Bye Bye Justice, Equality & Law Reform; Hello Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs?

The  Irish cabinet reshuffle (see here, here, here and here) has resulted in the  Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform , being divested of issues relating to equality, disability, integration and human rights. These important areas will be subsumed into the new Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. The comments below are some initial reactions to this news.

Justice, Equality and Human Rights-Why?

I do not believe in making structural changes for their own sake. Too often, changes in structures can be pursued to disguise a lack of clear priorities or the determination to implement them. This Government has a clear agenda which I am determined will be driven forward with energy and commitment. There is no time to be wasted on extensive restructuring at the expense of action to implement our policies.

An Taoiseach Brian Cowen T.D.  23 March 2010

From 1992 until 1997, there was Minister for Equality and Law Reform, however post the 1997 general election, this was subsumed into the Department of Justice (to become the Dept. of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (DJELR).This was a time of enormous economic growth within the Republic of Ireland and a number of months before the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The thrust of today’s speech by An Taoiseach’s recognised the need for a re-invigorated economy based on job creation and innovation. For reasons highlighted by the statement of An Taoiseach above, structural changes were made to a number of departments.

An Taoiseach stated that these structural changes would:

  • group functions whose combination is more appropriate to current priorities than the present arrangements;
  • ensure greater coherence and produce more efficient delivery; and
  • underline the priority issues for this Government in a way that mobilises a broad response.

What, however, is the rationale for moving issues related to equality, disability, integration and human rights away from the Justice Department? (It should be noted that the responsibility for social inclusion policy and family policy are being separated from the Department of Social and Family Affairs (to be renamed the Department of Social Protection) and moved to the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs).

The DJELR has an exceptionally wide remit, as evidenced by its organisational chart. In recent years, the DJELR has been criticised for its lack of human rights approaches to human rights institutions, immigration, crime control policy and penal policy (to highlight just a few core issues). The Green Party has blown quite a bit of hot air (but little in the way of action) in relation to funding of human rights institutions. There has also been suggestions that the Green Party dislike(d) Minister Dermot Ahern having control over issues of equality and human rights. Allowing issues of justice, equality and human rights to co-exist within one department certainly gives the appearance that justice is not solely about crime control, but also about societal equality and the protection of human rights.

There is a potent symbolism of issues such as equality and human rights being within the remit of a higher ranking minister in cabinet. That said, it might be useful, for the time being, to see whether the placement of these issues into the new Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs will result in a more focused energy on issues of human rights as inherent within equality, disability, integration, social inclusion and family policy. This may result in a more considered approach to issues of rights protection. On the other hand, cynics may suggest that issues encompassing broad human rights concerns have been sidelined into what is traditionally viewed as a less important government department. Given the current economic crisis, with the focus on job creation, it could be argued that this new department will not result in any significant heightening of human rights concerns within the Government.

  1. Gavinicus
    March 23, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    I would adopt a wait see approach. Mary White is to get the Equality junior portfolio in the new Department. Given the history of the relationship as between the Department of Justice and the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, I would see the move as, prime facie, a good one. However, I would point to an issue not canvassed. Both the IHRC and the Equality Authority have, in their legislation, quite clearly defined linkage in terms of funding and staffing to the Minister for Justice. To move both bodies within the remit of the new department will need amending legislation. I see no mention of that. If the two bodies are not moved, but policy in the area hived off to another, new department, it would seem to be anomalous, to say the least.

  2. Claire McHugh
    March 23, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Equality and human rights should be mainstreamed into policy making in all Departments. That is the real issue. I think equality law in the stricter sense functioned reasonably well under DJELR – the Equal Status Act was ahead of its time and was a beacon for the rest of Europe in advancing the Framework and Race Directives (though much of the impetus came from the earlier Equality Department). While Equality and HR may have been “too close” to other aspects of Justice, at least there was the benefit of being housed in a heavy-hitting Department that is listened to and has close links with other big Depts. I don’t expect to see equality and HR thriving in DCRGA, which has traditionally been rather peripheral.

