Atheist Ireland has today emailed the following letter to the Irish Council for Civil liberties, and to the members of the Advisory Group and Research Team of the ICCL’s Anti-Discrimination Law Review Project.
On 23 October Atheist Ireland discovered that the ICCL is running an Anti-Discrimination Law Review Project, an excellent and important initiative, that is seriously flawed by unconscious bias on the issue of discrimination on the ground of religion. The project has an Advisory Group whose expertise is described as “vital in ensuring that the proposed recommendations are appropriate and workable from the perspective of disadvantaged communities and their advocates.”
In all areas other than discrimination on the ground of religion, the composition of the Group reflects this goal. Then, when it comes to the ground of religion, not only does the Group fail to include the perspective of atheists who are discriminated against, but it actually includes a representative of the Church that most discriminates against us.
There is no example, under any of the other grounds, where the main private discriminating body in the country is represented on the Advisory Group. Also, none of the other bodies represented on the Group has had the UN Human Rights Committee raise concerns about them.
This is an example of the unconscious bias against atheists that is ingrained in Irish society, to the extent that it even manifests itself in an anti-discrimination project. Atheist rights advocacy in Ireland is still at the stage of consciousness raising that feminism was some decades ago.
The ICCL asked us to write formally to raise our concerns, and to seek representation on the Advisory Group. On 25 October we wrote with the following five requests:
- Please treat discrimination on the ground of religion in the same rights-advocacy focused way as you are treating discrimination on other grounds.
- Please invite Atheist Ireland to provide a member of the Advisory Group, to bring expertise from the perspective of those who are discriminated against.
- Please reconsider the inclusion on the Advisory Group of a representative of the Catholic Bishops Conference, a body that the UN Human Rights Committee has raised concerns about.
- Please address the unconscious bias that has caused this Project to treat discrimination on the grounds of religion differently to other forms of discrimination.
- Please let us all learn from this experience, so that we can move forward together as advocacy groups protecting and promoting human and civil rights.
Unfortunately, not only has the ICCL not rectified these problems, but it has failed to engage meaningfully with our concerns. It replied seven weeks ago saying that it would shortly reply in detail to our letter. It has yet to do this, other than to tell us that it does not envisage us being invited to join the Advisory Group. And it has now ignored for four weeks a request to meet to discuss the issue and try to resolve it constructively.
We have repeatedly stressed to the ICCL that we want to have a positive and mutually supportive working relationship. We appreciate and respect its work. And we do not want to influence how the ICCL conducts its work, on issues that do not overlap with our agenda. However, when the ICCL chooses to act in a quasi-coordinatory role, on a project that is central to our agenda, then its conduct becomes a legitimate issue for us to lobby on.
In essence, we are asking the ICCL to do what the Hear Our Voices initiative asked the Government to do: to have an Advisory Group that is inclusive of relevant civil society groups, that provides meaningful input on issues of direct concern to our members, and that fosters a sense of shared ownership of the project.
We are seeking two specific outcomes from this letter:
- To meet with the ICCL to discuss our concerns, to help the ICCL to understand how it is discriminating against atheists, and to work together to resolve the issues constructively.
- To discuss our concerns directly with others who may have influence with the ICCL, including members of this project’s Advisory Board and Research Team.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Appendix 1: Members of the project’s Advisory Group
- Michael Barron, Executive Director of Belong To
- Deirdre Carroll, CEO of Inclusion Ireland
- Patricia Conboy, Director of Older and Bolder
- Siobhan Cummiskey, Barrister at Law
- Hilkka Becker, Senior Solicitor with Immigrant Council of Ireland
- Fiona Crowley, Research Manager of Amnesty Ireland
- Susan Fay, Managing Solicitor with Irish Traveller Movement
- David Joyce, Equality Officer of ICTU
- Cliona Kimber, Barrister at Law
- Moya de Paor, Managing Solicitor with NCLC
- Cat McIlroy, Founder of Trans* Education and Advocacy
- Eoin O’Mahony, Irish Catholic Bishops Conference
- Conor Power, Barrister at Law (Chairperson)
- Dil Wickremasinghe, Broadcaster and Social Entrepreneur
Appendix 2: Timescale of our attempts to resolve this problem
- On 23 October, seven weeks ago, we first discovered about this discrimination at the project’s conference and book launch at the Law Society. The ICCL asked us to write to them about our concerns, and to ask them to invite us to nominate a member to the Advisory Group.
- On 25 October, two days later, we emailed the ICCL, the coordinator of the UCD Research Team, and the Chairperson and the Catholic Bishops representative on the Advisory Group. The contents of that letter are summarized above.
- Later that day, we received a constructive email from the UCD Research Team saying they would be in touch the following week, an acknowledgment from the Catholic Bishops Conference representative on the Advisory Group, and then an email from the ICCL saying that they had told the members of the Advisory Group to whom we had written that the ICCL would be replying to us shortly.
- On 8 November, two weeks after our first email, we emailed the ICCL again, seeking a reply before our strategy workshop that weekend. We said that we really needed to know that we are all working together, and actively supporting each other, and we suggested that we meet for coffee before they reply.
- Later that day, the ICCL replied saying that they did not envisage, at this stage, inviting us to join the advisory group, and that they would send a more detailed response setting out the rationale for that decision in due course.
- On 12 November, we emailed the ICCL again, expressing our disappointment and confusion that they were not standing alongside us on this issue, asking what ‘at this stage’ meant, and suggesting that we meet that week to discuss it further and try to ensure a constructive outcome.
- Later that day, the ICCL replied, saying that they had a rather full agenda that week but that, as promised, they would be writing to us in due course.
- On 13 November, we emailed the ICCL again, asking when they would be free to meet us. We said we didn’t want to deal with this exclusively through exchanges of letters, that the reason we wrote was because we were asked to write, and that, as well as writing, we would also like to meet to discuss it.
- It is now 10 December, seven weeks since we first raised this issue, and four weeks since we sent our last email asking when we could meet to discuss the issue. We have had no response in the past four weeks from the ICCL to our request for a meeting.
Appendix 3: Note on Catholic Bishops Conference representative
In our letters to the ICCL, we have stressed that this is not a criticism of Eoin O’Mahony, who we know to be a man of integrity. We know that the ICCL selected him with the best of intentions, and that it did not deliberately seek to marginalize or disadvantage atheists further. But regardless of the best intentions of the ICCL, the outcome is that this is what has happened.
There is certainly value in engaging in dialogue with the Catholic Church to seek to move them towards a position of respecting the human and civil rights of atheists and other nonreligious people. But engaging them in dialogue is very different (and sends a very different message) from having them represented on the Advisory Group of an otherwise credible Anti-Discrimination Project.