The day Eamon Dunphy called me a f****er
A new book by Niall Crowley, former head of the Equality Authority, lifts the lid on life in Ireland's most controversial state body
Published 15/05/2010 | 05:00
During the heyday of the Celtic Tiger, Niall Crowley was one of the most heavily-criticised public officials in the state. His supporters saw him as a good-humoured and effective champion of minority rights.
His detractors, however, portrayed him as a grim high priest of political correctness gone mad, who was out to curb free speech.
Whatever one's view, anybody who is described as a "f***er'' by Eamon Dunphy live on a radio show, as he was in 2001, must have something going for him.
As the chief executive of the Equality Authority, Niall Crowley pursued his goals with a relentless zeal that is rare in a public official.
He was the man charged with ridding the country of discrimination on grounds such as gender, age, race and sexual orientation. In defending the rights of Travellers and others on the margins, he believes now, as he did then, that he went against the grain of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
His outspoken and fiercely independent approach ensured that he was regularly at the centre of furious public controversy.
According to his own account, he trod on so many toes, and ruffled so many feathers that his organisation was eventually stripped of its budget, denuded of experienced personnel at board level and exiled to Roscrea, Co Tipperary.
After living the comfortable life at the head of a state body on a salary of just under €150,000, Crowley's equality crusade was brought to a shuddering halt two years ago.
He felt so undermined that he quit, and ended up on the dole for a year.
One month he was a national figure, the head of a state body; the next, he was signing on with the growing mass of victims of the recession at Dublin's Thomas Street unemployment office.
In his new book Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel, Crowley lifts the lid on life as the head of the country's most contentious quango.
Sitting in Bewley's of Grafton Street this week, Crowley talked of his battles with media pundits, most notably Eamon Dunphy.
A furore erupted in early 2001 after Ryanair advertised for a director of regulatory affairs and specified that it wanted a "young and dynamic professional''.
"We felt that this was a clear case of discrimination against older people and we took a successful case against the airline,'' says the former equality chief.
When this story broke the Equality Authority and Niall Crowley came in for a sustained barrage of criticism.
Brendan O'Connor conjured up images of airline stewardesses on zimmer frames, tone-deaf singers, stuttering newsreaders and toothless old ladies on posters in record shops.
Another pundit suggested that all copies of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea would be removed from bookshelves, to be replaced by The Ageless Person and the Sea.
Niall Crowley tells how this row came to a head when he was interviewed by Eamon Dunphy on Today FM's The Last Word in February 2001.
Dunphy was incensed by Niall Crowley's attitude and his response to critical articles. He cited HL Mencken, Myles na gCopaleen and Monty Python as examples of a satirical tradition that needed to be protected.
Reaching a crescendo of indignation, Dunphy eventually told the hapless equality czar: "We don't need f***ers like you telling us what we can do. It's savage. It's a savage world out there. You have no right to be monitoring it.''
Recalling the interview this week, Niall Crowley said: "I felt almost physically battered by his onslaught. So much so that I actually didn't take it in when he swore at me.
"People told me about it afterwards and then I realised what had happened.''
While columnists regularly blasted the equality boss, the Dunphy interview won him some sympathy. Terry Prone went against the consensus and declared that Ireland was one of the most unashamedly ageist countries in Europe.
Dunphy never apologised for his expletive-laden rant, but at the end of a less pugnacious radio interview some time later he told him: "You see, I can be nice.''
Niall Crowley says: "I think it is a good thing that we had a debate about issues such as ageism. The furore did die down and it was accepted that it was wrong. We took other cases and there wasn't such a big fuss about it.''
Crowley was to face similar battles over the rights of Travellers and regularly came into conflict with publicans who refused to serve them.
Supporting a blanket ban on Travellers in Irish pubs, Tadg O'Sullivan, chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, said he would rather go to jail than have "VFI members and their families subjected to violence and terror by the Travelling community''.
Crowley took on the publicans, but enjoyed only partial success.
If media battles raised his profile and made him a regular target, his conflicts with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which presided over the Equality Authority, proved to be more detrimental.
As Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell was responsible for equality. But he said in an interview that a "dynamic liberal economy like ours demands flexibility and inequality in some respects to function'.'
Niall Crowley says: "It was a strange position to take for someone with responsibility for equality.''
In taking legal cases, the Equality Authority boss could find himself on the opposite side to the Department of Justice, and inevitably this led to tensions.
Niall Crowley saw up close the chaotic, costly and occasionally farcical government programme of decentralisation when he was told that his office would have to move to Roscrea.
None of his staff wanted to move to the Tipperary town and two-thirds of callers to the authority came from Dublin and the rest of Leinster.
"It did not seem to make much sense, because it would make our office less accessible and we were in danger of losing all our expertise.''
Niall Crowley tells how an advanced party of officials was eventually housed in temporary premises outside the town. The office was inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Ministers and local TDs proudly attended the launch of the new office in Roscrea, but it could not happen on site because people in wheelchairs could not get in.
When his budget was cut by 43 pc in the Budget of 2008, Niall Crowley lost any hope that he could carry out his work effectively and resigned.
"I suggested that the Equality Authority was being silenced for being an awkward witness to the equality and discrimination in our society.''
He was to be given even more insights into these inequalities when he signed on the dole. He now works as a consultant for various bodies and is writing an historical novel.
Would he consider a life in politics, which might be more suited to his temperament than bureaucracy? He smiles, as if holding back his intentions: "I'm not ruling anything out.''
Whatever they think of him, public officialdom may not have seen the back of Niall Crowley.
Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel is published by A&A Farmar, €14.99.