Irish Rail denies bias in travel pass row
THE Government is practising "legalised discrimination" by implementing a policy that bans gay couples from availing of free travel available to heterosexual couples, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) claimed last night.
Campaigners for gay rights and the ICCL maintain the 2004 amendment to the Social Welfare Bill -- introduced by Tanaiste Mary Coughlan -- is discriminatory and defies the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Irish Independent revealed yesterday that an Irish Rail memo tells ticket inspectors "only named persons that have signed the rear of the pass and that are of a different gender are entitled to use the pass".
ICCL director Mark Kelly said Irish Rail has a case to answer for enforcing the law by declining "companion" passes issued to gay travel pass holders.
"What they're doing isn't contrary to the current Irish law, but the current law is legalised discrimination," said Mr Kelly.
The policy is the direct result of a challenge mounted by a gay couple in 2003 against the Department of Family and Social Affairs when the partner of a gay man was refused a companion pass even though they were both otherwise eligible for the scheme.
The Equality Authority ordered the department to issue the pass to the partner as well as ordering it to pay each man €1,500 in compensation, finding it had breached the law.
But rather than amending the department's policy to bring it in line with equality legislation, Ms Coughlan changed the law to take advantage of a loophole in the Equal Status Act that allows for exemptions to the act on a statutory basis, Mr Kelly said. Ms Coughlan did not return calls from the Irish Independent last night to explain why she introduced the bill.
Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny, meanwhile, denied the company was being discriminatory, insisting it was simply abiding by the law. "It's not our policy. We have no discretion in that regard. It's entirely a matter for the department," he said.
Other state-owned transport providers belonging to the CIE group -- including Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus -- said that while they have no active enforcement policy, they would be required by law to enforce the policy if the issue arose.
However, a spokeswoman for the privately owned Luas system said it has no such policy and would accept travel passes used by gay couples. "There's no such policy here. If you have a valid ticket, that's it," she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social and Family Affairs last night confirmed the policy still holds, but added: "It is under review as part of a wholesale review of all Government legislation to comply with the Equal Status Act 2000."