Year of the activist - Day 2: From first-time marchers to advocates with decades of experience

From all corners of the island, across all demographics, and on a wide range of issues, grassroots activism has gone mainstream. From first-time marchers to advocates with decades of experience, campaigners have made their political power felt this year, writes Joyce Fegan

Salome Mbugua: Migrants’ rights

Salome Mbugua is one of Ireland’s greatest assets. Born in Kenya, and having lived here since 1994, she is the founder and former CEO of AkiDwA -The Migrant Women’s Network.

Akina Dada wa Africa-AkiDwA, Swahili for sisterhood, is a national network of migrant women living in Ireland. The organisation was established in 2001 to address, isolation, racism and gender-based violence.

Salome holds a Master’s degree in Equality Studies from UCD and is currently undertaking her doctorate at Trinity College Dublin where her research focuses on integrating women into peacebuilding in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2015, Salome was awarded an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR-UN) fellowship. This year, Salome was one of the five newly-appointed members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC). She is the first African woman to be appointed to the IHREC.

While an important voice in Irish society now, she made a conscious decision to speak up. Salome, when she was pregnant with her now 17-year-old daughter, was verbally assaulted on the street and spat at. She was told not to bring “another nigger” in this country.

The assault left her terrified initially, but she chose not to be silent in its aftermath and in the years that followed.

She recently spoke out about the high level of unemployment of African nationals in Ireland. An Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report, published in November found that 16% of African nationals were unemployed last year compared to 7% of Irish people.

Salome accused the State of failing to acknowledge the discrimination which is preventing many Africans from finding employment here.

“From a country point of view we need to be able to name the actual problem which is discrimination,” she said.

Jessica Bowes: Domestic Abuse

It is estimated that one in five women in Ireland have been abused by a current or former partner, and 41% of Irish women know someone in their circle of family or friends who have experienced intimate partner violence.

This violence, while oftentimes physical, can occur through emotional, mental, sexual and financial abuse.

Having being seen historically as a “private matter”, where speaking about it could break up a family and “ruin” a man’s reputation, it is still rare for survivors to speak publicly on the issue.

This year Jessica Bowes did just that. In 2015, Jessica was hospitalised after a violent attack by her partner Jonathan McSherry. She had already secured a barring order against him in 2014, for previous physical and psychological abuse, where he punched her in front of their children and where he turned up at her workplace in a rage. This was on top of him instructing her to keep quiet during the birth of one of her children.

In December 2016, McSherry was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for the 2015 attack, which left Jessica with multiple fractures to her face. In March 2017, while in prison, McSherry was sentenced to four and half years for threatening to kill a previous partner in 2013. However, in September of this year, he was released from prison after serving just 22 months.

Ms Bowes worries that Irish society does not take domestic abuse seriously.

“These are people genuinely living in crisis. These women are not afraid for no reason. There are genuine, serious threats to most of them,” she said.

After McSherry was released from prison this autumn, Jessica once again spoke publicly, stating: “I won’t live in fear of him any more.”

In April of this year, Jessica gave an interview to RTÉ’s Prime Time, that went viral. It has since been viewed 2.6m times. She tweets at @i_am_jessica_b.

Aisling Glynn: Disabilities

She has increased public understanding of what it is like to navigate Ireland in a wheelchair and she has also helped to set legal precedent in this country.

In 2016, solicitor Aisling Glynn brought a case to Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), on behalf of a boy, Luke Kelly Melia, whose former primary school discriminated against him on disability grounds by refusing to allow him bring his specially trained assistance dog into the school.

Luke, who has cerebral palsy was awarded €5,500 after the WRC ordered the school to redraft its policies to ensure it complied with the law. The school, Knocktemple National School in Virginia, Co Cavan, was also given a year to report to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) on its progress. If the school failed to do so, the IHREC could have gone to the District Court for an enforcement order. It is understood to be the first case of its kind in Ireland, involving an assistance dog in school.

