Whats equality?

Equality is seen as a fundamental right in a liberal economy such as Irelands. Equality of opportunity allows that all may have equal access to the opportunities to get on in life whatever their station, to get on and achieve. A term synonymous with equality of opportunity is the “trickle down effect”.

This economic notion (I think it was the Chicago School of Economics, as favoured by Reaganomics and Thatcher ism) that increasing economic opportunity and money in a society is dispersed throughout the economy and that everyone will feel the benefit. In Ireland it was described by such political luminaries as Bertram Ahern and Charles McCreevy as the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Community workers had, in my circle at least, long held the belief that the rising tide certainly doesn’t lift all boats and that the trickle down effect had little or no benefits at all for those on the margins of society. That the boats that even did rise, caught a different wave to our political and business elites, and are now left in negative equity, broke, redundant, or run ragged by hawkish banks. Equality of opportunity obviously has different rules according to status!

The notion that equality of opportunity, or participation for that matter, has any benefit, is laughable surely, if you lack the resources to participate. For example what is the point in a course being organised if you haven’t the transport to access it. Where is the sense of inviting citizens to a meeting, if the time don't suit, if the venue is inaccessible to a wheelchair. How can the illiterate read a poster. What if you can't afford the price?

According to Kathleen Lynch of University College Dublin's Equality Dept “Substantive equality depends not simply on having the formal right to participate but on having the actual ability and resources to exercise that right…”

Speaking at the Community Workers Conference some years back in Kilkenny, Lynch defined fours core equality issues in Irish society- economic, political, socio-cultural and affective. She stated that “The perpetuation of inequality would not be so politically acceptable however, without a legitimating ideology, a set of ideas that continues to justify current practice and make it seem plausible...the legitimating ideology of Irish education policy is that of neo-liberalism. The focus has been on equalising opportunities rather than equalising resources. Consequently, what has been achieved in education is a minimalist type of equality of access, but not equality of participation, and certainly not equality of outcome. At best, the goal has been to increase the proportionate representation of marginalised groups in the more privileged areas of education.”

For Lynch then the inequalities inherent in the Irish political system are so embedded that the only recourse is for equality of outcome or success. By this she means that all groups within a society marginalised or not would have “…equality between these groups in terms of access to, and the distribution of, educational, economic, cultural, political and other benefits.”

I realise that people laughed at these notions during the boom times in Ireland, but perhaps now their would be some greater insight and appreciation. There are certainly plenty of examples as to where the system has failed and continues to fail.

As a local community how is equality of outcome to be achieved. How could we ensure that all benefit equally, bearing in mind that many are starting with more than others. Is it easier if we look at it in terms of what as individuals we need. Some require jobs, some require esteem, some require friendship, some may just want to give something back.

Does it start then with trying to understand and appreciate what are each persons personal needs. Or is it something more collective, a statement perhaps. As a community we aspire to..., as a community we want... we will have succeeded when we have...