Thursday, 2 February 2006
Human Rights Issues.
Question 3: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will make a statement on the conclusion of the joint report of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Equality Authority, Equivalence in Promoting Equality, that the Republic has failed to meet its obligation under the Good Friday Agreement to introduce a level of equality and human rights protections at least equivalent to those pertaining to the Six Counties. [3724/06]
While the report entitled Equivalence in Promoting Equality was jointly commissioned by the Equality Authority and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, it was written by Mr. Colm O'Cinneide of the University of London and, as stated on page 5, the views expressed therein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the authority or commission.
The report, which has just come to hand, will be examined closely. However, the Deputy will appreciate that the law in the State is very extensive and includes constitutional provisions, the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004, the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004, the Human Rights Commission Acts 2000 to 2001 and the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003. There is also extensive support by way of the Equality Authority, Equality Tribunal and the Irish Human Rights Commission. The policy of the Government in the area of disability equality is represented by the establishment of the National Disability Authority as well as the Disability Act 2005.
The promotion of these Government measures, both legislative and administrative, follows on the Good Friday Agreement in large measure. As indicated in my reply to Question No. 1046 of 28 September 2005, it is Government policy for all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement to be implemented.
While the views in the report may not be those of the Equality Authority or the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the foreword to the report, which mentions the findings, is signed by the chairpersons of both organisations, and thus they are endorsing the findings. Does the Minister of State accept that in 1998, when the Irish people cast their vote in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, they correctly believed and expected that the rights protection won under the Agreement, and in particular promoted by Sinn Féin in its negotiations on the Agreement, would extend to and benefit them all? Does the Minister of State agree that by whittling away equality protections and refusing to entertain the notion of a rights based society, he and the Government are trampling on the expressed will of the people?
The Minister has seen the report but has he read it? It is quite detailed and useful. The Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McDowell, should read it. They might then understand some of what equality organisations have been promoting in recent times and the criticisms directed at the Minister. When will the Minister deliver the long overdue acts of completion that would ensure that this State would have at least an equivalent level of protection of human rights as that stated in the Good Friday Agreement? Does the Minister of State agree with the finding that the Government has failed to deliver on its commitments under strand three of the Agreement?
The foreward to the report refers to limitations within the European Convention of Human Rights Act 2003 and limitations in the scope of the Irish equality legislation as it relates to disability, public function, political opinion and enforcement and remedies, limitations in the treatment of transsexual people and gay and lesbian people in this State and the absence of positive duties to promote equality.
I am tempted to say many things in response to the pronouncement of Deputy Ó Snodaigh but they are better left unsaid. I do not accept that there are any significant shortfalls in equality legislation in this part of the island in comparison to Northern Ireland. I reject completely the proposition made by Deputy Ó Snodaigh. We have in place effective and established protections which provide for and promote equality in the workplace, in the provision of goods and services and on nine discriminatory grounds, namely, gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community. We have legislation underpinning this framework, which I have outlined in my reply. The scope of our equality legislation is broader than the equivalent in Northern Ireland — there is no argument about that.
The essence of the point made by Deputy Ó Snodaigh is that any initiatives introduced in Northern Ireland should automatically be introduced here. I reject that proposition outright.
I draw the Minister of State's attention to the foreward of the report. By rejecting my point, he is rejecting the findings on which the representatives of the Equality Authority and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, Mr. Bob Collins, Karen Erwin, Evelyn Collins and Niall Crowley signed off. Their report specifically refers to: "The need to address limitations in the scope of the Irish equality legislation as compared to equality legislation in Northern Ireland". The report then details these limitations under headings related to disability, public function, political opinion and enforcement and remedies. These are the words of the representatives of the Equality Authority and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland pointing out the failures of the Government and the State. Will the Minister read the document and perhaps come forward with amending legislation to ensure that we at least have equivalence with Northern Ireland in this regard?
I do not accept that under the Good Friday Agreement the Oireachtas is obliged to copy every legislative innovation with a human rights dimension that has been or could conceivably be introduced at some stage in Northern Ireland, which is essentially what Deputy Ó Snodaigh asks.
We have a body of constitutional law, statutory provisions and administrative measures. That demonstrates the commitment of the Government to implement and progress a first-class policy on equality. The views expressed are the personal views of Mr. Colm O'Cinneide. I do not accept there is any necessity for this jurisdiction to accept the perceived shortfalls to which Deputy Ó Snodaigh refers.