Ms Glynn has since gone on to write a number of articles about her personal experience of life in a wheelchair, touching on the public’s perception of what is and isn’t possible for her. “How can someone in a wheelchair become a solicitor?” is one question she was asked.

Another is: “Weren’t they very good to give you a job with the wheelchair?”

Ms Glynn writes about the fact that people with disabilities are often seen as “incapable, or certainly as less capable,” evidenced by the fact that the ESRI found that people with disabilities in Ireland are four times less likely to be employed.

The solicitor has also detailed the high level of organisation needed for the running of her life, and how she has two separate diaries.

“We can try to fix the battles disabled people face every day, because most of the struggles disabled people encounter arise from societal barriers, not from a person’s disability,” she said.

Ailbhe Smyth: Repeal the 8th

It started out as an anecdote, that was later verified as fact. As activists and campaigners arrived at a party to celebrate the result of the marriage equality referendum in May 2015, Ailbhe Smyth was handing out flyers. The sheets of paper detailed the steps that needed to be taken to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution.

The 72-year-old academic had been campaigning on this issue for decades. She had been part of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and the head of Women’s Studies in UCD from 1990 to 2006.

From 2015 to 2018, and long before, Ailbhe spoke at pro-choice rallies, events and marches all around the country, having set up the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2014. The coalition, of which Ailbhe was the convenor, was an alliance of well in excess of 100 organisations including trade unions, political bodies, human rights organisations, NGOs, and community groups, who were all working together to repeal the

Eighth Amendment.

As the date for the referendum was announced, this coalition moved from being the organising vehicle of a movement to become the national campaign group - Together for Yes. Ailbhe became a co-director of this, alongside Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Grainne Griffin, of the Abortion Rights Campaign. Together they raised more than €500,000 in just four days, from over 12,000 donors, to pay for costs associated with the campaign. This is in contrast to two equivalent fundraisers before the marriage equality, where €180,000 was raised.

The nature of the Together for Yes campaign was one of equality, with no hierarchy, as evidenced by having three co-directors, their’s was a team effort, with volunteers all around the country.

However, after the landslide result was announced on May 26, to a room of assembled activists in Dublin’s Intercontinental Hotel, the name being chanted was “Ailbhe, Ailbhe, Ailbhe.”

Liz Carolan: Digital Rights

Liz Carolan is a woman ahead of her time. She is at the forefront of digital rights when it comes to data protection and privacy. At the beginning of the year, having observed how Facebook was manipulated during the Brexit campaign and the 2016 US presidential election, Liz co-founded the Transparency Referendum Initiative (TRI). It was an impartial group set up “to highlight and counter the complete lack of transparency around

the targeting of voters through social media ads during political campaigns.”

In the lead up to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, Liz and her voluntary colleagues, published an open database of targeted ads on its websites. The database allowed people to see who was paying for Facebook ads, to lobby for or against, the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution.

The reason their work was so significant was because it highlighted unregulated spending on a political campaign, it exposed money being spent by external actors outside of Ireland and it showed ads that fell outside the scrutiny of the normal advertising standards.

TRI’s work not only created transparency for journalists and citizens but it led to action from Facebook. In early May, four months after TRI set up, Facebook announced that it was blocking all foreign spending on

advertising around Ireland’s referendum on abortion. It was done in an effort to adhere to the “principles” of Ireland’s election spending laws. It was an action with major international significance, brought about in no small part, by the voluntary work of three people at TRI.

Liz can be found tweeting @LizCarolan where she says: “Digital threats to democracy won’t fight themselves.”

Ellie Kisyombe: Direct Provision

Sometimes referred to as simply Ellie, Malawi-born Ellie Kisyombe, will become the first ever woman living in Direct Provision to run in the local elections, when they take place next May.

The asylum seeker has lived in Ireland for more than nine years and while she lives in indefinite limbo with no legal status, she decided to run when she found out that candidates only had to be “ordinarily resident” in Ireland in order to run for a seat in their local council.

