‘Mastermind’ winner Aidan McQuade leads fight against slavery
Armagh-born director of Anti-Slavery International is working to end forced labour
Anti-Slavery International director Aidan McQuade was educated at Abbey Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Newry, a school the late former tánaiste Frank Aiken and former deputy first minister Séamus Mallon both attended.
A South Armagh man with an insatiable appetite for knowledge is at the centre of the campaign to eradicate slavery across the globe. Dr Aidan McQuade from Killeavy is the director of London-based Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organisation, founded in 1839.
Slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century and it is estimated more than 21 million men, women and children are in some form of slavery today.
“I would see a unity in approach between the years growing up in the early 1970s in South Armagh, what I saw there, how I made sense of what I saw there and what I am doing now,” he says.
“I suppose seeing war in Ethiopia, Angola and Afghanistan deepened the conviction that we need to think, generally speaking, about non-violent approaches which recognise the humanity of everybody as opposed to the more narrowly focused views of certain communities.”
He graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a civil engineering degree and then worked in Ethiopia for Concern and Caritas Switzerland, Médecins Sans Frontières Holland in Afghanistan and Oxfam in Angola before taking up the post at Anti-Slavery International in 2006 because he thought “that would be interesting”. And it has been.
“I had always been aware of Anti-Slavery from as early as I can remember,” he says.
The appointment came after an MBA at Strathclyde university in Glasgow and then a PhD exploring moral courage and the question of why when social pressures are to the contrary do some people refuse to go along with what everybody else is doing.
“A PhD is a considerably more difficult challenge than doing a Masters degree because of the requirement of producing new knowledge,” he says.
“I took up running because the pain of physical exercise was considerably less than thinking.”
A keen reader, McQuade describes himself as “a student of history” and has always enjoyed consuming and sharing information, something his Twitter followers can attest to.
He demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge and remarkable expertise on BBC quiz series Mastermind and was crowned 2013 champion.
“He is one of those rare military figures, quite like Lincoln, somebody engaged in war and still remains an attractive human being,” McQuade says.
“Collins still retains a strong sense that he was a decent person despite having done some very brutal and unpleasant things in his life.
“Like Collins, Lincoln went through a brutal period of war, made some very harsh decisions and yet his humanity shines through.
“It goes back to that idea of moral courage and he had it in spades and that is a very rare thing.”
With his Mastermind “fruit bowl trophy” safely at home, McQuade says among many his professional highlights he believes overseeing the expansion of Oxfam’s work in Angola in 1999 when it went from working with 50,000-350,000 people is one of the most important projects he was ever involved in.
“It didn’t solve any of the underlying political problems and war but meant a lot more people survived them so that was something I was very proud of in spite of the toll it took personally.”
Headed up by McQuade, Anti-Slavery International, supported by a range of partners including Irish Aid, is committed to “putting power into the hands of the people”.
It works with grassroots communities directly impacted by slavery, the kafalah sponsorship system, and other tied visa systems, plus community development in places such as India, where people are enslaved in brick kilns, and education projects in Niger and Nepal, as well as UK-based law and policy projects.
McQuade says human rights and the reduction of poverty are intrinsically linked and believes power imbalances give rise to opportunities for vast exploitation up to and including rape, torture, imprisonment and gross slavery practices.
“Whenever I got this job with Anti-Slavery we were in a rather perilous financial situation so we turned that around and turned Anti-Slavery back into one of the most influential and vital voices in terms of speaking truth to power and providing a clear strategic view of how slavery and forced labour can be ended in the world.”
The profile of Anti-Slavery International was given a significant boost on its 175th anniversary, last year, when 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen came on board as patron to help in its work to eradicate all forms of slavery, including forced labour, bonded labour, child labour and trafficking of human beings.
“He is a lovely fella, very thoughtful and interesting,” McQuade says.
“He is a typical South London boy, very gracious, ethical and a great person to have as a patron.”