Many thanks to Éle Ní Chonbhuí for compiling this non-exhaustive whistlestop history of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Éle completed a transition year work experience programme at ICCL in 2018.
The Foundations of ICCL
On 30 June 1976 Kader Asmal summed up the newly formed Irish Council for Civil Liberties to the gathering of academics, lawyers, students and public figures in Trinity College Dublin. He said that “This Council is being formed to promote human rights, to protect civil liberties, recover them where they have been removed, and enlarge them where they have been diminished.”
ICCL adopted the constitution of being a non-party and non-denominational group. The original Executive Committee consisted of anti-apartheid campaigner and future senator in a democratic South African government, Kader Asmal, as well as future President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, among others. The first official meeting identified issues of immediate concern.
At the height of the troubles human rights and civil liberties were being thrown by the wayside. The ICCL decided to highlight the need for an independent Garda complaint procedure, and a proper system of legal aid in civil and criminal cases. The Council also decided to campaign for equality for women and children’s rights – not a popular position at the time – the rights of psychiatric patients and an endto capital punishment. After just one year the ICCL had 460 members and had become a leading voice on issues of democracy, justice and equality.
We remained ambitious. 42 years later ICCL remains a major voice in campaigning for human rights and civil liberties. Our voice was essential in finally winning marriage equality and reproductive freedom. We work in networks with similar NGOs all over the world and we have played a huge role in recent issues such as repeal and the marriage referendum.
At that first historic meeting, those who would soon form ICCL discussed the ‘Heavy Gang’ and problems with police brutality. Garda reform remains a central issue for today’s ICCL. We were one of the first groups to call for an independent Garda complaint procedure. In 2015 the Policing Authority and in 2005 The Garda Ombudsman became a reality, both as a resultof ICCL advocacy. ICCL has also worked on promoting the idea that human rights should be the underlying principle for the gardaí.
In 2008 we published a Human Rights Guide which detailed a package of reform measures. ICCL’s Mark Kelly advised the Garda Commissioner’s Strategic Human Rights Advisory Committee at the time. A copy of the guide was given to every serving member of the Gardaí and the Garda reserve.
ICCL’s 2006 report Morris, An Agenda for Change: Placing Human Rights at the Core of Policing in Ireland was central in the drastic reform of the Gardai after a wave of scandals in 2014.ICCL also worked closely with the Commission for the future of Policing In Ireland before it disbanded in September 2018. In 2018 ICCL launched the #GuardOurRights campaign. The first major milestone in this campaign was the publication of the Kilpatrick Report in September 2018. Alyson Kilpatrick was former human rights advisor to the Policing Board of Northern Ireland, and wrote a detailed account of how “A Human Rights-Based Approach to Policing in Ireland” could be implemented. It was published in September 2018. Kilpatrickgives a step by step blueprint on implementing this approach. The Commission on the Future of Policing referenced it heavily in their report to gardai and ICCL is monitoring the Garda Commissioner’s commitment to implementing the recommendations.
Read more about our campaign to reform policing in Ireland: https://www.iccl.ie/justice/policing/
Fair trials and Due Process
Since our foundation the rights of the accused and suspects has been a key issue . In 1976, very shortly after the Council’s inception, ourr critique of the Emergency Powers Act and Criminal Law Bills became the basis for many proposed laws. Nonetheless, government attempts to curtail the rights of suspects continued. ICCL continued to oppose them. In 1992 ICCL released our first Know Your Rights handbook which has been reprinted and revised on many occasions. In 2010 ICCL and JUSTICIA launched a new campaign of a series of editions of Know your Rights documenting different rights with every edition.
We most recently published a guide for older people in 2016 and a guide for protesters is due in 2020.
