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“The low participation rates of women and the virtual absence of minorities in political parties and democratic institutions is a clear indicator of inequality in society and is an indictment of our model of democracy. Power and powerlessness is a key dimension to the problem of inequality.”, Niall Crowley, CEO of the Equality Authority said in an address to the Burren Law School in Ballyvaughan this week-end.

He went on to say: “Vested interests defend privilege and inequality, cloaking themselves with commitments to equality of opportunity but often reacting negatively to any focus on outcome. Attitudes, values and beliefs shape the experience of inequality both in assumptions that inform decision making and in our approach to difference”. “A denial of difference has characterised our approach – a denial that ultimately criminalised many who were different, as deviants”.

He suggested that new equality legislation has: “placed us in a unique and progressive position compared to our partners in the European Union. The legislation is valuable in establishing a coherence of obligation across both the workplace and the wider field of the provision of goods, services and facilities. However we need to assess the comprehensiveness of the equality agenda established in the legislation. Perhaps a focus on additional grounds such as ex-prisoners, socio-economic status, trade union membership and political opinion, Could be explored in the context of a future review of the effectivness of the legislation.”

Niall Crowley highlighted wealth and income as another key dimension to inequality stating that: “poverty is an experience evident across all groups experiencing inequality”.

He said that legislation needed to be accompanied by the: “Building of a focus on equality into decision making – to create a common sense such that planning is carried out and decisions are made in a way that ensures their contribution to equality. This mainstreaming approach could usefully be given a legislative underpinning. We already have the statutory duty on public authorities in Northern Ireland to promote equality which serve as a guide for us.

Our agenda for change is not one of changing those who are powerless but on of changing practices, systems and institutions that disempower. This is a valuable principle to underpin the achievement of equality”, he concluded.