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Ireland’s Economic Problems – No Excuse to Send Human Rights into Recession

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

For many around the world, Ireland in the last ten years or so has represented two things: first, a strong voice for human rights and justice, from Presidents like Mary Robinson to prominent private citizens like Bono. And second, a powerful economic success story: the “Celtic Tiger,” which Atlantic was proud to play a part in through our substantial investments in strengthening higher education.

The “Celtic Tiger” has quieted to a faint purr at the moment, with Ireland’s economy, like most in the world, thrown into deep recession. It will take time and considerable effort, but in time the Tiger will roar again. Of growing concern, though, is whether Ireland’s human rights reputation will survive the economic downturn. In a visit to Dublin last month, I was distressed to learn from the leading rights organisations supported by Atlantic that deep budget cuts in pivotal agencies threaten their very ability to do their jobs.

My colleagues and I shared a meal with directors of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) and Amnesty International. We were told that The Equality Authority, an independent body set up under the Employment Equality Act of 1998, has lost 43% of its funding. The budget for the Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights as defined in the Irish Constitution and international agreements to which Ireland is a party, was cut back by 24%.

“Salvaging the economy is a vital task,” wrote Katherine Zappone and Michael Farrell, two veteran rights campaigners who are members of the Irish Human Rights Commission, “but we are concerned that an exclusive focus on economics will create a vacuum for the promotion of social justice and protecting the interests of diverse and vulnerable groups. Because the economy is in a recession, our national sense of justice and moral compass do not have to go into recession as well.”

Huge shortfalls in funding for the two key statutory institutions established to protect and promote human rights and equality in Ireland is short-sighted and risky for Irish society. It threatens Ireland’s international reputation for promoting human rights and as a place where diversity and equality are embraced and protected. What are the implications of severely weakened state human rights institutions?

The Equality Authority will have to cut its staff by a third. Much damage has already been done, as many experienced staff have already resigned or been transferred to other parts of the civil service. The amount of money saved by the Department of Justice with these cuts will be miniscule, relative to its overall budget – about €2.5 million out of €459.5 million. But the cost to the Authority’s work will be devastating. According to the Equality and Rights Alliance, the cuts will mean that no new case files can realistically be opened for the next two years and therefore the Equality Authority will be unable to protect any new victims of discrimination in Ireland.

When you consider all the people in Ireland who are either young or old, gay or straight, Irish or foreign, married, single, widowed or divorced, parent or carer, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish, male or female, very few people are left who might not need the help of either The Equality Authority or the Irish Human Rights Commission at some point in their lives. Where will people like Phyllis Fahey, who was refused a bank account because she was told she was too old, or women like Heather Lane, who was discriminated against and victimised because she was pregnant and had young children, turn to when they face discrimination?

Ireland’s international reputation for protecting human rights has already come into question. A recent European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) report found Ireland to be among the worst of all countries in the EU when it comes to victims of racial discrimination and abuse. This situation is likely to worsen with unemployment levels projected to rise to nearly 17% by the end of 2011. Dr Maurice Manning, President of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC), said the report, “clearly demonstrates that more needs to be done to protect people in Ireland against racist discrimination” and warned that “the recent budget cuts to the IHRC, Equality Authority and the closure of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) are only likely to worsen this situation.”

The Irish Human Rights Commission is a small and traditionally under-funded organisation, nonetheless praised consistently as a strong and independent voice for human rights by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and others. As recently as last July, the United Nations explicitly called on the Irish Government to strengthen the independence and capacity of the IHRC by giving it adequate and sufficient resources to do its job properly. These budget cuts do just the opposite – further limiting its ability to conduct enquiries, take legal proceedings to vindicate human rights or provide legal assistance to Irish people. This is difficult to understand in light of the Irish Government’s sponsorship of a recent United Nations General Assembly resolution calling upon governments to strengthen national human rights institutions.

“It’s unfortunate that Ireland is choosing to make the protection of human rights a casualty of the economic crisis rather than deciding to protect them at a time when they are most vulnerable. It is at times of economic crisis when human rights need to be protected the most,” said Martin O’Brien, the Belfast-based Director of Atlantic’s Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme.

All governments, even the most progressive ones, rankle from time to time at the findings of independent agencies charged with holding them accountable for human rights standards. Repressive regimes shut down such agencies or even worse. Democratic ones sometimes yield to the temptation to weaken or silence their critics by control of the purse strings. The Reagan Administration in the United States did this with sharp cuts in legal services programmes and civil rights agencies, damage to the rights infrastructure that the nation is still struggling to repair.

Compared to other functions of government, agencies dedicated to human rights are a bargain. The savings gained from cutting them are minimal, but the costs of doing so are huge – and at precisely the time when the vulnerable and the voiceless need more protection, not less. While the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has recently announced that that the budget cuts of the Equality Authority are to be reviewed, the cuts still stand for the time being. Atlantic joins it grantees and leading rights figures like Elizabeth Palm, Vice President of the European Court of Human Rights, in urging the Irish Government to reverse the damage by quickly restoring critical funds for human rights agencies now.

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: