Order of Business
Wednesday 14 September 2011
It is good to be back, and with all colleagues. The words “equality” and “human rights” - three of my favourite words - were put together with the word “merger” at the end of last week when the Government announced it had agreed in principle to merge the Irish Human Rights Commission with the Equality Authority into a new human rights and equality commission. The press release indicated: “The purpose of this change is to promote human rights and equality issues in a more effective, efficient and cohesive way.” “Effective”, “efficient” and “cohesive” are powerful words too. While it may be the case that issues related to efficiency and cost were integral - central, in fact - to the Government’s motivation for this far-reaching change in institutional, legal and practical infrastructure for equality and human rights, if this new body proves to be more effective and cohesive in the way it does its business, this can only be welcomed by the people who stand for freedom, fairness and dignity. Will this not be the ongoing test? As a result of this merger, will Ireland be better at ensuring equality, eradicating discrimination and promoting and protecting the human rights of all who reside here, especially those who are not free, those who are vulnerable and not equal? Now more than ever before in the context of the very vulnerable Irish economy and society, we need to get it right in terms of how equality and human rights are delivered side by side. As law-makers, we need to think carefully how we can bring these two institutions together in a substantive way in order that the new institutional arrangements will not be made at the expense of human rights and equality obligations.
Some of the key questions that need to be raised include what form of equality we want and whether income equality is part of this agenda. How will we ensure this new body complies with the Paris Principles, specifically that it will be genuinely independent and the pluralism of its membership will be ensured? The Irish Human Rights Commission holds “A” status. This is a critical badge, indicating that the United Nations and the international community view it as truly independent of the Government. Will the new commission be able to wear the same badge? The Minister has promised that it will have a direct reporting function to the Oireachtas through its committee system. While this release of Government control towards oversight by the Oireachtas is greatly to be welcomed, will it require the amending of the name of a committee to incorporate changes in respect of human rights? The Good Friday Agreement promises that the Government will establish a human rights commission with a mandate and a remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland. As we put in place these new institutional arrangements, will we maintain equivalence in respect of human rights protection? I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality to the House early in the drafting of this legislation on the new commission to give Members the opportunity to raise questions and offer our views.