Automatic nomination of rights body chief criticised


THE HEAD of the Equality Authority should not be automatically nominated as director of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, as this would contravene the UN’s guiding principles on such bodies, according to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL).

The council believes the new head should be appointed by the new organisation itself.

Earlier this month, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter published the heads of a Bill to establish a body that would merge the existing Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. It states the first director of the new commission will be the person who at the time is the chief executive of the Equality Authority. That position is occupied by Renee Dempsey, former head of the disability equality unit in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

In a submission to a private meeting last week of the Oireachtas Committee which has been seen by The Irish Times, the ICCL says the provision in the heads of the Bill on appointing a director directly contravenes the guidance drawn up by the UN’s International Co-ordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions.

The Government has committed itself to abide by the UN principles on such bodies, known as the Paris Principles. The UN body recommended that senior posts should not be filled with secondees, and that national human rights institutions should be empowered to appoint their own staff. Mr Shatter referred the heads of the Bill to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, asking it to give priority to Head 13, on appointing members of the commission, and Head 17, dealing with the director.

Head 17 (5) of the proposed Bill states: “The first director of the commission shall be the person who on the day prior to the establishment day is the chief executive of the Equality Authority, and her contract with the authority and the period specified in that contract shall be deemed to be a contract and a period for the purposes of subsection 2.”

The ICCL submission states: “In other words, in reality, Head 17 (5) reads ‘the first director of the commission shall be Renee Dempsey, chief executive of the Equality Authority’.

“By any standards, this is an extraordinary provision. Not only does it directly contradict the ICC’s general observations, but it completely undermines Head 17 (1) of the heads of Bill [stating that the commission should appoint its own director] by effectively naming the person whom the Government has predetermined will be the first director of the new commission. It is quite unprecedented that such a provision should be proposed as an element of any Act of the Oireachtas.”

The submission adds: “The ICCL wishes to emphasise that it fully understands that transitional arrangements are required where the contracts of the current staff of the former Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority are concerned.

“Moreover, it has the highest regard for the professional competency of the serving chief executive of the Equality Authority.

“However, it is completely unacceptable that, in Head 17(5) of the new commission’s founding statute, the Government should seek to name and propose directly to appoint its own preferred chief executive.”

The ICCL states that if the new commission is to achieve accreditation as a national human rights body compliant with the Paris Principles, other ways must be found to resolve the undoubted contractual difficulties created by the merger of the two former bodies.

It adds both Head 13 and Head 17 fall short of the standards set by the Paris Principles, which require broad consultation and advertising. However, the proposed Bill allows the Government to appoint directly the members of the selection panel, thereby allowing it to exert influence on the make-up of the new commission.