The context of this was a dispute whereby a Roman Catholic family demanded access for their children to a VEC (Educational authority) sponsored bus which provided transport to 'Protestant' children to their nearest school, which in this case was Villiers School in Limerick city, a school of joint Anglican/Presbyterian foundation which is also open to children of other denominations and none. However in the case of Roman Catholic children their local school would be deemed to be the local Roman Catholic school. (Only in Ireland as they say! - No wonder we have had such sectarian strife when we seggregate our children from their earliest years, but that is another issue from the one discussed here). The family in question pass a number of other schools in attending Villiers but claimed rights of transport to Villiers on the basis of 'equality'. What follows is an article I submitted to the Irish Times, one of the Irish national newspapers, and which was subsequently printed on their OpEd pages:
Opinion Mon, Sep 04, 06
As a society we must clarify what we mean by 'equality'
Rite and Reason: Confusion and conflict between 'equality' and 'fairness' would not be so likely if those drafting equality legislation were clearer in their intent, writes Canon Stephen Neill.
The apparent resolution of the recent dispute in Limerick revolving around a VEC-sponsored transport scheme for "Protestant children" is to be welcomed, but some significant issues remain outstanding. Principal among these is the as yet undisclosed reason for the VEC's ultimate capitulation. Until this policy reversal they were simply implementing existing Department of Education regulations which provide for the free/subsidised transportation of students who live more than three miles from their nearest school. Taking into account the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, the VEC correctly judged that, in the case of Protestant children, the option of transport to their nearest Protestant school was appropriate.
The provision of passes to the Roman Catholic children concerned is generous but not consistent with either the Constitution or Department of Education policy and sets a precedent which is not likely to be ignored by others in similar circumstances.
Many commentators, including the local branch of Republican Sinn Féin, interpreted the dispute in terms of sectarianism and the denial of equality, which may have provoked the VEC into its panic-stricken and ambiguous response.
If this unnecessary confusion is not to be repeated, we need as a society to consider what exactly we mean by "equality". This little word is far from straightforward in its interpretation. Very often we hear people talking about "equality and fairness" as if they were the same thing or at least two sides of the one coin. One only has to look at the latest Cori (Council of Religious of Ireland) report, "Developing a Fairer Ireland", to see examples of this assumed equivalence. Most reasonable people acknowledge the importance of fairness. The question that needs to be asked is whether to be fair to all parties concerned in a dispute means treating them all the same; or, to put it another way, with equality?
The recently-retired American industrialist Dennis Bakke, founder of the multi-national AES energy corporation and strong advocate of employee-centred business practice, thinks not. In his best-selling book Joy at Work, which among others carries Bill Clinton's endorsement, he insists that "fairness or justice means treating everyone differently". To do otherwise ignores the individuality of people and their particular circumstances. He goes even further, suggesting that pay classification systems used by governments and advocated by trade unions are both arbitrary and unfair, benefiting underperformers and insufficiently rewarding star performers. In this context he demonstrates very convincingly that fairness is not necessarily the same as equality and that the two can easily be in conflict with one another.
This confusion and conflict between "equality" and "fairness" would not be so likely if those drafting equality legislation were clearer in their intent. There are two basic approaches to the whole notion of equality legislation. One is "equality of opportunity" and the other is "equality of outcome". The fact that the legislation governing this area is generally referred to as "equal opportunities legislation" is not much help, as almost invariably the success or otherwise of such legislation is judged by its outcome. That might seem perfectly logical and sensible, but to ensure "equality of outcome" involves trespassing on other very dear constitutional rights such as liberty and freedom.
"Equality of opportunity" means ensuring that issues such as nationality, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other similar characteristics should not circumscribe the potential of an individual citizen. As such, "equality of opportunity" is a fair approach and one which respects freedom and individuality. "Equality of outcome" is a different animal entirely; taken to its logical conclusion, it guarantees that everyone gets the same treatment and reward, regardless of their personal contribution. The implications of this are many and for the most part very destructive of society. It undermines the value of personal responsibility and feeds the growing litigation culture, which thrives in a climate where rights are paramount and responsibilities optional. To enforce "equality of outcome" inevitably means compromising "equality of opportunity", as it imposes arbitrary and unjust criteria on individuals and organisations which limit the freedom of those who are supposedly guaranteed "equality of opportunity". In this sense, ironically, equality legislation very often runs the risk of increasing inequality.
The British journalist and novelist Fiona Pitt-Kethley once famously commented in an interview in the Guardian newspaper: "I believe in equality. Bald men should marry bald women." As ludicrous as that sounds, it is no more so than the situation which now pertains following the "Protestant bus" debacle in Limerick. The whole issue of denominational education in Ireland needs urgent reappraisal, not least in the light of the growing religious diversity of Irish society. But as long as it is part of the Irish educational system it needs to be administered in a way that is consistent with the underlying and constitutional values of the State. The recent VEC U-turn in Limerick undermines that aspiration.
Canon Stephen Neill is Rector at Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary
© The Irish Times