Equality: What’s in a Word?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Paula Devine, Grace Kelly and Martina McAuley. Click here to access the article.

2020 was a year to remember (or forget).  While covid-19 overtook our lives, major political and social changes were also taking place.  In January that year, the UK left the European Union, and devolution was reinstated in Northern Ireland after a three-year suspension.  At the end of 2020, the Brexit deal was negotiated, which included the hotly-contested Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol.  One word that has been used consistently throughout Brexit and devolution negotiations is equality. But what exactly does ‘equality’ mean?  

In our article ‘Equality and Devolution in the United Kingdom: A Story in Three Acts and a Sequel’, we explore the theoretical, political and public interpretations of equality across the UK between 1998 and 2018.  We show that the concept of equality means different things to different people, and has geographical, temporal and philosophical variations.  While our article focuses on the UK, the questions that we ask are relevant across the world, not least because of the international influences ‑ and from the EU in particular ‑ on equality discourse and legislation.

What is equality?

Equality is a complex and contested concept.  How we define it can be determined by our political affiliation and general outlook on life and society.  We can think about these definitions as fitting into a continuum, ranging from basic equality (all human beings are equally worthy of concern and respect and have equal worth and importance) to equality of outcome (specific resources for disadvantaged groups in addressing inequalities).  

Most approaches to equality legislation in the UK use the concept of equality of opportunity.  Our article outlines distinct eras of UK equality legislation and highlights the range of differing forces driving such change.  These include dynamic social movements (civil rights movement, women’s movement, disability rights movement and various campaigns for rights and recognition), and international directives and legislation.

1998 saw the beginning of devolution in the UK, with the signing of the Northern Ireland Act, the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act.  This resulted in different legislative contexts, and slightly different powers across the three devolved nations.  Initially, there was stronger provision of equality legislation in Northern Ireland.  A central element of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was the emphasis on equality and human rights. At the time, the Northern Ireland Act was heralded as the most radical equality legislation in Western Europe, perhaps because addressing inequality was seen as essential for creating and maintaining peace in the region.  Another factor was Northern Ireland’s well-informed and truculent civil society.

Moving forward, our article highlights the changing context of equality legislation throughout the UK.  For example, The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) was influenced by the Macpherson Inquiry set up after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. 

Six year later, The Equality Act (2006) in Britain was the result of a review of equality institutions instigated by New Labour.  The Act was also influenced by new EU directives on age, sexual orientation and religion or belief.  By this time, Northern Ireland had started to lag behind in relation to equality legislation.  Hayward and Mitchell (2003) argue that unionist parties’ emphasis on competition and reward affected their stance on equality legislation and social welfare.  This was at odds with the social investment model of New Labour and the European social model in general.

Our article then tracks the forces and legislation behind The Equality Act (2010).  Importantly, the Act mirrored the equal treatment directives from the EU, evidencing the importance of the EU in influencing the equality agenda in the UK.  The Act did not apply to Northern Ireland, and was one of the last measures enacted by the Labour Government before they lost the 2010 election to the coalition government formed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. 

Is Everyone Equal Now?

The short answer is no. Significantly, current legislation relates to the public sector only.  Even within the public sector, inequalities in pay are evident according to gender and disability.  Furthermore, our article clearly shows that while Northern Ireland may once have led the way in terms of equality legislation, this is no longer the case.  Indeed, equality continues to be a major issue in negotiations and re-negotiations of the Northern Ireland/Ireland protocol. Many, including Colin Harvey, have warned that any measure to dismantle part of the Northern Ireland Act poses risks to the Agreement’s stability and causes anxiety for many in Northern Ireland.  Thus, the definitions and operationalisation of equality continue to be contested.


About the authors

Paula Devine is Co-Director of ARK, Queen’s University Belfast.

Grace Kelly is Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast.

Martina McAuley is Research and Evaluation Officer at Housing Rights.

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