Victims rights are also a huge part of ICCL’s work. In 2008 we published A Better Deal: The Human Rights of Victims in the Criminal Justice System which assessed whether victims of crime in Ireland are promoted and protected. The RTÉ current affairs programme Prime Time aired a show based on the reports, featuring contributions by ICCL staff. This show was awarded a Law Society Justice Media Merit Award in November 2008. IN 2011 ICCL had a significant impact on the NO campaign for the 30th amendment to the constitution which would have given the Oireachtas powers to conduct full inquiries. A significant increase in no voters could be seen following the launch of the ICCL campaign. In 2017 we published a Know Your Rights Guide to the Victim’s Directive. This pack outlines the Victims’ Directive, explaining the rights, support and protection that a victim is entitled to receive before, during and after criminal proceedings. ICCL is a member of the Victims Rights Alliance which contributed to the ]Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2017. This incorporated the EU Victims Directive into Irish Law. It established minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. ICCL organized, with former coordinator of the VRA Maria McDonald, the EU Training Model for the Victims’ Directive. The project was funded by the European Commission, and it supported the training of European lawyers, prosecutors and the judiciary. The aim of the project was to provide training, guidance and best practice methodologies to raise awareness and understanding of the rights afforded to victims under the Victims’ Directive. The training took place in July 2017 and a guide for lawyers and practitioners was launched in November 2017 alongside a four week online course offering expert guidance. The programme was developed with the the Bar Council and the Law society and Maria MacDonald conducted 24 interviews with members of the force to help with the research. ICCL continues to monitor the implementation of the Victims of Crime Act, including through co-ordinated projects at EU level.
Read more about our work in support of victims’ rights here: https://www.iccl.ie/justice/victims-rights/
In 2007 ICCL published Justice Matters; Independence, Accountability and the Irish Judiciary. This report examines international human rights standards on judicial independence and assesses the adequacy of Irish law and policy in light of this international framework. Members of the Irish judiciary were consulted extensively and interviews took place with judges. The research was guided by an Expert Advisory Group, experienced barristers, solicitors and representatives from NGOs. The report was written by Tanya Ward, at the time Deputy Director of ICCL. The report highlights a range of issues affecting the judiciary’s ability to perform its role in an independent and human rights compliant manner, including: the fact that judicial appointments are non-transparent; poor resourcing; the failure to introduce a Code of Ethics for Judges and the absence of a formalised judicial studies programme with human rights as a major component. Since and before then ICCL has been a leading voice in Judicial Diversity and reform. In 2017 ICCL engaged on the debate on the Judicial Appointments Council and we continue to monitor its progress.
Read more here: https://www.iccl.ie/justice/judicial-reform/
From its inception ICCL has played a pivotal role in supporting the LGBTQ+ win rights. ICCL set up the working party on Lesbian and Gay rights in 1988. With the election of Senator David Norris to our executive board, ICCL nailed our (rainbow) colours to the mast, something that was not popular in 1980s Ireland.On 9 April 1990, the Working Party opublished the ground-breaking Equality Now for Lesbians and Gay Men, which forensically charted the discrimination and prejudice faced by lesbians and gay men in Ireland. The publication and the conversation it opened had a central role in achieving decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. As the Irish Queer Archive says “It’s impossible to overstate the significance and influence of this publication in advancing and shaping both law reform and the subsequent introduction of anti discrimination legislation that was a hallmark of the mid-90s.”
In May 2006 ICCL founding member Kader Asmal launched Equality for All Families, an agenda-setting and hugely influential outline of the myriad reforms required in Irish family law to ensure all Irish families are treated equally. In 2009 ICCL teamed up with a myriad of organisations to form the LOVEACTION group that campaigned at Electric Picnic and across the country. In 2011 the combined efforts of ICCL and GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) and other gay and lesbian rights associations lead to Civil partnership becoming legal in Ireland. After a joint presentation to the Constitutional Convention in 2013 by ICCL, GLEN and Marriage Equality the Convention overwhelmingly voted to recommend a referendum on Marriage Equality. In 2015 the Yes Equality campaign ran by the ICCL, GLEN and Marriage Equality was hugely successful.
On 23 May 62% of the population voted in favour of Marriage Equality.
Read more about the YES Equality campaign: https://www.iccl.ie/archive/yes-equality-the-campaign-for-civil-marriage-equality-formally-launches/
Women’s Rights (Including reproductive rights)
The 70s was a time of a rapid improvement in women’s rights. ICCL’s 220 page publication Women’s Rights in Ireland, edited by Ailbhe Smyth, helped set much of the legislative agenda on women’s rights. The guide highlighted that the law did not criminalise rape within marriage; the lack of legislation prohibiting gender-based discrimination in education; how the social welfare system discriminated against married women; and the obstacles facing single mothers in a system geared towards dealing with traditional family units. The campaign to change the Criminal Law Act of 1981 became the ICCL’s focus. In 1997 ICCL, together with its Women’s Committee, held a conference Women’s Rights as Human Rights, which brought 400 delegates from all over the world.
