Chief Commissioner Delivers Key Note Address to the McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School

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Keynote speech 18.08.18

By NIHRC Chief Commissioner Les Allamby

The McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School in Dungannon

“50 Years On - The Civil Rights Challenges in Ireland Today - Tackling Poverty, Sectarianism, Racism and Inequality”

First, thanks very much for the invitation and I am delighted to be able to speak at the event particularly as it acknowledged the role played by Conn and Patricia McCluskey among many others in the civil rights movement.

I am going to start with a left field anecdote as someone with no contemporary lineage with the civil rights movement but, who played a footnote role in dealing with one of the forgotten ramifications of the civil rights campaign in my role as a legal adviser in the Law Centre.

The rent and rates strike against internment called in 1971 was met by the introduction of the Emergency Provisions (Payments for Debt) act introduced by (then) John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney. It provided that any public money paid to a person whether wages for public sector/local council staff, social security benefits, student grants, personal injury compensation or other claims could be diverted to clear public debts. There was no limit on the level of deduction, no appeal except against whether there was a debt owed and it was to continue until six months after the emergency creating the legislation had ended. The rent and rates strike was officially called off in 1976 through it had ended in practice quite some time before that. The legislation was unmatched in its punitive approach anywhere in the world including apartheid South Africa, where rent and utility strikes had been used as part of civil disobedience.

During the 1980s the Law Centre’s debt work regularly came up against the PDA. I remember a Belfast City Council cleaner whose weekly wage was reduced to 58pence to pay for her electricity debt. Finally, the Law Centre decided to challenge the legislation in a case of a mature student whose notification of entitlement to a full student grant was followed two days later by a letter to say that it had been diverted to pay rent arrears to the Housing Executive.

Part of the challenge was to get discovery of the content of minutes of a public debt committee of senior civil servants which was met with a public interest immunity certificate – normally reserved for national security issues. A second part was to get sworn affidavits from the NICRA and from politicians to say the legislation was solely designed to deal with the rent and rates strike and it was long over. It wasn’t too difficult to persuade Betty Sinclair as a former chair and Communist Party of Ireland stalwart to sign up. However, I expected more resistance from my second choice John Taylor, then an MP at Westminster. I met him in Armagh on a Saturday afternoon in early 1990 and to my surprise he could not have been more obliging. What I had forgotten is that he had launched a short lived and ill-fated business rent and rates strike in protest at the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement five years earlier which foundered immediately on the rocks of the PDA. As a result, my carefully and diplomatically worded first draft was hardened considerably as John Taylor fulminated at the egregiousness of the Act. To cut a long story short, a day before the case was due to be heard – Brian Kerr – now a Supreme Court Judge rang offering to settle the case, pay the student his grant back and that Peter Brooke would announce the emergency over and that the Act would not be used again and be formally repealed six months later. So in global terms, beware of emergencies becoming the mainstream.

My speech this morning is ‘the problem of racism and sectarianism on the island’. I want to start with the mantra ‘think globally, act locally’ and start with the global stage, because debates around racism (and to a lesser extent sectarianism) revolve around whether we see ourselves as part of a wider world, as internationalists with the understanding that human rights and human rights institutions promote universal values and protections or a much narrower focus ‘Making America great again’, ‘Italy for Italians’ or in UK terms, the notion of ‘restoring our sovereignty’ and ‘controlling our borders’.

One of the key international human rights protections is the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees designed to ensure asylum for anyone who has a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It sits alongside the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and a number of international human rights treaties signed up to by both the UK and Irish governments to promote human rights and non-discrimination.

The contemporary resonance and continuing need is unarguable, the numbers displaced have never been higher – 31 people around the world are newly displaced every minute of the day or nearly 10,000 people during the course of the morning. The annual cumulative number is at an all-time high and is equivalent of the whole population of these islands at almost 70 million people. One in six people in Lebanon are refugees, one in fourteen in Jordan – if you include Palestinians that moves up to one in four and one in three respectively. People flee to neighbouring countries not to Europe or the United States – 85 percent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. The largest refugee camp in the world is in Africa (in Kenya) not in Europe. Over two thirds of refugees come from five countries – Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. The most conservative and minimum estimate is that around 175,000 asylum seekers and refugees are unaccompanied and separated children.

I don’t want to overwhelm you with a blizzard of statistics, but, it is clear the vast majority of internally displaced people and asylum seekers are not in Europe even from recent conflicts in Syria. Economic migration is also not confined to Europe and The United States.

