MICHAEL CLIFFORD: UN’s opinion of Ireland is hard to hear

THERE were two hearings last week about one Ireland. Both told plenty about who we are and how we are governed, and, not least of all, how we want to be governed.

The picture painted of Ireland at a UN human rights committee hearing in Geneva resembles a developing country, where poverty, kleptocrats and despots have arrested moves towards human rights.

The hearing was told that Ireland tolerates legal discrimination of gay people: the Employment Equality Act allows institutions such as the Catholic Church to dismiss employees whose conduct is contrary to their ethos. In particular, this law affects gay teachers, nurses, doctors and other personnel in education and medicine.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald assured the hearing that the law would be changed, but that it is exists at all speaks volumes.

For victims of rape or incest, the State also prefers to turn away from its duty, the hearing was told.

Fitzgerald, a woman not without compassion, had to explain that it was the people’s wish that abortion not be permitted for victims of rape or incest, nor for those who had suffered a fatal foetal abnormality.

Then, there was the plight of the 1,500 women whose pelvises had been broken in childbirth, for some religious reasons to do with curtailing their sex lives. Symphysiotomy is a form of butchery practised in rural areas of countries like Kenya, a world away from hyper-developed Ireland.

The committee appeared astonished that this blight on the past was dealt with so cavalierly. Throw money at the survivors that they may shut up and exit the public square, appears to be the policy.

The UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Nigel Rodley, who must encounter some desperately inhumane practices in his work, stated that the details of what Irish women were subjected to “keep me awake at night”.

The committee’s view of this country’s record in dealing with prisoners was nothing to write home about either.

The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, noted that “you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners”. According to the UN committee, that dictum places Ireland in a holding tank with some of the regimes that American generals regularly dream of overthrowing.

The committee strongly criticised Ireland for “chronic” overcrowding in prisons and the “inhuman” practice of slopping out.

In undemocratic societies, prison is overused to keep the populace in line. The committee found such overuse in Ireland common, with 89% of committals being sentences of a year or less. The obvious question of why there was no alternative to prison was asked, but, as usual, received no proper answer.

These are some of a litany of issues, outlined at the hearing, that are in conflict with the self-regarding picture of Ireland as a happy-clappy liberal democracy. It would be easy to blame it all on those who govern, but that would miss the point.

There has, at most levels of society and the political culture, been a failure to holistically address the dark past.

Instead, governments react to the latest excavation of horror, rather than engage in a cathartic examination of all that went on.

Thus, when headlines flash around the world about mass graves of infants, there is a rush to sort it out. When the plight of victims of symphysiotomy is a little local matter that can be capped, the minimum approach is adopted. Elsewhere, the residual power that the Church still exercises ensures that in areas like sexuality and reproduction there is no stomach to do the right thing.

Through all this, the political culture ensures that the road best travelled is the one of least controversy. Unless somebody kicks up in a manner that is reflected in constituency offices or on the airwaves, it doesn’t get addressed. Unless the outside world inquires as to human rights abuses, it is swept into a dark corner. Only the latest controversy is what really matters.

A specific, if relatively trivial, illustration of this malignant political culture was evident in an Oireachtas hearing last week. Most people had enough of Garth Brooks, but the hearings into the cancellation of the concerts told plenty.

On Tuesday, Dublin City manager, Owen Keegan, and planning officials, came before the Oireachtas committee on transport and tourism. They were grilled about the failure to licence the concerts. The questioning was suitably robust. Some of the comments, however, suggested that Keegan was the villain of the piece. Mary Lou McDonald referenced the repercussions for the nation’s “children, and the children’s children”.

Afterwards, there were media reports that some of the members of the committee wanted to bring Keegan’s suitability to continue in office into question. Keegan’s ‘crime’ is processing the law as he is he charged to do, without fear or favour. That is a highly controversial position to adopt in the land of nods and winks.

The following day, the committee heard from the GAA and the gigs’ promoter, Peter Aiken.

For some reason, these boys weren’t so much grilled as asked some nice ‘let me hold your hand’ questions.

The committee chair, John O’Mahoney, addressed GAA secretary general, Pauric Duffy, and Croke Park chief, Peter McKenna, by their first names. Mary Lou was nowhere to be seen brandishing her truth-seeking verbal missiles. The whole thing descended into a little chit-chat between law-makers and businesspeople about how some goddamn public servant had the audacity to invoke the law and deny everybody a big, lucrative party.

It didn’t occur to the parliamentarians to ask if five concerts, in addition to the agreed three per annum, gave anybody pause for thought. Neither were there any awkward queries about the GAA’s relationship with local residents, which has left a lot to be desired. Naturally, the question screaming out for an answer — were the GAA and the promoter blinded by greed? — wasn’t asked either.

No, this was all about decrying the preposterous notion that the market be subservient to the law.

It was enough to make you pine for the days of the Celtic Bubble, when public servants in areas like financial regulation and planning ensured that the law never interfered with partying. Any neutral observer would have to conclude that the parliamentarians were primarily concerned with surfing a wave of public and media outrage, rather than fulfilling their ostensible duties as tribunes of the common good.

The hearings did illuminate one thing. At grassroots, the GAA is an unrivalled example of the best we have to offer. But it’s as prone to wielding its power with the same arrogance as any other corporation obsessed with the bottom line.

It was not a good week to reflect on how we are. The national obsession with how this country is observed from beyond Irish shores was notably muted when the observations were unpalatable. At home, lawmakers were more concerned with how the law might be broken to snaffle a few floating first-preferences.


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