In the world of human rights advocacy, with its many challenges and setbacks, it is important to take note of the very tangible impact we often have in our society. National and international activists working to protect human rights in the context of Ireland's economic crisis can take satisfaction in recent events, which have opened the door to economic and social rights standards being incorporated into the country's constitution. This would be a momentous step to ensure that human rights no longer become the victim of economic downturns.
After six years of austerity budgets and a generational retrogression in economic and social rights in Ireland, a decision-making forum set up to explore amendments to the constitution has overwhelmingly recommended that these rights should be reinforced in the country's foundational legal document. The Constitutional Convention – which comprises 66 citizens and 34 parliamentarians – has called for the protection of some economic and social rights protections to be strengthened. As can be seen in the results of its final ballot, members of Convention called for the rights to housing, social security, and essential health care to be "expressly stated" in the constitution, along with the rights of persons with disabilities, linguistic and cultural rights, and all rights set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The government now has a period of four months in which to respond to the recommendations and, if they agree to carry them forward, set a timeframe for a referendum. While far from a fait accompli, the recommendation represents a major achievement for civil society organizations such as Amnesty International Ireland that have campaigned tirelessly to bring these issues onto the agenda. Indeed, when the idea of a Constitutional Convention was being mooted in 2011, CESR spoke to Irish non-governmental organizations and sources at the Department of Justice, with both confessing to deep pessimism about the political feasibility of moving the ESCR agenda forward through this process. Three years later, the members of the Convention have responded to the calls of human rights advocates, with 85 percent voting in favor of just that.
"When the government set up the Constitutional Convention it looked relatively toothless, with the government itself setting the first eight items of the agenda and no choice for the Convention itself," explained Mary Murphy, Acting Chair of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, in an interview with CESR. "There was cynicism, because people felt citizens should be able to set the agenda of what would be in the Constitution, and eventually the government agreed that the Convention could add two items to the agenda itself. There were regional meetings and consultations, and through creative use of that space, public campaigning and coalition building with both NGOs and trade unions, it was agreed that enhancing parliamentary effectiveness and economic and social rights should be the two extra items. The campaign to get ESCR on the agenda was very much a ground-up effort, driven by NGOs."
CESR is proud to have been able to contribute to this process, with our report "Mauled by the Celtic Tiger" being cited as an important contribution to the advocacy efforts of domestic NGOs.
Over the coming months, human rights advocates will turn their attention to making sure the Convention's crucial recommendation is indeed implemented by the government. The current Fine Gael-Labour coalition is thought to be receptive to the proposal, but there will be significant opposition, not least from Ireland's conservative judicial sphere. A delicate political context must also be navigated, with a plethora of other amendments, some of them highly controversial, also to be voted on in a country that is already suffering 'referendum fatigue'.
These facts notwithstanding, it must be recognized that, thanks to the work of economic and social rights defenders, Ireland now has a rare and unique opportunity to further social progress for both this and future generations. With the centenary of the 1916 Rising within sight, and its incipient recovery ongoing, Ireland finds itself at a crossroads that is ripe for reflection on both its history and its socioeconomic future. It is to be hoped that the Irish government will rise to the challenge of delivering the constitution ordinary people in Ireland deserve.