CAROL COULTER, Legal Affairs Editor, Irish Times

THE IRISH Human Rights Commission should be transformed urgently to make it a more welcoming place for the public and to place more emphasis on human rights in Ireland and less on international issues, according to a former member.

Alice Leahy, director and co-founder of the homeless campaigning group Trust, and a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission until its mandate ended in September, made these points in a submission to a working group on a new human rights and equality body.

The group was set up by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and it sought submissions on the requirements for the new body combining the commission and the Equality Authority. The deadline for submissions expired this week.

In her submission, which has been placed on the Trust website, Ms Leahy said she based her recommendations on her five years of membership of the Irish Human Rights Commission.

Membership of the new commission should be based on experience as a human rights campaigner, she said, and staff salaries should not be grossly disproportionate to salaries of those working in the human rights sector.

The new commission should be fully compliant with the UN’s Paris Principles on such institutions, which require them to reflect society and be independent of government. Commissioners should be required and welcome to spend time in the commission and share their expertise, she said.

“Comments made to me from many sources led me to conclude that the Human Rights Commission was not a welcoming place to the general public, not helped by the location,” she said.

“There should be less emphasis on international issues requiring significant funding (business class travel should not be funded) and more on domestic issues of grave concern in the Ireland of today.

“These issues in the area of social and economic rights are highlighted daily in the media.

“In the commission, the expertise of some commissioners was not used to good effect,” Ms Leahy added.

“Information was communicated very poorly to commissioners, leaving staff with quite limited expertise to assume roles that in instances would have been more appropriate for commissioners to undertake, particularly when representing the commission.

“Not infrequently staff travelled abroad to conferences and meetings when there was important work to be done domestically,” the submission states.

It concludes: “There is a glaring gap between those discussing human rights and those working at the coalface to meet people’s rights on a daily basis, eg nurses, doctors, gardaí, teachers and others who now find themselves in threatening situations.

“Who is there to safeguard their human rights?”

Ms Leahy appended to her submission a letter to the president of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Dr Maurice Manning, in which she explains why she would not be applying for membership of the new commission. Ms Leahy said her time in the commission had been disappointing.

“It has been virtually impossible for me to convey and have documented what I see on a daily basis in what is increasingly seen as a parallel world.

“A lot of time has been spent by the IHRC, in particular, by staff attending conferences abroad, yet the absence of feedback from these events makes it impossible to assess its usefulness in relation to the domestic situation.”

Responding to the submission, Dr Manning said that most international travel was paid for by international bodies such as the UN and EU.

He also rejected the implied criticism of the staff and said the record showed commissioners had regularly spoken on issues where they had expertise.