The report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) on the State’s compliance with its UN anti-racism obligations will make uncomfortable reading for the Government. There is little to save its blushes among the 155 recommendations.
Some are high-level and aspirational, but the IHREC has also outlined a series of concrete actions which, if instituted, would amount to a dramatic and far-reaching reorganisation of how the State accommodates and interacts with minorities. They seem almost specifically calibrated to focus on thorny issues that have recently divided communities and raised significant questions about the direction of Irish political culture.
Take, for example, its findings on political representation for migrants and ethnic minorities. It squarely targets Peter Casey, a candidate in the 2018 presidential election, for his comment that Travellers "are basically people camping in someone else's land", and Independent TD Noel Grealish for his "prejudicial and discriminatory comments" about African economic migrants coming to Ireland "to sponge off the system".
IHREC argues that “while political debates should be free and open, they should not be characterised by a political discourse that is of a discriminatory and racist nature”. The report, which will be passed to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, states that IHREC is “concern(ed) about political discourse that may serve to exclude minority groups from public life”.
It calls for the State to consider the introduction of “reserved seats in Parliament and local government, and the introduction of a quota system for minority ethnic candidates in political party candidate selection”. It also calls for the introduction of codes of conduct for public officials, elected representatives and election candidates which would “clearly prohibit the use or endorsement of prejudicial and discriminatory discourse”, adding “these codes should provide for appropriate sanctions for breach of their conditions”. It envisages an enhanced role for the Government’s proposed electoral commission, which should be “mandated to uphold standards in political discourse during election and referendum campaigns, with a specific focus on discourse relating to minority ethnic views”.
There are also eye-catching reforms aimed at improving access to accommodation and education for Travellers and migrants. Amid chronic underspending of budgets for Traveller-specific accommodation, IHREC suggests “dissuasive sanctions” for local authorities who fail to provide it in areas where there is a stated need. It suggests the abolition of a rule which allows oversubscribed schools to allocate 25 per cent of places to the children or grandchildren of past pupils. It says this “acts as a barrier, particularly for children from Traveller families and families of migrant origin, in accessing education and may result in their segregation in specific schools”.
The report criticises Ireland's record on human trafficking, amid intense focus on this area following tragic events in Essex and the discovery of 16 migrants in a trailer bound for Rosslare last week. It finds that the State "continues to rely on an inadequate administrative scheme for the recognition and protection of victims of trafficking". It recommends the "complete phasing out" of the direct provision system, and finds the use of hotels and other premises as emergency direct provision centres "does not meet minimum material reception conditions required by the European Communities Regulations" and "should cease as soon as possible". It says it is concerned that "in the current for-profit model . . . commercial interests take precedence over the rights of protection applicants". On housing, it recommends that the State "adopt a policy approach that primarily views access to housing as a fundamental human right, rather than as a matter for the private market".
The commission calls for “significant reform of the regulatory and policy environment . . . to address the contemporary problem of the circulation of racist and hate speech in the public sphere, both online and offline”, and the creation of an independent statutory body to enforce compliance with new notice-and-takedown procedures and to enforce “effective and proportionate sanctions”. It describes Irish laws on hate speech as “outdated and inadequate”.
There is much in the report that will provide ammunition for critics of Government policy on integration – but it will also form the cornerstone of a two-day long testimony at the UN in Geneva by the Government on December 2nd and 3rd, when Ireland will face a grilling over its compliance with its obligations. Following this, the UN will send concluding observations to the Government.
As ever, the Government will be anxious to project an image of Ireland as a good global citizen – all the more so as it seeks a seat on the UN security council. The fallout from this report, unless managed, could be costly to that task.