Strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement contains important provisions which, if fully implemented, would enhance equality and human rights protections right across the island, to the benefit of all. The Agreement specifically commits the Government to increase equality and human rights protections in the State, to make them at least equivalent to those available in the Six Counties. It was intended as a baseline, not as a ceiling. Now the Government, led by the Minister with responsibility for injustice and inequality, is seeking not to enhance these protections won for all the people of this island in the Good Friday Agreement, but instead to roll back what was gained in pursuit of his personal war on a rights-based society, his war on immigration, and his war on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process itself.
The Government is no friend of equality, as proven by its record in office. It had to withdraw the Disability Bill 2002 after mass protests against it specifically because it was not a rights-based Bill. However, the draft replacement Bill looks even worse than the first one. The Government has criminalised Travellers without access to halting sites as a result of its and local authorities' failure to deliver on accommodation plans. The Minister's first order of business was to criminalise immigrants through random arrests in the pre-dawn raids of Operation Hyphen, which netted many who were perfectly legal.
The Government's failure to adequately fund the Human Rights Commission means that six years after the Agreement it is still not fully operational, and the Minister has further undermined the commission by ignoring its recommendations and refusing to consult it on a number of items of legislation, including the draconian Immigration Acts 2003 and 2004. He has legislated to allow publicans a licence to discriminate and limited the jurisdiction of the Equality Tribunal in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003.
The Government's Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004 legislated to reverse an Equality Tribunal decision by allowing discrimination against lesbian and gay couples in their entitlement to social welfare benefits. The Minister has failed to take strong action against attempts by publicans to introduce a blanket ban on Travellers and has failed to reprimand Members and public representatives for racist comments. He has publicly stated his own prejudice against asylum seekers. He is now trying to ethnically cleanse our citizenship laws and Constitution.
Notwithstanding stated Government policy, the Minister has refused to incorporate into law gender-based affirmative action targets. He has also repeatedly expressed contempt for the equality and human rights sector, and said that we must choose between our rights and low taxes. The Government, particularly the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, has proven it is nothing less than the biggest threat to equality in this State.
It is not simply a matter of protecting what we have gained under the Good Friday Agreement, we must enhance protections. Our equality legislation must be significantly enhanced. It lags behind the EU standard as well as the standard set in the Six Counties. For example, statutory duty provisions at least equivalent to those outlined in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are required to bring us properly into line with Good Friday Agreement commitments. Sinn Féin agrees with the Equality Authority that the nine grounds of protection from discrimination must be expanded to include equality regardless of socio-economic status, political opinion, trade union membership or past criminal conviction. The race directive, the framework employment directive and the gender equal treatment directive represent the best of what the EU has to offer the people of this island. They provide a baseline of rights protection which should be available to all persons who find themselves in a European Union country.
Throughout 2003, I called for the transposition into domestic law of these directives to enhance the protections from discrimination available to people in the State. I hoped that process would pick up where the Good Friday Agreement left off. Like the Government which introduced it, the Bill before us is a profound disappointment. Like the Minister himself, it does a disservice to the Good Friday Agreement and everyone in the State who voted for it. The first problem is that the Minister failed to consult the sectors representing people whose rights will be most affected by this legislation. He ignored most of the recommendations of the Equality Authority on the proper transposition of the directives I mentioned. The Minister did not even seek the opinion of the Human Rights Commission, which I am glad to discover is planning a submission to him on its own initiative. Let us hope he does not ignore that as he has ignored so many of the commission's past submissions.
The result of the Minister's failure to consult is the poor Bill before the House today. The Minister got the process wrong and the House must now get it right. The legislation must not be rushed through on the Minister's whim. Adequate time is required for committee hearings involving representatives from the human rights sector. These representatives should include the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism the National Disability Authority and the non-governmental organisations represented on the newly-formed equality coalition which made a submission to the Minister on this Bill. As much time is needed for adequate Committee Stage debate as has been afforded to consideration of the equally important Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill to permit Members to thrash out properly the changes required to ensure we enact the best possible legislation. We will also need adequate time for a proper Report Stage to allow us to reach and properly debate all proposed amendments.
There are major problems with the content of this Bill. It fails fully to transpose EU equality directives into law. The Bill is as much about the dilution of rights as their protection. It violates the principle of non-regression of rights protections specified under all three directives. Its provisions on sanctions and remedies do not comply with either the directives or European Court of Justice standards. It excludes conveniently actions or failures of the State which is contrary to Article 3.1 of the race directive. The legislation makes no provision for the abolition of discriminatory practices or laws as required by Article 14 of the same directive. In fact, section 47 rolls back actively an Equality Tribunal decision on discrimination in education, proposing instead to permit discrimination by changing the law. It also legislates for racism in section 49, in particular by removing the protections previously afforded in respect of discrimination on the ground of nationality. This violates our international human rights obligations and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is now law in the State.
As drafted, the Bill violates the equality directives and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It is thus vulnerable to a Supreme Court or European Court of Justice challenge. In short, the Bill represents a further signal that the Minister has declared war on all of us who do not rank high enough in his social-Darwinistic hierarchy. The Minister is picking us off one by one, starting with those he perceives to have the fewest advocates. First, his Government turned on Travellers and, subsequently, the Minister began his war on non-nationals. Today it is republicans but tomorrow it could be anyone. He is trying to pit us against each other. He says taxpayers will not pay for rights-based disability legislation and contends that we must choose between that and a proper health care system. The Minister says immigrants cost more than they contribute and that if we let them in, we will be unable to afford services for disabled people.
These are lies calculated to cover up the Government's failure, true priorities and lack of political will. My message to the Minister is that he will not succeed in his plan to divide and conquer. I applaud the equality coalition which formed recently to keep an eye on him. I am encouraged by the unity demonstrated by the progressive Opposition in the House as we continue to work co-operatively to ensure we have the best possible equality legislation and begin to set the standards for the whole of Europe rather than simply for Ireland. That will not happen if the Minister fails to listen and take on board the concerns of Members on this side of the House and of those who work in this field. The Minister must, for once, listen to what the Human Rights Commission has to say.