THE EQUALITY JOURNEY

19 June 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

THE EQUALITY JOURNEY

The wide range of activities that took place across our county during the recent Social Inclusion Week undoubtedly sharpened awareness of the eternal topicality of equality issues, reinforcing the message that while a great deal has been done to extend social opportunity to everyone in our county, there remains a great deal more to do.

We tend to pride ourselves as individuals upon our modern acceptance of groupings that were once marginalised or isolated – the single mother, the person with different skin colour, same-sex couples, people with disabilities, adherents of non-Christian faiths, the young and the elderly are perceived as enjoying enhanced status and entitlements and more dignity and respect that the attitudes of former times conferred upon them.

This is certainly true, but any complacency with regard to equality that might have set in was certainly challenged by a number of the events organised by the Monaghan Social Inclusion Committee.

One of the most effective and successful dimensions of the programme, and certainly the one with greatest visual impact, is the exhibition of portraits of Down Syndrome children currently on view in The Diamond in Monaghan Town and seen previously in Carrickmacross. The title “Here I Am” encapsulates the power of the presentation well – and it is impossible to look long at the captivating images of the young people concerned or read what their parents have to say about them without being moved to lament the cloak of invisibility that society can sometimes swaddle children of difference in, ostensibly catering for their care but doing so in ways that mistakenly presume a necessity to separate its delivery from the mainstream educational and recreational opportunities made available to young people.

Advocacy and education have certainly improved our society and culture’s flexibility in accommodating people with particular physical or intellectual challenges more at the centre of things rather than in “special” places and institutions that once served to perpetuate rather than break down the subtle cultural apartheid that is the common lot of those whose entitlements to equality are denied. But attitudes can make that journey at a slower pace, and the “Here I Am” exhibition was a salutary challenge to all who viewed it to ensure that any residual tendency we might collectively or individually harbour to look past rather than at the presence of children of difference among us should be discarded.

The invisibility once obliquely or directly conferred on minority groupings in Co Monaghan society, and the progress made towards banishing it, is very well described in the format of the publication “Equality – Our Tale of Two Counties: Monaghan 1955/Monaghan 2015”, which was launched in Monaghan Co Museum last Thursday by Minister with special responsibility for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD.

The book is no weighty academic treatise, and is all the better for that in getting its messages across. Not the least of its merits is its clear delineation of modern equality legislation and the definition of discrimination as constituted in Irish law – the prefatory outline and definitions behove close reading as they make clear to minority groupings how their rights are protected, and remind us all that criminality now rightly attaches to difference of treatment that is directed towards someone on the grounds of their difference.

The main body of the publication creates a fictional personage for each of the nine grounds upon which discrimination offences are now defined, and contrasts their situation in the Monaghan of 1955 to their current circumstances. The effect of this is extremely thought-provoking.

The reader might be shocked at how the legislation and prevailing social attitudes of the 1950s circumscribed the life of a working woman or a gay man, but that period is sufficiently within the reach of association to make it difficult to dismiss as some unenlightened dark age. We tend to look to our parents and grandparents as decent, upstanding people who passed down to us healthy attitudes and values with which it is difficult to reconcile some of the impediments to equality that prevailed in the recent past – they were not racists or bigots, yet racism and bigotry prevailed in their times.

The inescapable conclusion is that 1950s society in Co Monaghan embraced presumptions and codes of behaviour that have, in their most charitable interpretation, grown outmoded and no longer of relevance. And the unavoidable consequence of this realisation is to begin to consider what taken-for-granted precepts of our modern times might seem shockingly intolerant and inflexible to our own children and grandchildren.

The most important message contained in the pages of the book is perhaps that equality is always a work in progress – a journey towards an imagined Utopia that never quite gets reached, but the making of which has the potential to make life easier for those who find themselves placed by the caprice of prevailing attitudes on the margins rather than at the centre of life.

The moral compass that guides us on the journey often fluctuates, making the terrain uncomfortable for some – there are many among our readership, for example, who will no doubt be decidedly uneasy by Minister Ó Ríordáin’s citing of women’s reproductive rights as prominent among the list of things still to be accomplished in the Irish equality agenda, just as there will be others who will applaud the Minister’s progressive vision.

Such difference of opinion is healthy for the debate it engenders. As a result of the intense discussion that prefaced the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum, we should all be more sensitively informed about the challenges that members of the LGBT community have to overcome in their journey towards reconciling their sexual identity. And if that understanding is lastingly compassionate, then the acceptance and integration of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people will arguably be more meaningfully realised than it will be by the direct consequences of the constitutional change that the referendum outcome has put in place.

Whether our country is a better, worse, or any different a place following that referendum seems somehow beside the point. Because of the referendum, and our engagement with events such as the recent Monaghan Social Inclusion Week, we have shown ourselves to be a country more willing than we perhaps ever were to challenge and change our presumptions – as Minister Ó Ríordáin stated, “Things we take for take for granted and defend now, we might consider quite outdated in fifty years’ time.”

The equality journey continues – and, as it does so, let’s hope that more and more of those still on the margins of Irish society begin to find themselves in the middle of the march!

 

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