Home > Human Rights in the News > The Equality and Rights Alliance and the Promise of a Counter-Discourse

The Equality and Rights Alliance and the Promise of a Counter-Discourse

This post builds on a brief exchange with Padraig at the foot of this post, which reported on a speech by Colm Ó Cinnéide at the Equality and Rights Alliance ‘Fairer Ireland’ conference, which took place yesterday. An important report was launched at yesterday’s conference. Entitled Downgrading Equality and Human Rights: Assessing the Impact it focuses on two key issues. First, it outlines the impact of reductions in funding on the work of the IHRC and the Equality Authority. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it outlines fundamental structural deficiencies in the relationships between the human rights watchdogs and government departments which fatally undermine their independence.

The principal conclusions of the report are that:

• The independence of both bodies has been breached. The main points were identified as the behind-closed-doors system of selection and appointment, accountability to government ministers and departments rather than Parliament, civil service staffing and lack of financial insulation of budget from the caprice of government ministers.
• The budget cuts appear to have had a significant impact on the work of the Irish Human Rights Commission and an unquantifiable impact on the work of the Equality Authority. Indicators are presented that enable these issues to be tracked in a number of ways at several levels.
• The design of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, taken together, does not reach a modern interpretation of the full application of the Paris principles nor the ECRI recommendations, nor in the case of Equality Authority, the 2000 Race Directive.

The report does highlight some deficiencies in the IHRC and EA’s  operations prior to the recent budget cuts. Nevertheless, it is evident that neither organisation can improve – indeed the report doubts whether the IHRC can continue to function – on their current shoe-string budgets.

Joanna McMinn’s foreword to the report  outlines the task which the ERA has now set itself:

These are grim times for equality and human rights in Ireland. In October last year budgetary cuts were introduced that have reduced The Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission to sha-dows of what they were, and should be, in this recessionary period of growing economic and social inequalities.

The upheaval of autumn 2008 also marked a critical fracture in the development of Irish social policy. Given the scale of the cuts made, it is now widely acknowledged that motives really lie in political choices to reconfigure institutions of the state to reduce the values of equality, rights and solidarity rather than solely economic imperatives and value for money.

Equality & Rights Alliance (ERA) formed in order to resist this deliberate and politically motivated targeting of the Irish equality and human rights institutions. The Alliance has subsequently developed its role, positioning itself as an independent and critical voice for the reinstatement and strengthening of the equality and human rights infrastructure in Ireland. We believe that equality and human rights must be central to Ireland’s recovery and rebuilding, not something that can be discarded when it is an irritant or inconvenient.

The ERA will not be relying exclusively on law to achieve this task. In her foreword, Joanna McMinn entrusts civil society with the future rehabilitation of our domestic human rights monitoring system:

The equality and human rights infrastructure that was in place before the events of autumn 2008 was in many respects adequate. What we have now is unacceptable. But what we can have, with fresh thinking, political will and strong civil society involvement, can be much better than we imagined.

The report itself concludes that the government’s efforts to undermine the IHRC and the EA ‘challenge the non-governmental community and civil society, as rarely before, to build a counter-discourse that will imagine, devise and construct a renewed, fresh infrastructure that can resume, rebuild and extend the progress so sharply interrupted.’

What should the basis for that counter-discourse be?  Yesterday Colm Ó Cinnéide played to Ireland’s ego, to that all-important hyper-inflated image of ourselves as the world’s honest broker, in arguing that the government’s failure to adequately fund independent human rights monitors was hurting our image on the global stage and undermining Ireland’s engagement in international human rights advocacy. This is an important argument but it is unlikely to prove the linchpin of an effective counter-discourse at home, where Minister Ahern disputes the  ‘cost effectiveness‘ of higher funding for what he calls ‘quangos’  (of course, he is in illustrious company there) and suggests that he may spend on policing or on human rights but not on both.

