ICCL published, and now denies, Catholic Bishops rep on project review group

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has repeatedly publicly alleged this week that Atheist Ireland has made a number of material inaccuracies in our letters to them about unconscious bias against atheists in their Anti-Discrimination Law project.

Today the ICCL publicly posted on its Facebook page that:

“The erroneous notion that there is a “representative” from the Catholic Church emanates from Mr Nugent, and is amongst a number of material inaccuracies corrected in the ICCL’s 5-page letter to him. There is no “representative” of any religious body on the panel.”

Today’s allegation by the ICCL is mistaken

We will reply in detail over the weekend to the letter that we received yesterday evening from the ICCL. We will seek to do so in a way that enables everyone involved to address these issues openly, transparently and fairly, so that we can continue to work together as civil advocacy groups.

But we want to immediately address the public allegation that “The erroneous notion that there is a ‘representative’ from the Catholic Church emanates from [Atheist Ireland]”, in case it gains credibility by not being corrected.

This is the section of yesterday’s letter from the ICCL that refers to today’s public allegation by the ICCL:

“Eoin O’Mahony does not represent the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference on the project’s Advisory Group. He serves on the Advisory group as a Social Researcher and was selected based on his knowledge and expertise in relation to anti-discrimination law on the religion ground. Members of the Advisory Group are free to give their views either in their own capacity or as representatives of their respective organisations. In Eoin’s case, the former applies, as it does for some of the other legal practitioners on the group. I appreciate that you may have received information regarding the composition of the group that led you to believe otherwise and I can assure you that this has now been corrected.”

The ‘erroneous notion’ emanated from the ICCL

Let’s start with the final sentence from the paragraph in the ICCL’s letter:

“I appreciate that you may have received information regarding the composition of the group that led you to believe otherwise and I can assure you that this has now been corrected.”

The ICCL knows for a fact that is not a question that we ‘may’ have received information that ‘led us to believe’ that the person concerned was representing the Catholic’s Bishop Conference.

The ICCL knows for a fact that we did receive information that formally stated this, and it knows for a fact that it was official information from the ICCL, printed on ICCL headed paper, and distributed at an ICCL conference that was specifically related to the project.

The ICCL briefing paper

The ICCL distributed an official briefing paper at its conference The Future of Anti-Discrimination Law in Ireland in the Law Society on 23 October 2012.

Significantly, one of the purposes of the research is to review the scope and impact of exemptions. These exemptions allow religious bodies to discriminate on the ground of religion in order to protect the ethos of their institutions.

They are among the main mechanisms by which the Irish State facilitates discrimination against atheists by religious bodies, which more often than not means discrimination by the Catholic Church.

And this is what the briefing paper says about the Advisory Group:

If you can’t see the images above, the ICCL briefing paper describes the purpose of the Advisory Group as follows:

“At major stages of the project research findings are presented to the Advisory Group for feedback. It is envisaged that the Advisory Group will play a crucial role during the preliminary and final phases of the research in particular. The Group’s expertise will be vital in ensuring that the proposed recommendations are appropriate and workable from the perspective of disadvantaged communities and their advocates. The group comprises representatives with expertise across all nine grounds under anti-discrimination legislation and significant legal expertise in anti-discrimination casework. The Advisory group is chaired by Conor Power, Barrister at Law.”

The ICCL briefing paper also lists the members of the Advisory Group, along with the organisations that they are representing. They are:

  • 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

Where a member is not representing an organisation, as in the case of three Barristers, there is no organisation listed beside their name.

The person concerned is listed as representing the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He is not listed as a Social Researcher, in the way that Barristers on the group are listed simply as Barristers. There is no ambiguity about his status.

Our public comments on this at the conference

During the questions and answers section of the conference on 23 October, we publicly raised the issue from the floor. We started by praising the project as an important and well-structured one, with one significant flaw. We said that this flaw was no doubt a result of unconscious bias and not a deliberate intent to exclude or marginalise atheists.

We said that atheist rights advocacy in Ireland is still at the stage of consciousness raising that feminism was at some decades ago. We said that we are used to having to fight for every inch of inclusion and rights that we can get at government level, but that we did not want to have to fight for the same inclusion with groups that should be standing alongside us.

We said that the ICCL had no idea how disillusioning and draining it was for us to read the list of members of the Advisory Group, and to see that not only were atheists not represented in the same way as were other groups who face discrimination, but that the religion that actively carries out discrimination against us, with State support, was represented instead.

