EQUALITY AS RHETORIC: THE CARELESS STATE OF IRELAND
Professor Kathleen Lynch, Equality Studies Centre, UCD School of Social Justice
The legislature passed two significant pieces of equality legislation in 1998 (the Employment Equality Act) and in 2000 (the Equal Status Act). Within a very short period of time, there were challenges to the legislation. Although both acts are definitely limited liberal pieces of equality legislation (Walsh, 2012) focusing on promoting equality of opportunity rather than equalising conditions of life, they were the focus of intense criticism almost as soon as they came into force. Powerful lobby groups were allowed to exercise sufficient influence on government to have the law changed. Why did this happen? Why was there so much resistance to equality, even in terms of equalising opportunities? Why did the government pass legislation which it then proceeded to undermine, particularly, but not exclusively, in terms of how it impacted on the most vulnerable of all groups in Irish society, namely Travellers?[i]
When the financial crisis caused by the unscrupulous activities of banks and their clients hit the Irish State, why did the government not protect many of its most vulnerable citizens, unlike what happened in Iceland? (Stuckler and Basu,2013). Why is Ireland such a care-less and, at times, cruel state? I will attempt to answer these questions in this paper.
Dismantling the Equality Infrastructure of the State
As soon as it became an effective and articulate voice for equality, the Equality Authority (EA) was subjected to challenges from a variety of interest groups for whom equality was a rhetorical rather than a substantive principle of public policy. The media were among the powerful and vociferous. On 11th February 2001, only three years after the passing of the Employment Equality Act, Brendan O’Connor of the Sunday Independent derided the Equality Tribunal decision penalising Ryanair for ageism in an employment advertisement. This view was endorsed by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times on February 14th 2001 and by a variety of other journalists and commentators in subsequent weeks.
The attacks on the work of the Equality Authority were not confined to the media. The licensed vintners, and especially their chief executive, Tadhg O’Sullivan, were particularly virulent in their critique. O’Sullivan attacked what he termed the ‘equality industry’, due to their defence of the rights of Travellers to access services in particular (Sunday Tribune, 7th July 2002). The net outcome was a win for the vintners as legislation was changed in 2003 precluding discrimination cases being taken by the Equality Tribunal. On foot of this change, the number of discrimination cases dropped dramatically (Crowley, 2010: 82).
Opposition was also evident among politicians. Niall Crowley, the CEO of the Equality Authority from its foundation in 1999 was a powerful and articulate defender of equality. He was outspoken and an excellent communicator of the equality message on the media. The Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, tried to remove Niall Crowley from his post as Chief Executive in 2004. This was not a public event at the time, but it signalled to civil and public servants what government wanted from an Equality Authority. It was not expected to be an independent voice for equality in Ireland. It was expected to behave as an arm of a politically compliant civil service.
But the attacks on the Equality Authority, culminating in its demise through cuts in 2008, and its closure in 2013 must not be read in isolation from the historical context of Irish cultural and political life. While it was the pre-eminent equality agency, it was not the only equality-oriented agency closed down between 2001 and 2013: groups representing or supporting Travellers, people with disabilities, women, children, those living in poverty, carers among others, were all adversely affected by closures.
