The Irish cabinet reshuffle (see here, here, here and here) has resulted in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform , being divested of issues relating to equality, disability, integration and human rights. These important areas will be subsumed into the new Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. The comments below are some initial reactions to this news.
Justice, Equality and Human Rights-Why?
I do not believe in making structural changes for their own sake. Too often, changes in structures can be pursued to disguise a lack of clear priorities or the determination to implement them. This Government has a clear agenda which I am determined will be driven forward with energy and commitment. There is no time to be wasted on extensive restructuring at the expense of action to implement our policies.
An Taoiseach Brian Cowen T.D. 23 March 2010
From 1992 until 1997, there was Minister for Equality and Law Reform, however post the 1997 general election, this was subsumed into the Department of Justice (to become the Dept. of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (DJELR).This was a time of enormous economic growth within the Republic of Ireland and a number of months before the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The thrust of today’s speech by An Taoiseach’s recognised the need for a re-invigorated economy based on job creation and innovation. For reasons highlighted by the statement of An Taoiseach above, structural changes were made to a number of departments.
An Taoiseach stated that these structural changes would:
- group functions whose combination is more appropriate to current priorities than the present arrangements;
- ensure greater coherence and produce more efficient delivery; and
- underline the priority issues for this Government in a way that mobilises a broad response.
What, however, is the rationale for moving issues related to equality, disability, integration and human rights away from the Justice Department? (It should be noted that the responsibility for social inclusion policy and family policy are being separated from the Department of Social and Family Affairs (to be renamed the Department of Social Protection) and moved to the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs).
The DJELR has an exceptionally wide remit, as evidenced by its organisational chart. In recent years, the DJELR has been criticised for its lack of human rights approaches to human rights institutions, immigration, crime control policy and penal policy (to highlight just a few core issues). The Green Party has blown quite a bit of hot air (but little in the way of action) in relation to funding of human rights institutions. There has also been suggestions that the Green Party dislike(d) Minister Dermot Ahern having control over issues of equality and human rights. Allowing issues of justice, equality and human rights to co-exist within one department certainly gives the appearance that justice is not solely about crime control, but also about societal equality and the protection of human rights.
There is a potent symbolism of issues such as equality and human rights being within the remit of a higher ranking minister in cabinet. That said, it might be useful, for the time being, to see whether the placement of these issues into the new Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs will result in a more focused energy on issues of human rights as inherent within equality, disability, integration, social inclusion and family policy. This may result in a more considered approach to issues of rights protection. On the other hand, cynics may suggest that issues encompassing broad human rights concerns have been sidelined into what is traditionally viewed as a less important government department. Given the current economic crisis, with the focus on job creation, it could be argued that this new department will not result in any significant heightening of human rights concerns within the Government.