ICCL was also one of the first organisations to publicly oppose the anti-choice 8th amendment to the constitution in the 1983 referendum on the grounds that it would cause confusion and be unworkable in practice. In 2001 ICCL published a detailed policy paper against a further proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion in cases of suicide risk. In recent years ICCL made submissions to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the UN Committee against Torture advocating the repeal of article 40.3.3 and decriminalisation of abortion.
In 2016 ICCL made a submission the Citizens Assembly on the 8th amendment which included the applicable Irish Law, European Law and international human rights treaties, as well as the ICCL’s history of campaigning for reproductive rights. ICCL also provided suggestions as to experts witnesses for the Citizens Assembly. In 2017 ICCL, in collaboration with the International Network of Civil Liberties Organisations (INCLO) ran a conference about Abortion Laws and Human Rights. Professor Frances Raday gave an inspiring Keynote speech. At the time she was the Chairperson of the United Nations Working Group on the issue of discrimination of women in law and practice. Representatives from India, Argentina, the USA, the UK, South Africa, Colombia and Egypt all spoke about reproductive justice in their countries. The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth, which was based in ICCL’s offices, in 2018 merged with the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Abortion Rights Campaign to create the ‘Together For Yes’ campaign. ICCL’s own campaign ‘Her Rights’ focused on the human rights impact of the amendment. In the week leading up to the referendum the ICCL hosted an event in the Smock Alley Theatre called ‘Under The Eighth’ recalling the history of the campaign since the 1983 referendum and celebrated the leading activists who have fought against it. ICCL also commissioned a repeal mural by artist ‘Giant Sigh’ and released a report on censorship and freedom of artistic expression in solidarity with Project Arts Centre following the removal of the repeal mural .
Read our report on the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment: https://www.iccl.ie/members/members-report-8thref/
Racism and Intolerance
ICCL places equality at the core of everything we do. We have contributed to numerous national and international campaigns to stamp out racism, xenophobia and bigotry.
In 2000 the EU Fundamental Rights Agency started a network (FRANET) to monitor racism, xenophobia, religious and other related intolerances across the EU. The RAXEN (racism and xenophobia information network) National Focal Point (NFP) for Ireland was a consortium lead by ICCL. In 2010 the RAXEN NFP led a series of projects for the FRA. As well as this ICCL carried out a national study for FRALEX. The FRALEX research network is a group of legal experts in the field of human rights. The main objective of this study was to provide country-specific information on developments in the areas of the FRA’s Multi-Annual Framework (MAF). As well as monitoring issues relating to racism and xenophobia, other areas of the MAF include discrimination against persons on gender, age, disability, etc; the rights of the child; asylum and immigration and visa and border control. Publications on the matter include The Asylum-Seeker Perspective, Racist and Related Hate Crime and a Thematic Study on Specific Fundamental Rights Issues in the Multi Annual Framework Areas / Complimentary Data Collection Report.
In March and June 2006 ICCL co-edited and contributed to two comprehensive NGO Alliance reports on Ireland’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In 2008 ICCL was instrumental in the establishment of the Equality and Rights Alliance. In the face of cutbacks on Human Rights organisations, 90 civil society groups representing women, older people, children, minority ethnic people, people with disabilities, workers, migrants, Travellers, gay, lesbian and transgender people, parents, carers and many more, teamed up to form the ERA which is still going strong with 170 members today.
In 2009 ICCL and the Equality Studies Centre at the UCD School of Social Justice came together to deliver a training course on the Equal Status Acts, called ‘Access to Equality’, to a range of people who work in the area of human rights and social justice.
In October 2012 ICCL held a conference entitled ‘The future of Anti-Discrimination Law in Ireland’ where the result of an 18 month study reviewing the status of Ireland’s anti-discrimination laws was heard from the first time. An in depth review of the law in Ireland ‘Equal Status Acts 2000-2011- Discrimination in the Provision of Goods and Services’by Judy Walsh was also launched at the conference. This provided the first authoritative and comprehensive overview of the Irish Equality law in practice. In 2015 ICCL launched its preliminary findings of our research project into Hate Crime in Ireland, ‘Out of the Shadows: legislating for Hate Crime in Ireland.’ A system wide failure to recognise the harms of hate crime, and to provide appropriate protection to victims, were identified. Read more about our current work on hate crime and the rise of the far right:
In August 2015 an ICCL consortium of NGOs and Universities were awarded funding to look at the best practice models to do with legislation to combat hate crime. The project was called ‘Life Cycle of a Hate Crime – Best practice in the prevention and prosecution of hate crime.’ The findings of this two year project were published in April 2018 in Brussels. The Irish report shows that from when the victim reports to a Garda to when the Judge sentences an offender the hate element of the crime is filtered out of the justicial process.