Closing Down the Equality Infrastructure in Ireland
• Equality Authority (EA) – 2009 43% cut in budget; merged with HRC (2013)
• Irish Human Rights Commission (HRC) – 2009 24% Budget; merged with EA (2013)
• National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) – Closed 2009 (Established 1998)
• Higher Education Equality Unit, UCC – Closed and merged into HEA 2003 (Established 1993)
• National Committee on Education Disadvantage disbanded (set up under the Education Act 1998). Committee was appointed in 2001 – disbanded after 3 years in operation in 2005
• Combat Poverty Agency – closed 2008 (Established in 1986)
• Traveller Education cutbacks 2008-2013 higher than any other group: Interagency activities 100%; Traveller education 86.6%; Traveller accommodation 85%; Equality work 76.3%; National Traveller organisations 63.6%; FAS Special Initiative for Travellers 50%; National Traveller Partnership 32.1%; Traveller SPY youth projects 29.8% (Source: Pavee Point (Brian Harvey )Travelling With Austerity: Impacts of Cuts on Travellers, Traveller Projects and Services (2013:1)
• People With Disabilities in Ireland (PWDI) – closed end of 2011 (established in 2000)
• Women’s Health Council – closed 2009 (Established in 1997)
• Crisis Pregnancy Agency – closed and merged with HSE in 2009 (Established 2001) and is now the Crisis Pregnancy Programme
• Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education – closed 2008 (established 2002)
• National Council on Ageing and Older People – closed 2009 (established 1997)
• Gender Equality Unit – Department of Education – Closed early 2000s
• Gender Equality desk at the Department (Ministry) of Justice, Equality and Law Reform – Desk Closed 2009
• National Women’s Council of Ireland – 158 member organisations – budget cuts of 15% in 2008-2011, and 35% in 2012
The closure of so many equality bodies throughout the 2000s reflected a growing disenchantment with the language and principles of equality. Even those on the ‘left’ began to speak in terms of fairness[ii] rather than equality. To understand the opposition to the work of the Equality Authority and the closure of equality agencies it is important to examine the cultural and political contexts in which this occurred.
Charity not Rights
In his commentary on the events that led to the demise of the Equality Authority, Niall Crowley makes an important observation about attitudes to rights and, by implication, to equality in Ireland:
‘There is a perspective in parts of the government and of the statutory sector that suggests that people should be grateful for the services provided. People have to be deserving, not demanding, of public support – it cannot be a matter of rights.‘ (Crowley, 2010: 112).
In passing anti-discrimination legislation, the IrishState had conferred limited rights on those who experienced discrimination in their usage of public (and private) services, and in employment. Two cultures and sets of values came into conflict with this development, the longstanding culture that defined access to public services as a form of charity given at the goodwill of the State and its agents, and a culture that defined public services as rights to which people had entitlements. With the new legislation, rights in accessing services and in employment were underpinned by anti-discrimination laws that could be vindicated in the courts. And in listing nine identities on the basis of which discrimination was prohibited, new socio-political realities were created: the citizen was no longer an undifferentiated ‘universal’ person devoid of gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, differences in abilities etc. The citizen was recognised for her or his intersectional complexity.
Although the equality legislation was undeniably a limited liberal piece of legislation in terms of supporting equality of opportunity rather than equality of condition[iii], it nonetheless created ruptures with the past that challenged the ordering of authority and power: on the one hand, it challenged the charity model of service provision by reinforcing the rights-bearing view of the citizen, and on the other, it challenged the concept of the universal citizen[iv] by exposing the ways in which particular identities can and do lead to discriminations in service delivery and in employment. It created new terms of reference for public discussion and analysis about equality and social justice. However, these were not terms of reference which were culturally familiar or widely politically accepted.
Charity as Ideology – Challenges
The poorest 10% of Irish households experienced a drop of 26% in their disposable income between 2009 and 2010, and the wealthiest 10% had an increase of 8% (CSO, 2012: 11) (see Figure at the end of the paper). And ‘there was an increase in income inequality between 2009 and 2010 as shown by the quintile share ratio. The ratio showed that the average income of those in the highest income quintile was 5.5 times that of those in the lowest income quintile. The ratio was 4.3 one year earlier’ (CSO, 2012: 6) and Table 1b, page 10).
Why has the country allowed income inequality to grow at a time of crisis, why has it allowed deprivation to increase when countries like Iceland have worked hard to protect their most vulnerable citizens during their financial crisis? (Stuckler and Basu, 2013)
The answer lies in part in the fact that Ireland has never had a deep-rooted commitment to principles of equality, be it in feminism, socialism or even humanism. It has relied heavily on the ideology of charity to address injustices. The roots of this ideology lie deep within religious teaching but they are by no means exclusive to Ireland. They have a long historical trajectory internationally, and the charity ideology finds different expression depending on cultural contexts; it is both secular and religious in its origins (Soss, Fording and Schram, 2011). What charity ideology has in common globally is that it is about managing the poor, it is not about eliminating inequality and injustice. This ideology is politically dangerous for a number of reasons most especially as it perpetuates inequality and legitimates it, creating in the process a truly ‘Careless State’.
