It is difficult to understand why our Government has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), some 10 years after this landmark convention was adopted by the United Nations?
During my time in Seanad Éireann and previously as an advocate on disability issues, I regularly raised the failure of the government to proceed with ratification – to no avail. I sincerely hope this is not just another indicator of our political establishment paying lip service to the disability community, while ignoring it on the substantial issues.
The 600,000 members of the disability community in Ireland will remember December 13th, 2006, when the general assembly of the United Nations adopted a landmark disability convention, the first human rights treaty of the 21st century. The UN secretary general Kofi Annan said it represented the "dawn of a new era" for around 650 million people worldwide living with disabilities. He urged all 192 member states, including Ireland, to quickly ratify the convention, which covers rights to education, health, work and a raft of other protective measures for people with disabilities.
One of the major positives of this convention is that states which ratify it should then enact laws and other measures to improve disability rights, and also abolish legislation, customs and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities.
On March 30th, 2007, minister for justice Michael McDowell signed the UNCRPD on behalf of the government, describing it as “a blueprint for a significant improvement” in the lives of people with disabilities. He went on to say that Ireland would ratify it “as soon as possible”.
Though Ireland was one of the first countries to sign the UNCRPD – signing the convention on the first day it was possible to do so – Ireland is now the only EU country that has failed to ratify it after the Netherlands and Finland ratified it in 2016.
This failure to ratify the UNCRPD is a long-running national embarrassment and quite inexplicable. As far back as June 2008, the Irish Human Rights Commission told a UN human rights committee it was concerned that Ireland had not ratified the convention.
In January 2011, following criticism from the Fine Gael MEP, Mairéad McGuinness, that "delaying further the ratification of the convention would actually bring shame on Ireland," a government spokesperson said "it is the government's intention to ratify the convention as quickly as possible".
In October 2011, the minister for justice, Alan Shatter, vowed to ratify the convention at a UN human rights hearing in Geneva.
In October 2015, Ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin published a roadmap to Ireland's ratification of the convention which outlined the necessary legislative changes, along with the estimated timeframe involved.
In May 2016, the new Programme for Government stated, "Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, and a roadmap to ratification was published in November 2015. The drafting of legislation to address a range of legislative barriers to ratification is underway with a view to putting it before the Oireachtas before the end 2016. The relevant Oireachtas committee and relevant stakeholders will be asked to oversee its implementation."
In May 2016, the Minister of State with Responsibility for Disabilities, Finian McGrath, said the Government and Minister for Justice had promised that the convention would be ratified “within six months”. Mr McGrath said he had “a commitment from Frances Fitzgerald and from the Government that it will be ratified within six months”.
In May 2016, more than 40 states raised Ireland's failure to ratify the convention with some, such as New Zealand, pointing out Ireland had signed it in March 2007.
In August 2016, Mr McGrath said the State would ratify the long- delayed convention by the end of the year, as further delays in incorporating it into law could not be justified. However by December he acknowledged his time-frame target would not be met citing “blockages within the legislative process”.
In December 2016, the Dáil heard that Ireland is the only EU member state yet to ratify the convention. Independent TD Thomas Pringle claimed the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health were blaming each other for the failure.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny defended the Government’s approach and said “other countries have ratified the convention before they have introduced the sectoral legislation that would allow for competence to be evident”.
As I work through the litany of excuses that have been put forward by various politicians since March 2007 I am embarrassed as well as angry. Is this the best we can do as legislators for a key group of citizens?
Earlier this year Bus Éireann considered it acceptable to withdraw a wheelchair-accessible bus service on the Clonmel-Dublin route. Last October the Government had €1 billion available to spend in the budget, yet people with disabilities were largely ignored in a vote-catching share of the spoils.
Budget 2018 is now being planned. While the UNCRPD legislative process will regrettably take time there is no reason not to prioritise disability in the third budget of this administration. A package of practical measures would restore the confidence of the disability community and kick-start the much needed and well-deserved lift out of exclusion and poverty.
How can the ratification of a groundbreaking UN convention, which had the absolute support of the government at its inception, not be ratified some 10 years later? This is difficult to understand. Have we witnessed another classic example of the well-established political culture of heaping promise upon promise? The disability community has had its fill of promises; we have reached the quota. We need our politicians to replace the custom and practice of promises with the practice of action.
Senator John Dolan is chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland