President hosts a reception for past and serving members of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties…

Wed 8th Jun, 2016 | 17:00
location: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech at a Reception to Celebrate 40 Years of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties

Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin, 8th June 2016

Check Against Delivery


A chairde,

It is a great pleasure for Sabina and I to welcome you, the current and former members and staff of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and your supporters, to Áras an Uachtaráin na hÉireann, the home of the President of Ireland.

We have many guests pass through the State rooms of the Áras every year – from Heads of State and Heads of international organisations to community organisations from around the country – but this is a very special occasion, as your work, and the values you have exemplified in Irish society over the past 40 years are so important to both of us.

As is well known and often rehearsed, ICCL was founded by Kader Asmal, Mary Robinson and others at the Graduates Memorial Hall in TCD on 30th June 1976, almost 40 years ago to the day. Kader Asmal stated when establishing the Council:

“This Council is being formed to promote human rights, protect civil liberties, recover them where they have been removed, and enlarge them where they have been diminished.”

Inspired by the example of the ACLU in the United States and the National Council for Civil Liberties in the United Kingdom (now called Liberty) – as well as by the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, ICCL was founded in direct response to the threats to civil liberties posed by the security measures being taken by the State in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as seeking to address the ongoing denial of human rights at many levels of Irish society.

The Constitution of ICCL proclaimed that it would be non-party and non-denominational –values that have been at the centre of ICCL’s work since then.

When we consider the issues that were identified by ICCL at the outset:

  • the need for an independent Garda complaints system;
  • the need for an effective and comprehensive civil and criminal legal aid scheme;
  • equality for women;
  • the campaign for children’s rights;
  • the need to end capital punishment;
  • and the campaign for the rights of psychiatric patients;

we can see both the great achievements that have taken place in Ireland over those 40 years, but also the enormous ambition of taking on so many issues that remain relevant and challenging for our country today.

At this remove of time, it is perhaps difficult – especially for those of you too young to remember that period – to appreciate the significance and the importance that was providing a focus for work on civil liberties and human rights in the Ireland of the 1970s. 

The conflict in Northern Ireland was then at its height, causing terrible destruction and loss of life here, in Britain, but especially in the North. The security situation also had a corrosive effect on the administration of justice as well as on freedom of expression and freedom of association and of assembly in this jurisdiction. Just a few weeks after ICCL was founded, the British Ambassador in Dublin was assassinated and extensive emergency powers legislation was proposed – legislation that would play a part in the later resignation of my predecessor as President, Cearbhall O’Dálaigh.

To stand up for civil liberties at that time required real moral courage. In particular, the decision to take on the issue of allegations of Garda mistreatment of suspects in such heightened atmosphere is one that deserves the greatest respect. The quality of policing in a society, and its effective control, regulation and oversight, are central – perhaps even defining – factors in determining the freedom of that society, and ICCL’s commitment to that issue over the past 40 years has been so immensely important.

Similarly, ICCL’s early engagement with issues of bail and other rights of persons suspected or accused of crime, and your continuing campaigning on those issues over the years, has been an essential bulwark against attempts to dilute constitutional rights. That work remains challenging and essential today.

Institutional power was overwhelming in many areas of Irish life in the 1970s and 1980s, and the popular understanding of democracy was of a formal electoral process, not encompassing the principles of accountability, transparency or independent complaints. There was an unhealthy deference to the police, but also to church and civilian authorities more generally. It was a far more closed society. Censorship presented a particular challenge, and ICCL played a central role in the campaign to remove Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in 1994 – an event in which I was happy to be able to play a part as Minister.

The role that ICCL played, in coalition with the Committee for the Administration of Justice and others, in pressing for human rights to be a central pillar of the peace process in Northern Ireland should stand as one of the greatest achievements of the organisation. This achievement, building on the civil rights tradition and the work of Michael Farrell and others over so many years, has been of enormous importance, not only in defining how peace could be built in Northern Ireland, but also in providing a precedent for how human rights must be a central element to peace-building in conflicts in other regions also.

The discourse in Ireland on individual rights in the private sphere, and on the rights of women and children in particular, was relatively under-developed and remained dominated to a large extent by religious doctrine and by what were understood as ‘traditional’ understandings of gender and the family. For many, equality was a distant aspiration.

Defining a human rights approach to issues such as divorce and LGBT rights was incredibly difficult at that time – as those of us who were active on these issues remember well. The election of the late Chris Robson and Senator David Norris to the ICCL Executive during that period was more than just symbolic – it helped to define the issue of gay law reform as an issue of human rights, a key stage in the pathway to equality which we are now so close to fully realising. 

There has been much commentary on the leading role ICCL played in the Marriage Equality Referendum of last year – and I too congratulate you on that great success. It was a landmark achievement in the advance of equality in our society.

However, we must ensure that the “Yes Equality moment” is more than just that – a moment. We must work to ensure that this is more than a discrete issue of rights or of the law catching up with social values; but that it can inspire a wider movement for equality and solidarity. In this ICCL and others can play a role of leadership in making the case for equality and human rights at the broadest possible level.