How has the United Kingdom and Irish government performed in dealing with asylum seekers who have reached these shores? Frankly neither has covered itself in glory. The recent ‘Windrush generation’ immigration scandal was not the outcome of unintended consequences instead, it was a political crisis caused by a policy that focussed on numbers not people and designed to make life uncomfortable for asylum seekers and certain migrants alike. The government were warned of the potential impact on people who had contributed their working lives to public service and chose to ignore it. The Irish government’s asylum adjudication system has for many years had one of the lowest success rate across the EU with delays endemic and reforms often occurring after legal decisions rather than political imperatives. The treatment of asylum seekers in Ireland was so poor that the Law Centre in 2013 took a legal challenge on behalf of almost 40 people from South Sudan to prevent them being removed from Belfast to Dublin and then be deported because of the poor treatment of asylum seeekers – the backdrop being that at that time the UK government were not deporting South Sudanese nationals because it was too dangerous whereas the Irish government had no such inhibitions.

So with a global backdrop of conflict, violence and economic inequality how does this play out nearer to home. It is unsurprising that the rise of populism in Europe often plays to the tune of anti-immigration particularly, for example, in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and elsewhere – in many of these countries indigenous populations are also demonised particularly Roma – places where populist left wind movements have arisen are considerably fewer in number - Greece and Spain are the only places that spring readily to mind.

So where does it leave us in these islands and what is the Commission doing and what can we do?

As Chief Commissioner of a human rights body I and my colleagues often find ourselves caught between conflicting expectations. For some, the Commission should and must tackle all human rights ills immediately, with a notion that the Commission only has to take ‘up the cudgels’ to transform the issue at hand. For others, who does the Commission think it is – no one elected you, and you plough a politically partisan agenda. Now a virtue of the Commission is knowing both its limitations and its legitimacy. With 14 staff, six Commissioner colleagues and a budget of just over a million we alone will not transform society. Nonetheless, our legitimacy springs from being a creature of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, rooted in stature, operating under UN Paris Principles based on independence and pluralism and applying international human rights standards based on global, regional and domestic legal commitments.

On a local level, the figures for both race and sectarian hate crime are reducing though it is clear reported hate crime is only the tip of an iceberg and we don’t know the size of that lies below the surface. Our laws, on paper are not too bad – though the need to introduce a single equality act, agreed definition of sectarianism and legal recognition of intersectional discrimination all remain outstanding – there are not many racist feminists or culturally aware misogynists out there at the end of the day.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland are leaders on recognising the value of human rights in enhancing policing – yet still have some way to go or to use the understated language of the Policing Board’s Human Rights thematic review on policing hate crime in June 2017 – which concluded ‘the application of policy in practice occasionally falls below that dictated by policy’ before setting out a number of recommendations.

The Commission has raised the lack of strategies, policies and resources in tackling a number of equality and socio economic issues – I remember a waspish comment, many years ago that ‘we used to launch ships, now we launch strategies’ – well now we no longer even launch strategies.

The commission published earlier this year its human rights investigation into Traveller Accommodation ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ – a title that aptly summed up the policy response to travellers. The findings of policy and practice inertia pointed to indifference rather than deliberate malign intent – but, it does leave you wondering where that indifference springs from. In practice, the lack of permanent and transient sites, and the poor facilities where sites still exist was forcing many travellers into settled housing or unauthorised encampments creating an inexorable decline in traveller culture.

We have highlighted locally and on the international stage as human rights treaty monitoring bodies examines the UK’s performance the shortcomings on issues of equality and non-discrimination.

I am a believer that the importance of leadership and that is one of the Commission’s roles and I am also married to a feminist and believe in the ‘personal is political’. As a result we can all play a role in countering the narrative that our economic and social well-being is adversely affected by migrant labour – in fact the reverse is true, that you can homogenize social groups whether by race, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation – every asylum seeker, and traveller is an individual with his or her own personal story and circumstances. So we can all show leadership whether at home, in a workplace, when out with friends, engaged in civic activity.

If anything, such leadership is more important than ever as in these turbulent times where predicting the future is more difficult than ever, however, there is one thing of which I am certain at least as far as the UK is concerned.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit – good, bad or indifferent, the underlying causes of the vote in some quarters based on a sense of disengagement, disenfranchisement and the levels of inequality will not be magically resolved by leaving the EU. When that penny drops, there will be a vacuum and it is likely to be filled once again by issues of immigration, asylum and race. In that vacuum, human rights and leadership, political, civic and local will be needed more than ever.

Thank you.


18 Aug 2018