Submission from:

Alice Leahy,
Director & Co-Founder, TRUST
Former Irish Human Rights Commissioner


The Working Group
On New Human Rights & Equality Body
Department of Justice & Equality
Floor 2, Bishop’s Square
Redmond’s Hill, Dublin 2.

Below is my submission based on my daily experience of living and working in the Ireland of today.  I trust it will be viewed in the spirit of concern in which it was written.

  • Having spent 5 years as a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission I have reached the conclusion that it needs significant transformation as a matter of urgency.

  • The Commission should be fully compliant with Paris Principals.  Fewer Commissioners with a more significant role would be much more productive.

  • The selection of Commissioners should be based on experience and that experience should be freely available to the Commission as required.  Commissioners should be required and welcome to spend time in the Commission with appropriate facilities available.  An interview perhaps would be helpful with the final decision being made by a non partisan selection committee.

  • Staff salaries should not be grossly disproportionate to those working the Human Rights sector.

  • Consistently the Commission was inappropriately referred to as a Board by the CEO which reflected the confusion over the role of Commissioners.

  • The gap between civil society and the Human Rights Commission was clearly highlighted in an article by Carol Coulter in Irish Times (04/07/11) followed by an opinion piece in Irish Times from Donncha O’Connell and Ursula Kilkelly (11/07/11).  They made important observations that could be usefully revisited as part of the consultation process.

  • 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.  The availability of staff and Commissioners to the general public should play a crucial part in informing civil society of its role and possibilities.

  • 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 as highlighted daily in the media without comment eg. care of the elderly, health services, unemployment to mention just a few.

  • In the Commission the expertise of some Commissioners was not used to good effect. Information was communicated very poorly to Commissioners, leading 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.

  • There is a glaring and widening gap between those discussing human rights and those working at the coalface attempting to meet peoples rights on a daily basis eg. nurses, doctors, gardai and teachers and others who now find themselves in threatening situations – who is there to safeguard their human rights?

I should point out because of the above coupled with my experience as documented in attached letter to all members of the Irish Human Rights Commission (July 2011) of which I was a member,  I have hope but limited confidence in this consultation process.  (See Appendix 1).  If above issues are not considered the value of having a Commission is seriously questionable.

Alice Leahy

18th November 2011

Appendix 1 – Letter to IHRC

Appendix 2 – About TRUST

Appendix 3 – Some Educational Initiatives

Appendix 1

Dr. Maurice Manning
President of Irish Human Rights Commission
Irish Human Rights Commission
4th Floor, Jervis House
Jervis Street
Dublin 1

13th July 2011

Dear President

Recent reports on Irish Times re. Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) highlighting the frustration of Civil Society clearly should be an issue of grave concern to all of us, pointing to a lack of focus on domestic issues.

I applied for membership of IHRC based on my years of experience working at the coal-face with peopled labelled homeless – outsiders in our society.  I was and continue to be conscious of the fact that the term homeless is misleading.  Not having a fixed address can lead to denial of a service all too often, and by extension to my mind denial of human rights in many instances.

To be appointed to public service is a great honour bringing with it responsibility.  This responsibility means at times saying what needs to be said.  Because minority views are not always captured by minutes an accurate picture of what happens shows a weakness that needs to be addressed.

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 IHRC – in particular by staff attending conferences abroad, yet the absence of feedback from these events make it impossible to assess its usefulness in relation to the domestic situation.

Legal and academic debate is fundamental to the Commission but without any connection with the daily struggle of many of our citizens it is valueless and certainly leaves the term “human rights” a rather amorphous concept.

My experience of IHRC has been disappointing and reflects a widespread failure in Irish society, namely to build from the bottom up rather than the top down.

I am mindful of the words of former President Mary Robinson who in 2001 said “each time you speak out with a critical voice you pay a price”.

It is with some regret that I will not be re-applying for membership of the new Commission.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Leahy

Irish Human Rights Commissioner

Appendix 2


TRUST has been active in a front line capacity providing health and social services for people who are homeless on the streets of Dublin since 1975.

The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles:

  • The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.

  • The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.

Homelessness as experienced by those living rough on our streets or staying in shelters and hostels is a complex problem and is not the same as “houseless ness” or a lack of accommodation.  In tackling this problem it is very easy to forget that the people involved have rights and deserve to be treated first and foremost as human beings who have as much right to determine the way they live as anyone else.   People do not decide to become outsiders – they are made to feel excluded and then find themselves being denied their human rights on many fronts.

In TRUST everyday we seek to positively affirm the unique identity of all of those we come into contact with.  The range of people we meet mirrors the make-up of Irish society with a strong bias in favour of those who are different.  Many of the people we meet have spent time in State run institutions and many not allowed to forget it. Regardless of sexual orientation, disability, religion, ethnic group or nationality we seek to treat everyone with respect.  We also meet people with severe mental and psychological problems which underlines just how diverse and different the people are who come to us everyday.  Our approach is to remind ourselves that first and foremost everyone is a unique human being with rights that must be respected.  A particular concern to TRUST is the right to privacy of many of the people we meet.  Personal data is sought from many before getting a basic service and this is stored and shared without due regard for informed consent.  (An issue we have raised with the Data Protection Commission).

TRUST has had a number of Education/Awareness Programmes to create greater understanding about what it means to be an outsider in society.   This was motivated by real concern about the way in which official policy was tending to create outsiders rather than helping people to find a welcome and a place in society.   (SEE APPENDIX 3 for a list of some Education/Awareness Initiatives).

Appendix 3

The TRUST Education & Awareness Programme:

The TRUST Education & Awareness Programme is aimed at changing attitudes and making people more sensitive to the needs of those who feel themselves outsiders around them.

All projects are on the theme of “The Outsider”:

  • The Homeless Experience, a Trust initiative, is a one day resource programme

for service providers in statutory and voluntary organisations at national and local level.  Financial assistance was given by Dublin Corporation (now DCC).  This programme aims to raise awareness on the issue of homelessness and to help focus individuals and organisations on their responses and possible interventions;

  • A video “A Fragile City” made by Esperanza Productions;
  • National Essay Competition for Transition Year Students;
  • National Art Competition for all second level students;
  • Book – “With Trust in Place”, with 40 contributors including Judge Michael Moriarty, Christy Moore and Tony Gill, a man who was homeless, published at the end of 2003 by Townhouse;
  • A seminar in RCSI in October 2004 entitled “Is the management philosophy of benchmarks and performance indicators compatible with a philosophy of caring?”
  • DVD “Building Trust in the Community” incorporating “A Fragile City” – sponsored by ESB Electric Aid – 2005.
  • Book “Wasting Time with People?” published by Gill & Macmillan (April 2008)             Over 70 contributors from all walks of life – dedicated to the late Professor James McCormick and Frank Purcell.
  • Website which as well as being a vehicle to advance understanding of the outsider also provides information about all Trust projects and activities.