Charity is an entirely voluntary act; it can be given and it can be taken away. It is a personal choice, not a collectively binding agreement of solidarity. At the individual level, it is driven by the desire for moral recognition on the part of those who give rather than recognition of the rights of those who receive. It can and does service the guilt of the better off, rather than the needs of the vulnerable to live with dignity and independence. Being in receipt of charity is demeaning; it has to be sought through supplication (effectively by asking). One cannot assume one has an entitlement.
Moreover, charity also leads to the moral judgement of those who are in receipt of it, a framing of the recipients as deserving or undeserving. It is politically dangerous in this respect as it creates the public impression that those ‘offering charity’ (those doing their ‘good deeds’) are morally superior to the needy as they are working out of virtue. Because charity is a gift offered by those who decide to give, on the terms which they decide to provide it, those living on charity are not assumed to have rights to the services or goods offered. This is not to say that those who are entitled to services in Ireland cannot vindicate their rights, rather it is to speak of the charity mentality that frames how those in receipt of welfare entitlements or who are defined as the ‘undeserving poor’ (most recently lone parents) are perceived.
Finally, charity is premised on the institutionalisation of unequal and unjust economic relationships. Only in such a structurally unequal system can those with resources be in a position to ‘offer charity’ to others.
The pervasiveness of the charity mentality means those seeking welfare and public services are often subject to scrutiny and surveillance on the terms defined by those offering services (including the State and its agents) who exercise power over them.
The charity mentality also means that people are very happy to ‘give on their own terms’ especially to the deserving in the ‘Third World’ or to other needy causes. They are far less willing to pay their taxes so their poor neighbours’ children can have a fully-funded health care system or do not have to wait for several years for surgery while they themselves ‘jump the queue’ through the private health care system.
Responding to inequality by individual or collective acts of charity will not and cannot challenge the generative causes of injustice. To say this is not to deny the valuable work done by charities per se. Many charities speak out and some campaign on structural injustices; but even these operate under restriction by Charities Act 2009 which states that…they cannot promote ‘a political cause, unless the promotion of that cause relates directly to the advancement of the charitable purposes of the body’. This means that structural inequalities have been defined by law as secondary considerations in most charitable work, and this reinforces and exacerbates injustice. It gives the false impression that ‘charity can fill the gap’ which is structurally impossible given the scale of inequalities.
Equality in Cultural Context
Irish charity-based attitudes to equality are best understood in the context of its continued conservative nationalism and anti-intellectualism in the socio-political sphere. From its foundation in the 1920s, the Republic of Ireland never had a socialist government or even a Labour-led government. In post-independent Ireland, communist, socialist, and even social democratic politics were demonized as dangerous especially in the 1930s (Allen, 1997; Lee, 1989: 184). Feminism was so absent it did not even merit demonization for most of the 20th century; it was an inadmissible political subject (Connolly, 2002). Policies for people with disabilities were largely those of tolerance laced with charity (McDonnell, 2007), while those who were lesbian or gay had to fight for their rights via the courts (Gilligan and Zappone, 2008; Rose 1994). The absence of a critical left and feminist analysis of public policy over an extended period of history was not unrelated to the fact that ‘…religious and socioeconomic organizations such as trade unions, business, parts of the bureaucracy and the churches defended their turf in ways that effectively preserved a status quo’ (Garvin, 2004:3).
A deep consensualism, and at times strongly anti-intellectual, approach was promoted in Irish political and intellectual life that foreclosed intellectual dissent (Lee, 1989; Lynch, 1987; Whyte, 1984). This consensual approach found institutional expression in the late 20th and early 21st century in the social partnership system (Allen, 2000). Whether one agreed or not with the merits of partnership, it did have real social consequences. It deskilled trade unionists and community activists at local level, and created a widespread belief that conflicts of interest over equality issues were less insubstantial than they actually were (Allen, 2010; Meade, 2005).
