Sunday, 31 May 2015

Employment Equality Act to be updated

The marriage referendum on May 22nd 2015 represented a watershed moment in Irish Society.  On that day over 60% of Irish voters voted in favour of same-sex marriage.  By doing so we became the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote.  It was an amazing achievement for a small island nation which was once known as being ultra conservative and traditional.  Indeed until 1993 homosexuality was illegal and until 1996 it was illegal to get a divorce in this Country.  It is amazing to see how tolerant and liberal we have become in such a short period of time. 

The scenes from Dublin Castle last Saturday resembled a Mardi Gras.  Unfortunately I was unable to attend but I could get a sense of the celebration, the joy and the spirit of camaraderie from watching the news bulletins.  I can't wait for the reeling in the years episode in 10 years time when the result doesn't feel like a big deal and gay marriage is just an everyday occurrence.

 While the marriage referendum progressed the rights of LGBTQ  individuals in the private sphere unfortunately religious schools can still discriminate against LGBTQ teachers.  Under section 37.1 of the employment equality acts a school can refuse to hire or fire a teacher on the grounds that their lifestyle goes against the ethos of the school.  This clause could presumably vindicate discrimination on the grounds of  sexuality, marital status or family status.  

Thankfully the Equality minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has seen the unfairness of this clause and section 37.1 of the Act  looks set to be amended by September to prevent schools having the power to discriminate against LGBTQ teachers

While the media in the Republic of Ireland was dominated with discussions on LGBTQ equality in the run up to the marriage referendum so to were discussions in Northern Ireland but for different reasons. On May 19th Asher's bakery in Northern Ireland was found guilty of discriminating on the grounds of sexuality when they refused to take an order for a cake supporting gay-marriage.  The bakery was fined €500 plus legal costs for the hearing. The bakery have decided to appeal the judges ruling so fingers crossed discrimination ruling will be upheld 

The case sparked discussion in Northern Ireland and sparked the  DUP to propose a 'Conscience amendment bill' which would mean that retail and service providers could legally refuse  a request made by a customer if the request clashed with their religious beliefs.  For example, a bakery could refuse to bake a pro-gay marriage cake, a printers could refuse to print leaflets supporting gay marriage, a hotel could refuse a gay couple a room.  This clause is preposterous and would make a mockery of equality legislation.

The past few months have seen much media debate on equality in the media in Northern Ireland and the republic.  The challenge for the future is to ensure that the employment equality acts are robust to do what they are intended to do- defend employees (and customers) rights on the 9 grounds.  This means that caveats and clauses which say that it is ok to discriminate at certain times and in certain situations have no place in the Acts.

Ireland has a long way to go before it is a utopia of equality and tolerance but I believe that the marriage referendum and the proposed amendment to section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts is a big leap forward.  I was heartened to see so many of my favourite shops and cafes support same-sex equality with the business for equality signs.  Here's to an Ireland which treats everybody equally.