Ireland a long way from human rights for all, conference hears

Multiple forms of inequality remain ‘endemic’ north and south

Policies of “destitution by design” are eroding rights of asylum seekers in Ireland and austerity has been imposed with “little respect” for the rights of the poor and marginalised, a leading human rights advocate has said.

Ireland, despite progress in areas including children’s rights and marriage equality, is “a long way” from embracing the human rights of all, Professor Colin Harvey said.

Multiple forms of inequality remain “endemic” north and south, especially in relation to socio-economic rights which are “second class” here, as evident from homelessness, poor living standards, lack of access to health care and the treatment of the marginalised.

In this decade of commemorations, the act of remembering, and who and how we remember, really matters, but there was a real risk of “conservative complacency” taking hold and the radicalism of past and present being absorbed in “purely gestural politics and empty symbolism”.


Re-energising and renewing the human rights struggle was one way of bringing “marginalised and silent” voices of the past into the present and a “productive way” of honouring the memory of Frank and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.

Hanna saw the 1916 Proclamation as “our charter of liberty” and Frank, insisted his pacifism was “no mere servile acquiescence in injustice” and sought that the fight against injustice “clothe itself in new forms suited to a new age”.

Those were “very apt” messages for advancing human rights in 2016, Prof Harvey said. Human rights and equality are “not just words on a page” but gain life through activism. It was necessary to think about what people in 100 years time will say about the Ireland of today and an action plan for human rights and equality spanning the island should be devised.

Northern Ireland urgently needs its long awaited bill of rights much more than a 12 per cent rate of corporation tax and gender equality should be enshrined in the Irish Constitution, he said.

A professor of human rights law at Queens University, Belfast and member of the Northern Ireland Commission on Human Rights, he was speaking in Dublin at the annual Sheehy Skeffington School on Human Rights and Social Justice.

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington spoke of the activism of her grandparents and parents and of her own campaign for gender equality in NUI Galway and third level institutions generally.

She came from “a long line of troublemakers” and her late father, Trinity Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington, would regularly tell her, however infinitestimal the thing you do is, it is “infinitely important” that you do it.

Duties matter as well as rights and we must ensure we do not forget about collectiveness, she stressed.

Declan Kiberd, professor of Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame, said government had created a “fantasy of competing sub groups” in the Celtic Tiger years and the “glue” of what makes a society was taken away.

There are some indications from the 1916 commemorative events of people “feeling their way back into a sense of communal experience”, he said.

The genius of eccentrics is they have “a deeper understanding than others of what is normal”. Frank Sheehy Skeffington was an eccentric genius in how he disrupted all the “codes” he came into contact with, including nationalism, feminism and socialism.

The Sheehy Skeffingtons had “immense influence” and, while very alert to the flaws of militant nationalism, Frank was even more aware of the flaws of imperialism.

Hanna was destined to be a minister in an Irish government had the rebels won in 1916, Prof Kiberd said. When she met Michael Collins in 1921, she said his ideal Ireland was “a middle class replica of the English state” and he had the “usual soldier’s contempt” for civilians, especially for women although they had often risked their lives to help him. During the debates on the 1937 Constitution, she was very concerned about its repression of women and warned Ireland’s colonial past was “no excuse not to challenge the mediocrity of the present”.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times