The consensus culture, promoted over so many years by a variety of political and civil society interests created a political and intellectual void that was readily filled by a virulent, globally-powered neo-liberalism in the 1990s and 2000s (Kirby, 2002; Lynch, 2006; Phelan, 2007).
The Neglect of Critical Social Scientific Education
When a person writes a new novel in Ireland, particularly if they are reasonably well established, the work is often reviewed in the Irish Times, discussed in Arts programmes on radio and may even be the subject of interviews. It is an important cultural event and this is to be welcomed. This is equally true of film productions and musical products. Moreover, there are several prizes, national and international, for literary and cultural works, including those supported by public bodies like RTE. However, if a scholar produces a critical work on issues of sociological importance, it is generally ignored. I could take many books as examples but I will take one by my UCD colleague in the School of Education, Immigration and Schooling in the Republic of Ireland (2011) published by Manchester University Press. This book was based on careful study of immigrant children’s experience of Irish schooling, a hugely important issue of public interest. It demonstrated the depth of racism, often institutionalised, in Irish education. This book was never reviewed or discussed on any media programme. It was never reviewed in an Irish newspaper. Despite the fact that it holds a mirror up to the Irish attitudes to immigrant children in schools, it was not treated as an important cultural event. The same holds true for other books like Niall Hanlon’s study of Irish men and their attitudes to caring, Masculinities, Care and Equality (2012, Macmillan). This is surely an issue of public interest, given how much debate there is about including men on discussions of gender. This book also never received any public attention in the Irish media yet it highlights huge issues of public importance on how boys’ and men’s identities are socially constructed in Ireland in a care-free manner.
Most of the excellent work, work that is both highly analytical and gives critical insight into Irish society, into what could and should be done differently in policy terms, is often ignored. Moreover, there is a miniscule amount of money available for critical social scientific research. (Like many critical social scientists, most of the research funding I have got over a 30 year period has come either directly or indirectly from the European Union or from philanthropic bodies.) Yes, there is some funding for the humanities and social sciences combined, but voices of dissent are not welcome. Governments like ‘good news’ stories to boost their electoral prospects; by definition critical social scientists do not provide that. If scholars in the field of equality studies or critical social scientists are doing their job, they will maintain a critical distance from institutions of power. They will be a thorn in their side.
But unlike more mature democracies that allow and fund social scientific dissent, Irish political parties and state agencies fear it. It is allowed to find artistic expression but when it is presented in the cold analysis of science, it is not welcome as it commands action and does not appear as cultural entertainment[v].
There is no forum for social scientific reviews in the public media like RTE or the major newspapers. For example, there is a Science Editor but no correspondent for the Social Sciences in the Irish Times. The indifference to critical sociological and philosophical research is a major lacuna in Irish cultural life. It contributes greatly to the impoverishment of public debate on socio-political issues, leading to debates that are often scientifically misinformed and downright inaccurate.
This indifference has a long history as Ireland has no substantive social science of philosophical subjects taught in schools: there is no political theory, no sociology or no philosophy. We cannot have new ideas in how to reorganise our society without investing in subjects and fields of scholarship that allow us to think differently, to reconceptualise the world sociologically and socio-politically.
Political Parties and Equality
One of the factors that gave neo-liberalism, and anti-egalitarians generally, power in Ireland was that they had an explicit political voice in the Progressive Democrats (PDs); the latter was a minority political party in political terms, winning less than 5% of the national vote from its establishment in the late 1980s until its dissolution in 2009. However, it held the balance of power in government for an extended period of time (from 1997 to 2009) and used this to powerful effect in pushing forward pro-market policies[vi]. The views of its most outspoken and best known Minister, Michael McDowell (Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform 2002-2007), were indicative of its overall position on equality. In an interview with the Irish Catholic newspaper on May 27th 2004 he stated that: ‘.a dynamic liberal economy like ours demands flexibility and inequality in some respects to function. It is the inequality that provides incentives’. Inequality was regarded as a necessity to stimulate people to work.