Read more about our work on hate crime here: https://www.iccl.ie/hate-crime/
Censorship and Freedom of Expression
Since our foundation ICCL it has fought for freedom of expression and speech. In the early days the main threat to free expression was Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which gave politicians broad-ranging powers to prohibit the broadcasting of interviews. Since the Act was mainly used against those involved with the armed struggle, ICCL were frequently misaligned with people of violence.
In fact ICCL opposed it because “The Act… strikes at the heart of a democratic system of free expression.” ICCL also opposed censorship of films and publications such as Gay News and The Joy of Sex. ICCL was one of the first organisations to call for a Freedom of Information Act. A debate over censorship and pornography, however, led to damaging internal wrangles within ICCL whuch resulted in tension, resignations and a fall-off in membership of the Council.
ICCL went on to team up with ‘National Union of Journalists Right to Know’ campaign and the ‘Let in the Light’ campaign to remove the Broadcasting Act. Finally in 1994 after almost two decades of campaigning the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht Michael D. Higgins lifted the ban. More recently ICCL have been vocal on issues regarding freedom of artistic expression releasing a report in 2018 called ‘Freedom of Artistic Expression and the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment’ after the Charities Regulator ordered a mural in support of reproductive rights had to be removed from the Project Arts Centre.
Read more about ICCL’s work in support of freedom of expression here: https://www.iccl.ie/free-expression/
In 2008 ICCL teamed up with Liberty (ICCL’s UK -based sister) and the British and Irish Rights Watch (BIRW) in a case against the UK governement. Over a seven year period all telephone calls, faxes, emails and text messages sent between the UK and Ireland were intercepted and stored en masse to be filtered by the British Intelligence Services. The position of ICCL, Liberty and the BIRW was that this was a violation of Article 8 (the right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was a major win for the organisations when the Judge ultimately agreed, setting a precedent for reforming lax laws on privacy in Ireland.
Since 2017, ICCL has a dedicated member of staff working on privacy.
Read more here about our current work protecting privacy: https://www.iccl.ie/privacy/
The Universal Periodic Review and Your Rights Rights Now
The flagship project of 2011 was the launch of the Your Rights Right Now campaign. 17 NGOs, Trade Unions and Civil society organisations collaborated to make sure that a civil society voice was heard during Ireland’s first Universal Periodic Review. In 2011 YRRN published a plain english guide to the UPR and carried out 17 events in two months where they recioeved 84 submissions from other civil societies and members of the public. These were fed to Ireland’s Civil Society UPR Stakeholder Report’ which was submitted to the UN and was endorsed by 82 civil society groups. The Your Rights Right Now campaign demonstrated how the local can be connected with the international. In 2012 the UN Human Rights Committee decided to adopt the UPR Outcome Report in Ireland after a meeting with Your Rights Right Now.
UNCAT and OPCAT
In 2007, on the eve of the Department for Foreign Affairs announcing that they would sign it ICCL hosted seminar on the advantages of signing the Optional Protocol to the Prevention Against Torture,. In 2011 Ireland had its first examination by the UNCAT. ICCL and the Irish Penal Reform Trust produced a shadow report that was endorsed by 31 civil society bodies. They also broadcasted, live, the government delegation’s appearance before the UN Treaty Monitoring Body which lead to extensive media coverage of the event. This meeting gave the government a clearly defined ‘to do list’ to improve safeguards against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The broadcast also highlighted a range of issues regarding the government distancing itself from the Magdalene Laundries. IN 2012 ICCL, the IPRT and Justice for Magdalenes invited the UNCAT committee Vice President Ms. Felice Gaer to Ireland. Her visit placed Justice for Magdalenes and the UNCAT high on the agenda at home.
Read more on ICCL’s current work on institutional abuse here: https://www.iccl.ie/historic-abuse-and-transitional-justice/