Campaigner ‘frozen out’ for IHRC criticism

Justine McCarthy – Sunday Times

A FORMER member of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has claimed in a letter to President Michael D Higgins that the organisation blackballed her after she criticised it in a submission to the Department of Justice and Equality. The day after Alice Leahy’s letter was delivered to Aras an Uachtarain last December, she received an invitation to attend a human rights lecture by Higgins at an event organised by the IHRC. The invitation arrived on December 4 even though the RSVP deadline was November 30. Leahy, the director of Trust, a support service for homeless people, wrote to Higgins: “Since my views were made known, I have been the only past commissioner and head of an established human rights NGO to be excluded from the invitation list of major events of the IHRC, a publicly funded body. For that reason, I regret I will be unable to hear you speak at the annual lecture which, I understand, is coming up shortly. “It is shocking that I am the only former member of the last commission to be excluded in such a manner while, at the same time, we boast of an excellent human rights record in our country. “I respectfully ask you to reflect on my experience and use every opportunity you can to encourage people like me to continue highlighting human rights abuses and ensure the term human rights does not continue to be the preserve of inner circles, as it currently is.”

The IHRC said the failure to send Leahy an invitation to Higgins’s lecture was “a regrettable oversight”. In her November 18 submission to the department about a new Human Rights and Equality Commission (HREC), Leahy said commission staff salaries should not be “grossly disproportionate” to those of NGOs’ and there should be less concentration on international issues. Arguing that business class travel should not be funded, she wrote: “Not infrequently, staff travelled abroad to conferences and meetings when there was important work domestically.” Leahy said the IHRC was “not a welcoming place to the public” and claimed there was a widening gap between “those discussing human rights and those working at the coalface”. The commission was disbanded last summer pending the establishment of the new HREC. The Equality and Rights Alliance (ERA), which represents more than 70 human rights organisations and activists, has urged the UN to downgrade the A rating it issued to Ireland’s human rights body. This is because the Irish commission has had no members for more than six months, its budget has been cut by 39%, and staff numbers have been reduced from 15 to six since 2008. ERA has told the European parliament’s petitions committee that Ireland is in breach of gender and race directives as the Equality Authority has had its funding cut by 49% to €2.98m since January 2009 while staff numbers have fallen from 58 to 15.