Equality Then, Now & Future: Creating a more Equal & Inclusive Society
29th of September 2016
It is always a pleasure for me as Minister of State with special responsibility for Equality, Immigration and Integration, to
launch events such as this. However, today is particularly special, celebrating the 15th anniversary of AkiDwA, a significant milestone in the history of any organisation.
AkiDwA deserves recognition for its promotion of the equality of migrant women in Irish society. Whether it is through its advocacy activities, its capacity building, or its policy work, AkiDwa has been there to provide support to those who need it and to help them participate fully in everyday life.
However, we are gathered here to do more than recognise the activities of AkiDwa. We are here to celebrate the positive contribution of migrants to life in Ireland, and also to discuss measures and strategies to better promote an inclusive Ireland.
As you are aware, this year is the centenary celebration of the 1916 Rising, arguably the most seminal event that defined the course of recent Irish history. It was an event which defined this country, and it happened at a time of great change, both domestically and internationally.
The signatories of the 1916 Proclamation set out a vision for a new state, a state in which all citizens would be treated with dignity and respect. The text of the Proclamation itself refers to religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. These concepts are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.
We have an opportunity now of further reflecting upon the ideals espoused by the leaders of the 1916 Rising, to ensure that the ideals set out at that time, remain relevant in today’s society. Intolerance, racism and inequality have no part in a modern society and we must work to ensure that such beliefs do not find traction in today’s world.
Today’s event provides an opportunity to work together to ensure that all of our citizens are treated in a manner befitting a first-world country. Our collaborative efforts can lead to the identification of problems and impediments to progression and inclusion, but more importantly, our combined labours can mobilise resources for change and ensure a better society for all.
I believe that it is only right that we celebrate all the positive contributions which migrants have made to this State. We need only look to such diverse areas as music, food, the arts, culture and science to see how our nation has benefited from the contributions of people who have come from overseas. We would be a much poorer nation today if we did not have the inputs of migrants in the past.
We must also remember that we are a nation which has a long history of emigration. Our own citizens have travelled abroad in search of work, in search of opportunities and in search of a better life for themselves. It is only right that we should now treat those who come to our shores in the manner which we would expect our own citizens to be treated on foreign shores.
However, we must always look to the future and how we might, as custodians of today’s society, leave it in a better state for generations to come.
It is in this context that I am particularly interested in how we might identify the issues that are problematic today, and put in place measures to address those difficulties.
As part of the process of the State working to improve the environment for successful integration, I expect that our new Migrant Integration Strategy will be published this Autumn. This Cross-Departmental strategy seeks to build upon the initiatives which have already been put in place and seeks to further develop a climate within which the positive efforts of all those interested in integration can grow and flourish.
There can be no place in a modern society for intolerance, discrimination, inequality or exclusion. All residents in this country should feel valued, safe and free from discrimination of any form. People should feel comfortable that their beliefs, be they religious, political or social, will be tolerated and understood and that the State will act to uphold and vindicate their rights.
We need only look to our Constitution to see in Article 40.3.1 where it states clearly that:
“The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.”
This is a solemn undertaking which we take very seriously. It is preceded by Article 40.1, which states:
“All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law”.
The courts have applied this to all persons, regardless of their citizenship. Indeed, as you already aware, we have comprehensive and robust equality legislation in place. Discrimination is prohibited on a wide range of grounds - gender, civil status, family status, age, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and membership of the Traveller community.
Our legislation is designed to promote equality and prohibit discrimination, be it direct, indirect or by association. It is also designed to prohibit victimisation, and allow positive measures to ensure full equality across the nine grounds.
This equality legislation is constantly kept under review and amended as necessary.
We must not, however, become complacent.
We have been very fortunate in that we have avoided the extreme racial tensions that have emerged in recent times elsewhere in Europe. We do not have a nationalistic, anti-migrant party, and there is little appetite for intolerance in public discourse. However, I am mindful that we cannot assume that our work in protecting all of our citizens has finished – we must work to guard against complacency and intolerance seeping into the fabric of society.
Government has worked, and is working, to ensure that our system of public administration adapts to meet the changing needs that face it. We have adopted a mainstreaming approach to ensure that migrants access the same services as Irish people do.
Our services have adapted to reflect the new cultural diversity of their client base and a number of key departments and agencies have developed specific strategies to ensure that their services respond to Ireland’s changed demographic in a competent and inclusive manner. However, where problems remain we need to identify them so that appropriate actions can be taken.
In supporting equality of opportunity and access to services, the Government also has a role in mobilising resources to support actions at the community level. Local initiatives, many of them led by community organisations, can make a very positive difference to the day-to-day realities of migrants in our communities. We want to support this type of effort.
Last week I opened a Call for Proposals for migrant integration and gender equality projects to be funded by the European Union through the Department of Justice and Equality. There is up to €7.8 million available over the next four years for projects aimed at supporting the integration of migrants and improving their access to the labour market. A further €5.5m is available for projects to assist women to return to the workforce and to support women’s entrepreneurship.
The Call is open until the beginning of next month. I would encourage organisations with an interest in these areas to consider making an application for funding.
Returning to today’s event, I look forward to the results of this conference because our discussions will allow us to again review what needs to be done to ensure equality for all members of our community regardless of their origin.
All members of society deserve to be treated with equality and their beliefs respected.
I wish you all the best of luck in your deliberations and I encourage you to engage in a forthright, honest and comprehensive dialogue so that the end result will be as useful as possible.