be reluctant to take a case against a service they depended on, but he emphasised that victimisation (over the taking of a case) was forbidden under the new law. He felt that that was an ‘absolutely crucial part of the new law’ and that any instances of victimisation would be ‘speedily addressed’.
He laid great emphasis on the importance of partnership in this area, and he felt a sine qua non of partnership was the voice of people with disabilities and their organisations. Their interest in advocacy was not so much in specific programmes, but to see who was forming the message.
We discussed the cases taken by people with disabilities and their families in the area of education. Niall Crowley saw education as one of the services covered in detail under the Equal Status Act. Access here was a big issue. ‘Case law under this legislation will be very important–how exemptions are interpreted, what sort of consciousness develops. Access and reasonable accommodation are big issues which run into the ‘nominal cost’ barrier. Nevertheless the law is an important advance; the concept of reasonable accommodation means that services have to consider what they would have to do to reasonably accommodate a person–and in lots of cases it doesn’t actually cost too much. It represents a big shift in people’s thinking and this is actually an exciting piece of legislation.’
And what about research? ‘Research has a huge contribution to make to the notion of a society that accommodates diversity–what will this mean for how we organise our workplaces and schools, for how we do business generally.’ The Equality Authority aims to contribute by identifying gaps in research, by undertaking some research itself, and by stimulating the wider field. People with disabilities along with travellers and refugees are their initial focus. At present the lack of data is a barrier to research; as this is overcome, the new information will stimulate further research. Otherwise it would be hard to measure the influence of the Equality Authority. If you can’t measure progress, how can you measure impact?’
The number of new and well-produced booklets available in the Equality Authority office made me sure that this would not be a gap for long.