  3. Gavinicus
    March 23, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Did Equality and HR thrive under Dermot Ahern?

  4. Andrew
    March 24, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I’m surprised to see to support the existence of equality in the Dept of Justice. I’e always thought this to be a woeful idea. Traditionally Ministers for Justice have been ultra-conservative hardliners with little appreciation for human rights or equality. Just look at the recent cast – O’Donoghue, McDowell, Lenihan and Ahern. Only Lenihan could be considered to have somewhat liberal. The application of justice has always been an area where equality has suffered.
    Ahern had an atrocious record on equality. The Equality Authority is the most obvious example but he also dragged his feet on eventually introducing the Civil Partnership Bill.
    The media have perceived the Community and Gealtacht Affairs Dept to be a ‘weak’ one. However it still has a full seat at Cabinet and a full Dept. behind it. What the media claim and what the reality is are often very different.
    Expecting one Dept to both apply justice & fight crime AND pursue and equality agenda was always going to be a disaster. I’m glad to see that is being resolved.

  5. March 24, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    I think people have always felt some weariness about the dept. of justice and equality remaining side by side. On the one hand there is the argument that the a wider definition of ‘justice’ includes concepts of equality; however as Andrew and Gavinicus point out, (and which I mention in my post), there has been quite critical reactions from human rights/equality organisations to the DJELR handling and promotion of equality/human rights. As Andrew notes, DJELR is seen as an office where rethoric of crime prevention is the be all and end all. I am adopting a wait and see approach in relation to this move, the fact that Mary White is the junior minister in this area makes me somewhat optimistic. However, that said, the Green’s have been in government for quite a while and to date haven’t shown much committment to a broad human rights/equality agenda (with the civil partnership bill being the main exception-and even the cpb has its critics for being a separate but kinda equal legislative reform).

  6. March 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    and it goes without saying that Claire is 100% correct that equality should be mainstreamed throughout government depts, rather than seen as the sole area of this new Dept. of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Also agree with Claire in relation to DJELR been seeing as a ‘hard hitting’ dept; despite the new DCEGA minister having a seat at the cabinet table, it is still seen (rightly or wrongly) as a more minor cabinet position.

    • Gavinicus
      March 24, 2010 at 11:47 pm

      There is a strong rumor that Gormley intervened to stop the merger of the Equality Authority and the IHRC but could do nothing in relation to the cuts. In fact, it’s not a rumor at all. It was confirmed to me by someone involved, but not with the Greens. Make what you want of that but my little political antennae is screaming at me that this move is Green orchestrated. Saying that, if there is no change in legislation for the two orginisations, above, there is actually no meaningful change at all. They will both still be tied to the Min. for Justice for staffing and funding decisions.

  7. March 24, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Maman Poulet has blogged on this issue here

  8. March 25, 2010 at 10:19 am

    The IHRC has been calling for them to be made directly accountable to to Dáil for some time-this would be an ideal opportunity for this to be taken on board. The Human Rights Commission Act and the Employment Equality Act and Equal Status Act will have to be brought within the remit of the DCEGA, so Gavinicus is right to note that legislative changes will be needed if this is to take place-will be interesting to see if both bodies will remain in the remit of the DJLR.

  9. March 25, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Fine Gaels’ New Politics proposes making IHRC a/c to Dáil, btw

    • Gavinicus
      March 25, 2010 at 1:13 pm

      Funny that, given that Maurice Manning is President of the IHRC!! 🙂

  10. Gavinicus
    March 26, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    For anyone interested, I was talking to a member of the IHRC earlier and the intention is that they will come, now, within the remit of the new Department, though new legislation will be required.

  11. March 26, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Interesting Gavinicus, thanks. Wish they could get some guarantees on budget now as well!

  12. Gavinicus
    March 27, 2010 at 1:32 am

    There won’t be anymore money immediately but dealing with anyone but Justice will be easier, no doubt, in future budget negotiations.

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