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New Legal Director Highlights Opportunities Under Anti Discrimination Law to Challenge Racism Against Roma

21 November 2007

Geraldine Scullion1

I was born and grew up in Northern Ireland during a time of political and sectarian division, violence and discrimination. It was an early introduction to the suffering of people created by a society divided by religion and national allegience and its violent consequences. My parents taught me to see beyond the labels which divided and diminished us and to value people for themselves. I hated the narrowing effect that prejudice and bigotry had on all our lives and I was acutely aware, even as a young woman, that there must be a better way of resolving such conflict.

After graduating from Belfast's Queen's University with a degree in social anthropology, I moved to the north of England for further studies and became involved in welfare rights campaigns, particularly amongst the Asian communities who had immigrated to work in the then declining woolen textile industry. This was my first taste of the impact of real poverty compounded by racism and I was appalled that such conditions were tolerated in a wealthy and supposedly civilised society.

It was here that my commitment to social justice crystalised and I was determined to find a better way to ensure that socially excluded people enjoyed the benefits of the society in which they lived and to which they contributed. My experience of working with legal activists and campaigners taught me that rights had to be backed up by legal action, so I decided to become a lawyer.

I completed my solicitors' finals at Manchester Polytechnic and served my articles in private practice before taking up a post with the North Manchester Law Centre, dealing with housing, family law and welfare rights in a socially and economically deprived area of high unemployment. During this time and in partnership with Women's Aid, I set up the first legal telephone helpline in the UK for survivors of domestic violence.

Upon returning to live in Northern Ireland, I worked for an NGO providing legal support to community groups working in areas suffering the effects of political violence and poverty, before becoming the first lawyer to join the Commision for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland (CRE(NI)) with a remit to develop its legal casework and strategy. Legislation to outlaw race discrimination had only been introduced in 1997 following intense campaigning by NGOs and human rights groups including criticism by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of the UK government's denial of the relevance or need for such protection in Northern Ireland. At the Commision, I oversaw the development of the first cases under the Race Relations (NI) Order 1997, including the first successful race discrimination case involving Irish Travellers who were denied service in a pub.

In 1999, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fair Employment Commission merged to form the new Equality Commision NI (ECNI). I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to become involved in an anti-discrimination project in Bulgaria and in 2002/3 I spent six months working with the National Council for Ethnic and Demographic Issues in Sofia, where I contributed to the pre-EU accession drafting of the anti-discrimination law. The project also included devising and delivering training for judges, lawyers, prosecutors and NGOs in antidiscrimination law and practice on race issues.

The following year, I spent 4 months working as a legal expert in the office of the Legal Chancellor in Tallinn, Estonia. I delivered training on EU anti-discrimination law to the staff of the office and devised procedures to deal with discrimination complaints.

On my return to ECNI, I managed its Legal Enforcement Division as acting Legal Director in 2005 before seeking new challenges with the ERRC.

Throughout my working life, I have had a strong commitment to social justice and to finding practical ways to bring about improvements in people's lives. I do not want to live in a society, whether in Northern Ireland or anywhere in Europe, where great sections of people are despised and marginalised. The denial of the humanity of Roma diminishes my humanity and acts as a huge obstacle to the development of prosperous, stable communities where the differences between us are valued and cherished.

I joined the ERRC to do a good job and to use my skills and experience to make a difference. I have found that challenging discrimination through litigation can push changes onto reluctant authorities and governments. Giving people legal knowledge and arguments can have a dramatic empowering effect and will help them to access their rights and take their full place as equal citizens in their own communities. I know too that change is slow; in Northern Ireland there has been strong anti-discrimination legislation on gender, religion and political opinion for over 30 years and awareness of the law is high amongst employers, but still the Equality Commission NI receives thousands of enquiries and hundreds of potential cases of discrimination every year.

Looking back, I realise how important are influences from outside which help to promote progress in an inward-looking society caught up in cycles of violence and repression. In the 1990s, with the help of Amercian trade unions which refused to invest trade union funds in companies which had discriminatory employment practices, the McBride campaign2 was instrumental in forcing the UK government to review its law and policy in relation to employment in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, the law was changed to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religion and political opinion and new systems to implement and monitor fair employment were created. Later, in the 1990s, following ground breaking case law at the European Court of Justice, equal pay and sex discrimination laws in Northern Ireland were strengthened; and Northern Ireland legislation has been dragged into the 21st century by the European Union's goal of implementing the principles of equality in the fields of disability, age and sexual orientation.

Within the ERRC legal department, I want to build on existing standards of excellence to ensure we are the best and most effective team of human rights lawyers in Europe. We will take a leading role in the fight against human rights abuses of Roma and to do this we will share our knowledge and expertise with other human rights lawyers and support strategic cases at domestic and international courts and other fora. Over the next months, the ERRC will develop its legal strategy; this will include, amongst other things, building up our anti-discrimination expertise and the development of race case law at the European Court of Justice which is well placed to have a powerful impact on law and practice in all the EU countries.

Endnotes:

  1. Ms Scullion was appointed Legal Director of the ERRC in May 2007.
  2. The McBride principles, named after Sean McBride (Irishman, holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize and one of the architects of the European Convention on Human Rights), were adopted as US law in 1998. These required companies operating in Northern Ireland not to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion if they wanted investment from state pension funds from US cities and states where the McBride Principles had been adopted.
     

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