17 November 2005 Edition
Opposition to equality at highest levels
Effectiveness review must be rigorous
A forthcoming review by the North's Equality Commission to evaluate the progress of the Equality Duty of the Good Friday Agreement must be rigorous and comprehensive, says Sinn Féin's Equality and Human Rights Manager Chrissie McAuley.
Speaking to An Phoblacht this week McAuley pointed out that the Equality Commission is legally obliged to carry out an Effectiveness Review every five years. The review provides an important opportunity to scrutinise how effectively Section 75 of the Good Friday Agreement is being embedded throughout in society and establishes a benchmark from which further progress can be made. In other words it's an opportunity to look at what progress has, or has not, been made in the last five years in order to set goals for the next five years.
McAuley is critical of the lack of clarity over the Review's terms of reference. "At the moment the terms of reference are unclear, particularly it is unclear whether issues raised by Sinn Féin and others will be part of the review process.
"Without full consultation the credibility of the Review would have to be called into question. Sinn Féin is calling for the Review to adopt the depth and scope of the 1996 SACHR review into Fair Employment. Of course it needs to be appropriately resourced as well."
Sinn Féin is also concerned by the apparent reluctance of the Equality Commission to use its powers of investigation and enforcement. Chrissie McAuley says that this is particularly worrying given the clear failure of many public bodies to comply with their equality obligations. "The Commission has the power to investigate on its own initiative any failure to comply with Equality Schemes by public bodies. But to date the Commission has not carried out any such investigation."
A further concern is recent suggestions that the Equality Commission's post of Chief Commissioner may become part time. "There is so much work to be done and equality is such a crucial part of the Peace Process anything other than full time commitment by the head of the Commission is unacceptable.
"Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 lifts the quest for equality beyond mere aspiration and renders it a legal obligation. "It is the law and those unwilling to fully embrace equality are acting illegally.
"Yet despite this there remains clear reluctance within key institutions such as the NIO civil service, and other designated public bodies to engender progressive change.
"Some five years since its introduction, there is abundant evidence that the potential effectiveness and impact of Section 75 is being deliberately obstructed and resisted at the highest levels of the civil service and other public bodies," says McAuley.
"The closer to central government, the poorer the commitment to the Equality Duty. There is clear opposition to equality at the highest levels of decision-making in the North. Equality of opportunity needs to go beyond being tolerated for the purposes of conferences and press releases."
Sinn Féin is particularly concerned by the lack of any credible attempts to carry out Equality Impact Assessments on high-level departmental policies such as the Draft Priorities and Budget. "The fact that to date this has not occurred brings into question the commitment of the NIO and OFMDFM to equality," says McAuley.