It would be misleading to suggest that neo-liberalism was the preserve of the PDs as there were many in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael[vii] who had little allegiance to equality principles and who had no difficulty overseeing a society with persistent inequality. This was evident in the way the economic and social policies promoted by these two large parties, had, over many decades, actively promoted economic inequality in Ireland, on occasion with the compliance of the Labour Party as a minority coalition partner (Allen, 1997; Kirby and Murphy, 2011).
The lack of party political commitment equality has persisted. In their political manifestos for the 2011 election Fine Gael only make one passing reference to equality while Fianna Fáil did not refer to equality per se at all[viii]. Although the Labour Party had many references to equality in its 2011 Manifesto, its practices in government with Fine Gael belie its commitments to anything but selective civil and political equality principles. It has supported cutbacks in basic services, including equality services, for some of the most vulnerable people in Ireland, including Travellers, carers and lone parents. Sinn Féin’s 2011 election manifesto (the 4th largest party in 2011) is the most egalitarian in its policy statements. However, as it has not been in government in the Republic of Ireland, its allegiance to these values has not been fully tested politically.
The failure to take equality seriously as a political principle has resulted in persistent and pervasive discrimination against a variety of groups in Ireland, especially Travellers, but also against other ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and women (McGréil, 2012).
The principles that have guided much of Irish welfare policy have been those of voluntarism and/or subsidiarity, principles that have been strongly influenced by Catholic social teaching (Inglis, 1998). These have been interpreted in a narrowly defined way to mean the absence of State intervention even when such is necessary, including when it is essential to uphold the equality laws of the State. Behind the volunteeristic approach to service provision lies a charity ideology, where rights are seen as gifts given at the behest of a benevolent donor; they can be given and taken away at the will of the powerful. While Social Justice Ireland represented a rupture with the charity tradition in Irish Catholicism, formally challenging economic inequality in particular (http://www.socialjustice.ie/content/about-us), the mainstream Church remains deeply conservative on issues such as the protection of private property (and wealth), gender relations and sexuality. Even in relation to economic inequality, it has encouraged private acts of charity as a response to injustice in Ireland rather than public acts of organising and resistance. Responding to inequality by acts of charity will not and cannot challenge the generative causes of injustice. [ix]
When the charity ideology was married to the anti-intellectualism of Irish life, the consensus-driven character of academia and politics, and, more recently, the over-riding power of global neo-liberal politics, it is not surprising that Ireland has not developed a deep political and moral commitment to equality.[x]
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Baker, John, Lynch, Kathleen, Cantillon, Sara and Walsh, Judy (2009) Equality: From Theory to Action. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Collins, Neil (2007) ‘The public service and regulatory reform’ in Collins, N., Cradden, T. and Butler, P. (eds.) Modernising Irish Government: the politics of administrative reform. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan
Connolly, Linda (2002) The Irish Women’s Movement: From Revolution to Devolution. London: Palgrave Macmillan
CSO (2012) SILC Survey of Income and Living Conditions. Dublin: Government of Ireland
Cradden, Terry (2007) ‘People Management: HRM in the public service’ in Collins, N., Cradden, T. and Butler, P. (eds.). Modernising Irish Government: the politics of administrative reform. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan
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Gilligan, Ann Louise and Zappone, Katherine (2008) Our Lives out Loud: In Pursuit of Justice and Equality. Dublin: O’Brien Press
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[i]All Ireland Traveller Health Study (2010) School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Population Science, University College Dublin. For a summary of the findings see http://www.dohc.ie/publications/traveller_health_study.html
[ii] Throughout the election campaign of 2011, all the major political parties including Labour called for a ‘fair’ society, not an equal society. The focus on fairness rather than equality was noticeable throughout the 2000s. ‘The Fair Society’ was the title of Pat Rabbitte’s address to the Labour Party Conference on May 10th 2007 when he was party leader http://www.labour.ie/download/pdf/the_fair_society.pdf. The Justice Commission of the Conference of Religious of Ireland was also talking about fairness as a desirable political objective in 2006: http://www.cori.ie/justice2/Social_Partnership/130-Securing_Fairness_and_Wellbeing_012006
