Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy is the founder of Focus Ireland. She spoke at a press conference organised by ICCL on 6 July 2018.
This is a very important debate in Ireland today. I want to speak about the area known as charities.
Focus Ireland is regarded as a charity, but Focus Ireland is much more than about providing services. It’s fundamentally about challenging the political choices that can lead to homelessness, that can enable people and indeed make people fall into homelessness. The other organisation that I’m also involved with is the Immigrant Council of Ireland. That’s a human rights organisation and a law centre, and while it does work with immigrants it does a lot of work in trying to reform the immigration system.
We look back at the history of Ireland and practically everything that’s happened – education, health, youth services – you’ll find they all have their roots in the voluntary sector. They weren’t just providing services, they were also lobbying for changing the system that was causing the problems they were trying to resolve. Richard Titmuss, a leading thinker on social policy, said: the way a society organises itself can diminish or increase the altruism of that society. He wasn’t just talking about services. It was very clear he was talking about the role of civil society in enriching democracy.
Take housing: all the changes that have taken place in housing – all the reforms – have been the result of a concerted campaigning for change. The first Housing Act was in 1988 and that for the first time defined homelessness. And that was a very important thing because up to that point there was no thought given to it – but the Act didn’t only define it in terms of people who were actually homeless, but also people who were at risk of homelessness, and that gave rise to further change. It was the result of prolonged political campaigning by Brendan Ryan, supported by the organisations at the time – Simon, Focus and Threshold. That was really a breakthrough because it defined homelessness, but it also addressed the responsibility of the state to do something about homelessness: to provide housing. Up to that the only thing that existed was shelters, hostels and dinner centres. As a result of that Act, funding was made available for housing for homelessness, and the first housing was provided in 1991 by Focus Ireland in Stanhope Green. That Act came about because of campaigning and since has been the basis of the further campaigning that has been going on.
We can look at the Children’s Act. That ended widespread street homelessness among children and young people. Again it came about as a result of consistent campaigning and lobbying by child care services and people involved in homelessness. The various amendments were also as a result of campaigning. Look at aftercare of children in the state – there was no provision for aftercare. Young people left care at 18 with no services whatsoever. As a result of 15 years of consistent campaigning by Focus Ireland the changes took place, and for the first time the state had legal responsibility for people leaving care.
If we look at the Immigrant Council of Ireland: a number of changes have taken place as a result of its work. One has to do with victims of domestic violence. Women victims of domestic violence – many of them had no status except they were dependent on the status of their spouse. This meant they couldn’t leave the house – it would have been illegal and they could have been deported. ICI lobbied for change and they were enabled to apply for independent immigration status, which gave them much more authority and more opportunity to have their cases heard.
Similarly in more recent times there was a coalition of voluntary bodies – a large coalition spearheaded by ICI about the protection of victims of prostitution. That took 6 years and the result was the Sexual Offences Act came into law last year.
Many if not most of the reforms which modernised Ireland and made it better and more humane have been as a result of action by civil society organisations. But much more needs to be achieved. If civil society is prevented from being a wellspring of vision for a better society and a force for transformation, where will change come from? I think it won’t come. And society will stagnate, and the injustice will increase and there will be no effort to tackle injustice or inequality, and the powerful groups will predominate.
In saying this I’m very clear about the importance of the regulation of charities – trust and transparency. But many charities have taken a lead in this, long before it was legally adopted. And now they’re in the forefront in calling for mandatory legal regulation. I’m also aware of the importance of protecting the integrity of the electoral system and how trust was eroded so much by the donation system. But in clearing up the electoral system, this should not prevent a vibrant, active civil society flourishing and taking an active part in democratic debate. Scandals such as corruption, which so corrupted the planning system and left a legacy of poor quality overpriced and inadequate housing. But it would be an extraordinary and bitter irony if attempts to learn the lessons of this corruption silenced the organisations which are the voice of the people who are experiencing that legacy, of the injustice of poor quality, overpriced and inadequate housing.