Article 40 of the Irish Constitution establishes that all citizens should be ‘held equal before the law’. The Equal Status Acts 2000-2011 prohibit discrimination in accessing goods or services on nine grounds.1 However, there are some general exemptions to the legislation including any action required under Irish or European legislation which allows for discrimination; different treatment of foreign nationals in certain circumstances; or refusal of services where there is a reasonable assumption that there may be a risk of criminal or disorderly conduct.2 A Bill introduced by opposition legislators in 2013 to expand the nine grounds to include Irish language speakers, socio-economic status and living in rural areas was not passed.3
Since the State’s last examination by the Committee in 2002, the Government in a regressive move has on three occasions amended the legislation to permit selective discrimination in response to successful cases taken by minorities including Travellers, people with disabilities and migrants.4
From 2008, Ireland’s institutional framework to protect, promote and fulfil human rights and prohibit discrimination was targeted for significant cuts in a manner which a recent Minister for Justice and Equality conceded was ‘disproportionate’.5 In 2008, the funding of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC)6 was cut by 32 per cent from €2.3 million to €1.6 million7 and the Equality Authority’s8 budget was slashed by 43 per cent from €5.9 million to €3.3 million.9
These cuts have led to a significant decrease in the capacity of these two bodies. The Irish Human Rights Commission has had to identify and implement cost-saving measures in order to continue at an ‘essential’ level of operation.10 The following chart illustrates the drop in cases supported by the Equality Authority from 2007 to 2012.11 The capacity of the Equality Authority’s legal team – who had been highly effective in bringing cases on behalf of discriminated clients12 – was particularly negatively impacted by the cuts with the number of cases supported falling from 68 in 2008 to just 11 in 2012.13
Figure 2: Equality Authority Work 2007-2012
These cuts have come at a time when, more than ever, ordinary people need a strong human rights and equality infrastructure to defend their rights. Research conducted in 2010 found that 12 per cent of people surveyed had experienced discrimination in the previous two years; seven per cent had faced discrimination when accessing services while eight per cent reported discrimination in the workplace.14 In only ten per cent of the cases, victims of discrimination were aware of the equality legislation or redress mechanisms and actually took formal action.15 This means that only a small percentage of the people facing discrimination know of the remedies available to them.
In 2011, the Government announced a merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority to form the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC). The legislation establishing the new body is due to come into force by end 2014. Under this legislation the Minister for Justice and Equality will have responsibility for the Commission’s budget and the Commission will not be directly accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas.16 This is a missed opportunity as the new body will lack independence and financial autonomy. The Commission was allocated a budget of €6.3 million for 2014 which represents a €1.5 million reduction in the combined budgets of the two bodies prior to the 2009 cuts.17 This reduced budget will not provide the IHREC with the necessary resources to resume the activities of the two bodies prior to 2008.
From 2008 to 2013, a number of UN and international bodies expressed concern regarding the cuts to Ireland’s equality and human rights infrastructure, and the lack of independence and financial autonomy18 of the proposed new body, the IHREC. The Government has committed to ensuring that the new body will retain its ‘A’ status under the UN Paris Principles.19
Take measures to ensure that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is fully independent, directly accountable to the Oireachtas, and adequately resourced to effectively promote the rights of people whose rights have been breached.
1 These include gender, marital or civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller community.
2 Section 14 of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2011 (as amended).
3 Equal Status (Amendment) Bill 2013.
4 Section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000 (discrimination on the basis of nationality when providing further and higher education grants) was amended in 2004 in response to a 2003 decision by the Equality Tribunal which decided that the refusal of further and higher education grants to non-Irish nationals constituted direct discrimination in the provision of a service. The Tribunal advised that the current scheme should be amended as it was discriminatory but instead the Government amended the Equal Status Act 2000. Section 19 of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 allows differential treatment based on sexual orientation and was introduced following a successful Equal Status case by a same-sex couple. It defined ‘spouse’ or ‘couple’ as a married or cohabiting couples of opposite sex for the purposes of accessing state social security schemes. Section 25 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 moved the jurisdiction for complaints in relation to publicans and hoteliers from the Equality Tribunal to the District Court, which has limited the right of Travellers to access a remedy when alleging discrimination in relation to access to licensed premises.
5 Department of Justice and Equality, ‘Shatter publishes the Irish Human Rights and Equality Bill’ [press release], 21 March 2014.
6 The Irish Human Rights Commission is an independent body established by the Irish Human Rights Commission Act 2000 to promote and protect the human rights of everyone in Ireland.
7 Irish Human Rights Commission (2009) Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee on Ireland’s 1 Year Follow-up Report to its Third Periodic Report under the ICCPR
8 The Equality Authority is an independent body established by the Employment Equality Act 1998 and its powers were then extended under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2011 to provide information and legal assistance to members of the public who experience discrimination.
9 Department of Finance and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (2008) 2009 Estimates for Public Services & Summary Public Capital Programme, Dublin: DoF and DPER.
10 B. Harvey and Dr K. Walsh (2009) Downgrading Equality and Human Rights: Assessing the Impact, Dublin: Equality and Rights Alliance.
11 Statistics are compiled from the Equality Authority Annual Reports 2007-2012.
12 T. Pegram (2013) Bridging the Divide: The merger of the Irish Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission, Dublin: Policy Institute, University of Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, pp.75-77.
13 Statistics are compiled from the Equality Authority Annual Reports 2007-2012.
14 F. McGinnity, D. Watson and G. Kingston (2012) Analysing the Experience of Discrimination in Ireland: Evidence from the QNHS Equality Module 2010, Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute & the Equality Authority, p.ix.
15 F. McGinnity, D. Watson and G. Kingston (2012) Analysing the Experience of Discrimination in Ireland: Evidence from the QNHS Equality Module 2010, Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute & the Equality Authority, p.xii.
16 Equality and Rights Alliance (2014) The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill 2014: Observations and Recommendations, Dublin: Equality and Rights Alliance, pp.4-5.
17 Equality and Rights Alliance, ‘Increased Budget for Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Welcomed’, [press release], 19 December 2013.
18 Independent campaign group the Equality and Rights Alliance has compiled a summary of UN and Council of Europe recommendations to the Irish Government available online at: http://bit.ly/ERAInternationalReports [accessed 14 July 2014]. The IHREC Act provides that the IHREC will continue to report directly to the Minister for Justice and Equality.
19 Department of Justice and Equality, ‘Shatter announces publication of General Scheme of Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill’, [press release], 5 June 2012.
Last Updated: 22/01/2015 ^ back to top