Serious concerns about the workings of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) have been raised — by one of its own directors.

Documents obtained by this paper reveal that respected campaigner and commission member Alice Leahy wrote to IHRC president Maurice Manning questioning the usefulness of expensive trips to foreign conferences and raising the issue of the lack of voice for the very people the IHRC is meant to serve.

Ms Leahy, who is a co-founder of the trust and an internationally respected advocate for the human rights of homeless people, told Mr Manning in an email dated July 12, 2011: “To be appointed to public service is a great honour bringing with it responsibility, which means at times saying what needs to be said . . . 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.”

In its report released in August 2010, the IHRC, which received almost €10m from the Irish taxpayer between 2005 and the end of 2009, said its focus is “on producing high-quality, credible and considered reports, observations and submissions”. Ms Leahy questions if this was being done particularly in light of the expensive travel and accommodation arrangements of some IHRC staff.

In her email Ms Leahy asks what relevance these trips might have to domestic rights issues: ”A lot of time has been spent by 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.”

Most disturbing is Ms Leahy’s final observation. Quoting Mary Robinson, she says “each time you speak out with a critical voice you pay a price” and added, “it is with some regret that I will not be applying for membership of the new commission”.

In response to our query about both emails, the IHRC forwarded a copy of a speech by Mr Manning, which acknowledges one of Ms Leahy’s concerns.

”Our colleague on the commission, Alice Leahy, whose daily work with the homeless brings her into direct contact with the most bruised and vulnerable in our society, constantly admonishes us that much of what passes for human rights language goes way over the heads of many for whom it should be most relevant. In many ways she is right.”

In contrast, an email from another commission member, Tom O’Higgins, to Mr Manning, accuses the Department of Justice of trying to “demean, diminish and by starving it [IHRC] of funding”.

An email dated July 18, 2011, from Mr O’Higgins to Mr Manning, praises the work of the IHRC and berates The Irish Times and highly respected journalist Carol Coulter for their analyses of the commission’s practices.

”The recent unbalanced articles by Coulter . . . in my view there is no cause for alarm. Civil society is more than one Irish Times journalist or a couple of academics.” Mr O’Higgins goes on to highlight what he sees as the successes of the IHRC and says the ‘self-appointed critics’ miss the point.

Mr O’Higgins, however, reserves his ire for the Department of Justice: ”Despite the unjust attempts by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to demean and diminish spirit by starving it of funding, the commission refused to buckle or to be deflected from its mission.”

He tells Mr Manning: ”Like a good conductor you succeeded, almost always, in extracting harmonious performances from a group of soloists, with rarely a sour note.”

A group is currently studying proposals for a new merged rights authority which would include the IHRC.

– Eamon Keane