In Carl O’Brien’s history of ICCL, prepared for your30th anniversary, he concludes with a quote from your former Chair, Michael Kelly, who said:

“ICCL’s role is to be engaged where the struggle is hardest and vigilant where it appears quietest. There are no medals for our work, but there is the assurance of making a valuable contribution to justice and social progress.”

It is where the struggle is hardest that the work of ICCL and other human rights NGOs is most urgently needed.  We celebrate the successful role ICCL played in the Marriage Equality referendum and in other campaigns; but I would suggest that your role in the Citizenship Referendum of 2003, albeit on the losing side, deserves at least as much recognition.

Standing up for your principles, principles you derive from standards of equality and from the pillars of what it is to be a citizen in a republic; and standing up for those principles when it is not popular to do so – that is the essence of principled social action. Similarly, the commitment of ICCL to Travellers’ rights and refugee rights over the longer term has been invaluable. I the 80’s and 90’s this work contributed to the wider campaign for equality legislation, but ICCL’s voice on these issues can change public understanding of a wide range social issues as issues of human rights.

ICCL has played a leading role in bringing advocacy based on the principles of human rights, and on the standards of international human rights law, to the centre of Irish public discourse and debate. You were pioneers in engagement with the international treaty body system and with the Council of Europe mechanisms, and you also played a key role in campaigning for the establishment of a national human rights institution in Ireland, and for human rights to constitute a central pillar of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.

The achievements of ICCL, of which I have mentioned just some, are all the more remarkable given the limited resources with which you have operated over most of that period. For the first two decades, you survived largely through the commitment of exceptional board members and volunteers – many of whom are here today. From 1996, those resources were bolstered by external funding which supported the recruitment of ICCL’s first Executive Secretary John McDermott in 1997, your first Director Donncha O’Connell in 1999, who would later be succeeded by Aisling Reidy in 2002 and Mark Kelly in 2006. As ICCL has thankfully been able to expand its work over recent years, I am delighted that you have been able to recruit a significant number of staff many of whom, past and present, are with us also.

It is wonderful that today we can celebrate a strong ICCL that has now developed into an authoritative human rights campaigning organisation on the global stage. I know that your work has inspired peer organisations in other parts of the world and that is a testimony to the intellectual depth and strategic sophistication of your work.

To conclude, may I say that your work is more relevant and more essential than ever as we face new global challenges to rights in different forms and in a rapidly shifting global political landscape.

I believe we are at a crucial moment in the protection of civil liberties in Ireland and internationally. We are living at a time when the threats to democracy and freedoms are at least as great as at the moment ICCL was founded – but the present threats are perhaps more opaque, more elusive.

We must recognise that, across Europe intolerance is rising in many areas. , The position of the individual rights holder is threatened by new technologies and new potential for State surveillance and control.  Democratic institutions are weakening in many states, and in an environment of instability, attempts to weaken individual rights in our justice system are inevitable.

When we see the failure of our human rights discourse to effectively shape a response to the present refugee crisis in Europe, or to address the social and political consequences of the economic crisis of recent years, we must reflect on the role that we all have – all of us who believe in the values of human rights – in influencing and shaping public and political debate, laws and policies.

We must recognise that there are deficiencies in our human rights discourse at the intellectual level – our academic institutions can do more to engage with public debate on issues of rights. In relation to the media, we see a reduction over time in the space for considered and critical discussion of issues of rights. 

Within the justice system, too, perhaps more might be done to defend and strengthen those rights protections which were so hard won, but can be so easily eroded. We have in Ireland a strong and proud tradition of constitutional protection of rights in our justice system, and a strong tradition of an independent judiciary who have guarded those rights jealousy over the decades – indeed so many members of the legal professions and the judiciary have also played an active part in supporting ICCL over the years, including many here today.  However, we know too, that we can never be complacent about the protection of those rights.

At all of these levels – the level of ideas and research, the level of public debate, and in engagement with the law and the legal professions - over 40 years, ICCL has played its part in enriching our national conversation on questions of rights and freedoms. Today, you continue to have a crucial role to play in taking up the unpopular issues, in fearlessly defending the principle over the pragmatic, in making the case for those who need your solidarity and who others may shrink from.

I suggest that you also can do more to bridge the gap between the legal case for the protection of human rights to winning hearts and minds and persuading the public of the moral and ethical case for change.  The protection of human rights in Ireland can never be fully realised if it is understood as something external or extraneous. We must have ownership as a people of the principles and values of human rights, those rights sourced in Bunreacht na hÉireann as well as those sourced in international law. In creating the culture of human rights to which we all aspire, there is much more work to be done.

We are at a critical moment for the protection of human rights, in Ireland and in Europe, with many daunting challenges but also with new opportunities for civil society to influence law and policy. I urge you to continue to be fearless in your advocacy and to guard your independence fiercely – as you have done throughout your existence.  At this time, we need moral leadership of the kind you have provided over 40 years and I look forward to the contribution that ICCL make as we work together to face these challenges and embrace these opportunities.