The fact is that we may neither want nor need a new IHRC or a new Equality Authority. Maybe human rights don’t work in quango form. The Equality and Rights Alliance is thus charged, not with the task of justifying the restoration of what existed before, but of reminding us  that a principle of the equality of citizens backed by law is not a foreign imposition or a bureaucratic inconvenience or a costly extravagance; that it is part of what we must stand for to ourselves. The Alliance must also go further in its counter-discourse project and demonstrate in concrete terms to a public jaded by the rhetoric of institutionalised human rights that their vision of the world is more satisfying either than the Minister’s or the compromise alternative.

I am interested to know what readers think that counter-discourse might look like. In a post as part of the Guardian’s Open Left series in July, Professor Costas Douzinas set out the Left’s project in as good a manner as any:

We hear of rage against MPs, attacks on Fred Goodwin and fat-cat bankers, the rise of fascism and xenophobia. While understandable, attacks on elites, caught with their hands in the till, miss the wider picture. The term “legitimation crisis” describes a mass loss of trust in the social contract which can no longer mobilise popular assent to a balance of powers palpably stacked against the interests of people. Nationally and federally, Europe is entering such a crisis.In response, the left must explain that politics is neither a market-like competition of groups and interests which finds its happy equilibrium in policy initiatives and technocratic interventions nor the application of moral values (human rights, fairness, multiculturalism) we would all accept if we debated them long enough. This picture misrepresents the nature and stakes of politics and supports grossly inequitable distributions. A time of crisis offers the best opportunity to demystify the taken for granted, “natural” premises of common sense. They come to the surface and can be understood for what they are – ideological constructs.

Before discussing policies and calling in various “experts” and “consultants” to supply another dose of the free market advice they were giving until the eve of the financial catastrophe, the left needs to re-establish the outline of the good society and broadly agree on its axiomatic principles. Once aims are set, policy follows.

Any thoughts?

  1. Clumperino
    November 25, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Should we not be seeking to protect these institutions rather than undermine them?

    I get the impression from this post and the ERA report that the point is to institution-bash rather than supporting both bodies in their stuggle against crippling cuts by Government. We need experts to inform the public discourse on human rights and equality issues and it is right and proper that these experts be supported by the public purse. The IHRC remains an A class accredited NHRI despite its current difficulties and suggestions that it is not Paris Principles compliant undermines its position in the state and gives further grist to the mill of government in relation to cuts.

    Surely we should be making suggestions to cut top salaries across the whole public sector rather than attacking the EA and the IHRC.

  2. November 25, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Nope. No institution bashing for institution bashing’s sake (or at all really) here and I have great respect for the IHRC and the Equality Authority – that goes without saying and we’ve blogged in support of both and highlighted their arguments several times.

    I’m simply suggesting that the current economic crisis may be an opportunity for fresh thinking around taxpayer-supported human rights advocacy, and wondering what ‘counter-discourse’ means and looks like. I think it’s an exciting idea.

    (On the Paris Principles, I read the report as criticising the government for paying inadequate attention to international standards in its engagements with and establishment of human rights watchdogs. In any event, protecting the IHRC and the EA doesn’t mean we have to claim they were perfect – human rights work rarely is or can be.)

  3. Clumperino
    November 26, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    I agree on the need for an alternate discourse, and I would hope that such a thing is possible by combining the human rights and equality agenda with grass roots social movements. This does not mean that the institutions themselves should be uprooted. I think that would only serve to undermine the principles of human rights and equality.

    I think that both the EA and the IHRC can serve as a check on government action and policy to ensure that it at least is made to take notice of the human rights and equality agenda.

  4. November 26, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I still don’t have my answer though do I? What will grass roots social movements and human rights institutions be saying? And what will they say to generate a human rights consciousness among ordinary folk? What’s the argument?

  5. Clumperino
    November 26, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I suppose my argument is that the instituions of the watchdogs have a different role from those of civil society. There are numerous examples of local and community groups using a human rights agenda to promote an alternative approach to addressing issues of social need in society (eg PPR project in Belfast and Dublin – although there are many other international examples too). Through using human rights and equality standards to address issues of social justice and taking this discourse directly to the service providers, these movements are demystifying these concepts and giving them real and tangible parameters that can only serve to reinforce these principles both in the community and the public authority as important and substantial norms.

  1. November 25, 2009 at 9:36 pm

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