North's rights chief is gay advocate

PROFILE: Michael O’Flaherty has carried out much work promoting human rights

PROFILE:Michael O'Flaherty has carried out much work promoting human rights

PROF MICHAEL O’Flaherty is a 52-year-old native of Galway city, a former priest, senior United Nation human rights expert and leading gay rights advocate who has just taken over as the North’s human rights commissioner from Prof Monica McWilliams.

Prof O’Flaherty’s impressive curriculum vitae chiefly involves, after his period as a priest, a range of UN work promoting human rights and working in conflict zones such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sierra Leone.

He is conscious his views will provoke opposition in certain quarters in Northern Ireland – a hostility likely to be exacerbated by his being a Southerner taking over the high-level post of head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.


He is supportive of moves, which began under Prof McWilliams’s tenure, for legislation in Northern Ireland to be amended so gay couples can be considered as suitable to adopt children. A judicial review is pending on the issue.

Prof O’Flaherty is chiefly responsible for drafting the Yogyakarta Principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. They were developed as a response to worldwide abuse of sexual minorities, including rape, assault, torture, invasion of privacy and murder.

Prof O’Flaherty said the principles were about “reminding people that just because they are gay, that does not give you licence to torture them or execute them; just because people are gay it does not give you a right to intrude into their bedrooms”.

He said his role would be to uphold, promote and draw attention to the whole range of international human rights. “Inevitably that will include issues of ensuring the same enjoyment of human rights for the LGBT communities as for everybody else,” he said.

His principles relating to gay adoption could put him in conflict with politicians and church people in Northern Ireland. “Excluding a whole community from even being considered for adoption is a violation of the rights of the child,” he said. “They should be entitled to be considered for adoption, but always subject to the best interests of the child.

“A key motivator for our interests in this issue is that the levels of children in institutional care are higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, and part of the reason for that is the dearth of suitable adoptive parents. If you limit that pool too much you just exacerbate the trouble,” he added.

Prof O’Flaherty has secured an effective five-year leave of absence from the University of Nottingham, where he was professor of human rights. He is a de facto ex-priest because he is not yet formally laicised, although that process is under way.

He served in Galway under Bishop Eamon Casey up until 1992/93. “I have faith. I still consider myself a Catholic, as good, as bad, as confused or as clear as the next person.” He described Bishop Casey as “a remarkable leader who demonstrated a passion for social justice, the like of which I don’t think had ever been seen before”.

After an illustrious career in the UN and academia, Prof O’Flaherty is taking over a sensitive post. “Human rights treaties require any society coming out of conflict to deal with its past, to give a voice to the victims, to do justice to the victims, to ensure accountability including criminal accountability for perpetrators of abuses and to contribute to the healing of society so that you don’t get atrocities again into the future,” he said. How the recession affects the poor, people in institutional care, immigrants, elderly, the homeless and children will also be part of his brief.