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Why our Equality Commission must be held to account

By Fionola Meredith

Published 09/10/2015

Michael Wardlow
Michael Wardlow

This week, the Equality Commission reported on serious inequalities in education in Northern Ireland. The situation, it seems, is dire: continuing and persistent underachievement by working-class Protestant children, racist bullying, poor unemployment prospects for minority ethnic school leavers, as well as numerous other persistent inequalities linked to disability, gender, religion and socio-economic background. The Equality Commission says that the problems have worsened over time, and it has called for the government to take action as a matter of urgency.

A remedy, or series of remedies, is evidently needed. But the report's stark findings also raise another question, perhaps less palatable to the Equality Commission. If inequality has been rife for many years in education - and, by implication, in wider society, since the education system does not exist in a social vacuum - then doesn't the commission itself bear some responsibility?

Is it not the commission's stated role to "improve equality of opportunity for everyone and in doing so contribute to the creation and maintenance of a more equal society"?

Since the Equality Commission is on an annual budget of approximately £6m, I think we're entitled to ask whether we're getting value for money here.

A state-financed watchdog which commands such an enormous amount of public funding has to do more than simply bark, or howl, or whine when it identifies problems.

It must make an active, transformative difference. It must be seen to be working. Especially at a time of financial meltdown, when the street lights are going out, school buildings are crumbling into disrepair, and sick people are waiting months, or in some cases years, for vital treatment.

Don't worry, I'm not going all reactionary here. I'm not among those who would like to see the Equality Commission binned. People who face prejudice - and God knows, there's plenty of that swilling about in Northern Ireland - do need state-sponsored advocates, defenders and supporters. I agree that opportunity for all, and an end to discrimination, must be our watchwords.

But it strikes me that the Equality Commission has been getting a little too big for its boots in recent times. I hear a hectoring, sanctimonious tone creeping in to its pronouncements. I see a complacent, arrogant, well-funded body that clearly prefers to dish it out, rather than suck it up.

Worse still, I see an impulse to meddle or interfere in ways that actually undermines democratic freedoms and good relations, seeking to suppress views which do not pass the political correctness test.

To my mind, the commission's vexatious, divisive case against Ashers bakery was an unwarranted attack on freedom, in the bogus name of equality.

I say this as someone who has been outspoken about the dangers of politically-motivated religious fundamentalism in the past, and no doubt will be again. I'm not for Ashers; I'm not in their tribe. Heck, I'm not in anyone's tribe. I'm simply against selective tolerance and the illiberal urge to silence one's enemies.

Possibly the self-importance and piety of the commission's ethos comes from the very top. Recently I read an article by the chief commissioner Michael Wardlow in which he spoke of how "the core theological meaning of reconciliation still resounds in me when I engage in peace-building". Engaging in peace-building? I'm not sure what that means, Michael, but I wish you'd come round with your tools and build a new peace for this place pretty sharpish. The one we've got isn't very good.

Look, we don't need sermons, secular or otherwise. What we do need is a body that defends marginalised people from discrimination without trampling all over the vital freedoms which guarantee our democracy.

And we need to think practically, too. In view of the fact that we're currently circling the economic drain, it would make financial sense for the Equality Commission to join with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as one organisation. The two roles are already successfully combined in Britain and the Republic.

It's not just about the money: a single, reformed institution, tasked with protecting the rights of everyone (and I do mean everyone) has a greater chance of building the public support necessary to challenge the root causes of discrimination.

Because as it stands, the system clearly isn't working. Discrimination proliferates unabated, while the Equality Commission frets expensively about a message on a cake. Would the people whom it was set up to support even notice if it ceased to exist?

Belfast Telegraph

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