Ellie will run in Dublin’s North Inner City ward for the Social Democrats. She has been involved with the party for four years, supporting Gary Gannon, the ward’s current Social Democrat councillor, where she spoke regularly about migrant issues at various public events.

However, it is through food that Ellie has come to national prominence. Ellie co-founded Our Table with chef and Irish Examiner food writer Michelle Dermody as a community-driven, non-profit project to highlight the need to end direct provision in Ireland. Their goal was to facilitate change through conversation over food. While Our Table is well-known for its pop-up cafes at events and festivals around the country, they also sell products including hot sauces and hummuses.

Ellie’s rise to national prominence came from a desire to make something positive from a negative experience and turning to cooking as a coping skill, having come from a family of chefs in Malawi.

She was invited by Darina Allen to go to Ballymaloe Cookery School and while there she said she learned so much that it allowed her to “stop doubting” herself.

“I needed an outlet that brought positivity to myself and others around me, hence the creation of Our Table,” she said.

Oisin Coghlan: Climate Action

It is said that 2018, has been an international tipping point when it comes to climate change, both in relation to action and public awareness.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) Ireland, a not-for-profit organisation, has been campaigning for environmental justice and sustainability for more than a decade now, and this year they made an even bigger mark, with their popular Sick of Plastic campaign. On April 21, shoppers were encouraged to leave their unwanted plastic packaging behind at the checkout. This campaign was also brought to events like Electric Picnic, where 160 FOE volunteers engaged with festival-goers about plastic rubbish. For the fourth year in a row, FOE operated deposit and return stations for plastic cups and bottles at the event.

Oisín Coghlan is just one of the people working on climate action in Ireland. Oisín has been director of FOE Ireland since 2005. In 2007, he co-founded the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and led the eight-year campaign for a climate change law which culminated in the passing of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act in December 2015.

He is also one of the co-founders of the Environmental Pillar, the advocacy coalition of national environmental NGOs in Ireland.

In May, speaking at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment he said Ireland was now at “a critical juncture for Irish climate policy,” one aim of which is to reduce emissions by 5% every year from now until 2050.

“Instead Irish emissions are rising, 7% over the last two years. Ireland is one of a handful of countries that will miss its 2020 targets and the only one of those where emissions are still rising,” he told the committee.

He tweets regularly from @OisinCoghlan with accessible insight into the latest legislative progress, both nationally and internationally.

Sinead O’Sullivan: Greening Hollywood

She makes costumes for Hollywood movies, but shops in Oxfam, meet the Irish woman turning the film industry green.

Sinéad O’Sullivan, originally from Co Kildare, has been working alongside Oscar-winning designer Jacqueline Durran for the past eight years on movies such as Beauty and Beast with Emma Watson, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley and Mary Magdalene with Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix.

However, for the past two years she has been challenging the global movie industry to be more environmentally-friendly when it comes to the creation of costumes, something the average cinema-goer probably does not think about.

“A typical film, television or theatre production can see us making or buying more clothing that the average person will consume in a lifetime,” the designer told the Irish Examiner.

Arising from a sense of “catholic guilt” Sinéad started looking at ways to reduce this waste and created the Costume Directory, an open resource where designers can source socially responsible suppliers and brands. It is published by BAFTA and its second edition was published this summer.

Her own sister, actor and comedian Aisling Bea often showcases ethical clothes by wearing them to red carpet events, to raise awareness of the environment.

While the designer has no current plans to expand her directory which is free to download from here: bit.ly/CostumeDirectory she does hope it will encourage other industries to reflect on their own “footprint.”

“The Costume Directory is my attempt to make a change and shift focus within my own industry and I’m hoping it will encourage and perhaps challenge others to do something within their own field and not just accept that the social and environmental footprint of their industry is beyond their control,” she said.

On a personal level, for people wanting to incorporate change in their own life when it comes to fashion and textile waste, Sinéad advises “buying less and buying better.”

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