As Maurice Manning’s second and final term as President of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) draws to a close in August, he looks back proudly.
“A number of government departments, not all of them, are very much aware of human rights obligations now,” he tells eolas, “yet that wasn’t the case ten years ago when we came in.” The commission was seen as “just ineffectual do-gooders for the most part.”
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has announced that the commission will merge with the Equality Authority into a new ‘Irish human rights and equality commission’ (expected by the end of the year). Manning says that he will stay on, if asked, as transitional head of the new body, but only until it is fully established.
A major confrontation occurred between the commission and the Government in 2007 when it published a report calling for an inspection regime of planes landing in Ireland that were suspected of involvement in ‘extraordinary rendition’.
“We said very clearly that the Government had an obligation to ensure that it wasn’t breaching the human rights principles against torture and detention,” and that “if it was playing a part it should stop doing that,” he says.
“All hell broke loose when we said this,” he remembers, “because the Government and indeed the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs both felt that this report could seriously damage relations between this country and the US.
“There was a lot of pressure not to publish it but we did and in a way it was one of the most important things we did because it did very much emphasise our sense of independence,” he recalls.
Another early example of the commission’s work was a report into “the attack on the human rights of people who were in long-term care,” which “really brought us into the limelight when Leas Cross broke.” The Leas Cross nursing home in Dublin was closed in 2005 due to sub-standard conditions.
The commission’s “more diverse” focus in recent years has included work with Irish Aid to help establish human rights commissions in countries such as Sierra Leone. It has also provided human rights education to public bodies such as An Garda Síochána, the Prisons Service and the army.
An example of increased awareness of human rights was the Department of Defence’s modernising of military law “to make it human rights compliant.” The 2007 Defence Act modernised the military code of discipline through provisions such as the establishment of an independent military prosecuting authority.
The inter-related themes of the commission’s funding and independence are again under scrutiny with the proposed merger. “We always had the suspicion that our stance on rendition made us very unpopular and was what triggered off the severity of the cuts,” he states, referring to the 32 per cent cut in its budget in 2009 and subsequent cuts.
Manning welcomes the working group’s report on the proposed commission. However, adequate resources will be vital. The commission must also be composed of people “with a lot of capacity and genuine independence of mind.” The IHRC is currently accountable to the Minister for Justice and Equality, but he wants to see the new body accountable to the Oireachtas.
Parliamentary accountability would mean “that any TD or Senator knows they can call us up and we brief them on that [legislation].” They could also be assured that they will get “advice that is solidly based in law and advice that is genuinely independent.”
Manning is a former politics lecturer, having taught in UCD until 2002. In March, he was appointed by the Taoiseach to chair an expert panel of academics to advise the Government and the Oireachtas on official commemorations for the decade of centenaries (2012-2022). In the coming weeks it will submit its first report, outlining which events should be commemorated.
For the commemorations, it is crucial that “the tone is not triumphalist, that there’s not an official view of history propagated, that there is respect for the different traditions that make up Irishness.” Referring to the peace process, he states: “We can’t do anything that would prove to be divisive or hurtful.” However, the Government must “try to make it all-Ireland in so far as we can and work closely with groups in Northern Ireland.”
Manning adds: “Surprisingly so far, for me, the most enthusiastic participants have been the British Government: the emphasis from the Northern Ireland Office on east-west as well as North-South.”
The events to be commemorated took place with “momentous world events going on” so celebrations “have to be seen in the wider context.” His group will also have to advise on commemorating other “major themes” such as the suffragette movement, labour history and possibly the role of southern unionists. The centenaries are also an opportune time for encouraging academic research and promoting the teaching of history in schools.
He believes that the commemorative programme is likely to be “a whole series of smaller events” with few “major spectaculars.” Manning points out: “I don’t think the public mood is for spectaculars.”
As Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, the former Fine Gael TD has been working on a draft human rights charter and code of conduct for Irish third-level institutions operating in countries with poor rights records. Manning says that the charter would require universities, when dealing with such countries, “to make it very clear that they believe in human rights as far as they can in their own work, to incorporate human rights values, to propagate human rights in what they’re doing,” and to “help people who may be victims of human rights abuses.”
Ireland, of course, is placing great emphasis on future links with China. “We shouldn’t be working with a dictatorship or where there are huge gross violations,” he admits. “It’s really a question of finding the balance between exploiting opportunities which are hugely in the interests of this country at this crucial time and at the same time not losing sight of values.”
Tags: Public affairs
Date posted: Monday, May 28th, 2012 at 8:07 pm