Until the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution “is dealt with” there can be no progress on women’s reproductive rights here, one of Europe’s most senior human rights officials has said.
Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner with the Council of Europe, warned Ireland would become "more and more of an exception" in the broader international trend towards women's full human rights if article 40.3.3 was not repealed.
He said discrimination against non-Christian children in the school system “has to end”, while local authorities who failed to provide adequate Traveller housing should be “held to account”.
Mr Muiznieks was speaking to The Irish Times on Friday at the end of three-day visit to Ireland to investigate the treatment of women, children and Travellers.
The scheduled visit included meeting NGOs, Ministers, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Ombudsman for Children and President Michael D Higgins. He will publish a report on his visit in 2017.
On abortion, he wanted to understand “the terms of the debate and what needs to happen for anything to change here”.
It seemed the Eighth Amendment, which was inserted into the Constitution in 1983 and guarantees to protect the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn, had “stopped all discussions on moving forward”.
“Until that is dealt with you will have no discussion further. My own position is that at a minimum you should decriminalise abortion and make it available in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest and risk to the life and health of the mother.”
It was unusual for him to be in the position of advocating for international human rights standards, against a State’s Constitution. “The thing is, international human rights standards do not protect the life of unborn children. They protect women.”
He hoped the Irish people would vote in a referendum on article 40.3.3. “As time moves on, Ireland will stand out more and more as an exception to the broader trend – so this discussion cannot be avoided for another 33 years.”
On children’s rights, the stand-out issue had been access to schools.
“You have a system which I have not encountered elsewhere with ... the State being held hostage to an extent by patrons.
“Ireland is bound by international human rights standards and has to provide access to education on a non-discriminatory basis, however it does it.
“I am surprised to be honest there haven’t been legal challenges to the system by parents of unbaptised kids.
“To me this system has to change, to provide access on a non-discriminatory basis.”
He visited two Traveller sites in north Dublin, saying, “the level of need and destitution was striking”. It seemed “very small investments” could improve Traveller quality life “massively”.
Not spending money
“It seems to me one of the biggest obstacles is local authorities and their role in spending or not spending money. This is where some political courage is required. And this can be encouraged in various ways.
“Local authorities should be held to account. It is clear providing money alone has not worked, that you need some kind of an enforcement mechanism.”
He welcomed "very warmly" the statement from Taoiseach Enda Kenny during the week supporting the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority.
“I hope to see this come to fruition in a formal statement in the parliament.”