While no one would doubt the value of fairness, in the original articulation of justice as fairness outlined by Rawls, fairness was deeply attached to the principle of equality. There are a number of problems in using it as a stand-alone concept. First there is the problem of ambiguity; what is fair or unfair is generally defined by those whose interests are being threatened, including those in power. Second, there is no mechanism for challenging the definition or interpretation of ‘what is fair’ as the definition is the prerogative of those who set the terms of interpretation. Third, fairness, in so far as it is used as a discrete concept (for example in economics) is about the fair allocation of envy between individuals. The problem with such a concept is that it is not only highly individualistic (as it does not address group differences), it is also unworkable; who knows what will make others envious or not. In addition, it is also highly dependent on subjective preferences which may themselves be founded on deep injustices. Very often those who own a lot of resources will be envious of others who own more; but this is hardly a morally justifiable reason for granting those who are envious even more than they have already! If the fair allocation-of-envy logic were followed, then all forms of envy would be equally valid so the very well off or the very powerful or privileged would have equal claim on resources as those who are poor. What is being suggested here is that language matters. Fairness is a dangerous concept when it is detached from principles of equality as it is not clearly defined, is built on dubious moral principles and will be generally interpreted by those in power in their own interests.
[iii] For a discussion of the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of condition, see Baker, Lynch, Cantillon and Walsh (2009) Equality: From Theory to Action (Chapters 2 and 4)
[iv] Critics of the universal model of citizenship highlight the political relevance of difference (gender, social class, language, disability, race, etc.) in framing citizenship. They emphasise the pluralist character of contemporary democratic states and the need to recognise same in laws and policies. For an analysis and critique of the idea of the universal citizen see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/
[v] I was once told that the problem with critical egalitarian and critical sociological analyses of Irish society is that they do not sell Ireland as a tourist destination!
[vi] While it was not antithetical to certain rights particularly divorce and contraception, it was not liberal on all sexual issues; for example, it did not support same-sex marriage.
[vii] Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are the two largest political parties in the State. Both are Centre Right parties in policy terms; they are aligned with the Christian Democrats and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe respectively.
[viii] Fine Gael’s Election Manifesto 2011 only makes a one policy reference to equality and this is to Public Bodies: “We will encourage all public bodies to take due note to equality and human rights in carrying out their functions. ” In Summer 2013, they voted down a Private Member’s Bill in the Dáil that would enable this to happen. There are no references to equality in Fianna Fáil’s 2011 Manifesto although there are references to the importance of having gender balance on State Boards and on Election lists. While the 3rd biggest political party in 2011, the Labour Party has numerous references to equality in its 2011 manifesto, its actions in government with Fine Gael, cutting benefits to lone parent (most female headed) families, to Travellers and the unemployed indicate that it has a very weak liberal view of equality in economic terms and is more interested in enhancing certain civil and political rights rather than social and economic rights. Sinn Féin’s 2011 manifesto (the 4th largest party in 2011) is the most egalitarian; it makes specific reference to addressing economic inequality and to recognising Travellers as an ethnic minority, neither of which are referred to by the other parties. It also introduced a Private Members’ Bill to the Dáil to prohibit discrimination on new grounds (including social background in 2013). However, as it has not been in power its commitments have not been fully tested.
[ix] Limited though the charity response to injustice has been, it did however give those who fought for equality a moral standing in political life; they had a right to be heard even if their charitable responses to inequality were often laissez faire, ad hoc or both. But even the charitable approaches to injustice were fractured with the emergence of neoliberalism. Pursuing equality and social justice was less and less defined as a morally desirable political objective. Promoting equality was deemed incidental and contingent at best, and at times undesirable. Equal opportunities policies were seen as necessary, in so far as they facilitated market needs, and/or if they promoted civil and political rights that did not have monetary costs.
[x] While there has been a challenge to neoliberalism since the emergence of the financial crisis, in both academia and in civil society, unfortunately the biggest political parties of the State show little allegiance to creating equality of conditions in Ireland. Their interests are dictated by the powerful and vociferous groups that dictate their party political fate.