We pointed out that the ICCL would not have dreamt of selecting a cis-gender person to bring expertise on the issue of trans* discrimination, or a settled person to bring expertise on the issue of discrimination against travellers.

The ICCL’s public reaction at the conference

When we publicly raised this issue at the conference, neither of the ICCL representatives on the panel suggested that we were mistaken about the person’s status on the Advisory group, or that the ICCL official literature was mistaken. Instead, they both responded on the basis that the person was in fact representing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, with the Director actively defending this decision.

Neither the Director nor the Equality Officer made the simple response of: “That must be a mistake in the literature, because Eoin is not there as a representative of the Catholic Bishops Conference. We’ll have to correct that.”

If they had, they could also have addressed the puzzling question of how such a specific mistake, which is one of commission not omission, could have found its way into such a document in the first place.

The project’s terms of reference

The reasonable assumption that the ICCL’s official literature, and its Director, and its Equality Officer, all accurately reflected the person’s status at the conference, is supported by the Terms of Reference for the Project, which were published on the FLAC website in July 2010. This states under item 5:

“It is envisaged that an advisory group will be established, comprising lawyers, NGOs, as well as local and community groups, to ensure the participation of disadvantaged community members.”

The person concerned is neither a lawyer, an NGO or a local or community group. However, the Catholic Church is an NGO, and the person appears on the ICCL literature as representing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

‘This has now been corrected’

We are not sure what the ICCL means in its letter by:

“I can assure you that this has now been corrected.”

This raises but leaves unanswered several obvious questions. What has been corrected? What was the situation before it was corrected? When was it corrected? Where was it corrected? How has it been corrected? Who corrected it? Why did it have to be corrected?

If this ambiguous statement means that the person concerned was invited onto the Advisory Group as a representative of the Irish Catholic Bishops Council (which, in some way at least, he must have been, or else how would the issue have arisen at all in the document?), but that for some reason he is not now acting in that capacity, then the ICCL should be apologising for misleading us and not publicly accusing us of being inaccurate.

And why has it taken the ICCL two months to make this new assertion? Surely they could have said this, in one sentence, in their first email response to us in October, and avoided months of confusion?

Conflict of interest for the project

Also, even if he was to be now acting in a personal capacity, there would still be questions of conflict of interest. We know that Eoin O’Mahony is a person of integrity, and we have stated that explicitly to both the ICCL and Eoin himself, but surely there are obvious prudent reasons why this Advisory Group should not include an employee of the Catholic Church?

If, as the ICCL now says,

“He serves on the Advisory group as a Social Researcher and was selected based on his knowledge and expertise in relation to anti-discrimination law on the religion ground,”

then surely his knowledge and expertise in relation to this particular issue is intrinsically linked with his work as an employee of the Catholic Church, which defends and benefits from the Equality Law exemptions that the project is reviewing, exemptions that allow the Catholic Church to discriminate on the ground of religion in order to protect the ethos of its institutions?

How can this be reconciled with the stated purpose of the Advisory Group of

“ensuring that the proposed recommendations are appropriate and workable from the perspective of disadvantaged communities and their advocates.”

Still no representative of atheists

The ICCL states two things about the purpose of the Advisory Group:

  • That the Advisory Group comprises representatives with expertise across all nine grounds under anti-discrimination legislation.
  • That the Group’s expertise will be vital in ensuring that the proposed recommendations are appropriate and workable from the perspective of disadvantaged communities and their advocates.

Even based on what the ICCL is now saying, there is still no representative on the Advisory Group to ensure that the proposed recommendations are appropriate and workable from the perspective of atheists and our advocates.

Discrimination on the ground of religion is a major concern of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

In 2008 the UN Human Rights Committee raised concern regarding discrimination against secular parents and their children in Ireland. The only two other areas that gave the UN this concern were counter terrorism and conditions in prisons. The UN specifically requested Ireland to provide within one year, relevant information on the implementation of the recommendations that the UN made.

“27. In accordance with rule 71, paragraph 5, of the Committee’s rules of procedure, the State party should provide, within one year, relevant information on its implementation of the Committee’s recommendations made in paragraphs 11, 15, and 22.”

Given the priority that the UN Human Rights Committee gives to discrimination on the ground of religion, how could the ICCL leave this ground with no specific representative on its Advisory Group of the disadvantaged community and its advocates?

Other mistaken allegations of inaccuracies

There are only two other instances in the ICCL’s letter where they accuse us of factual inaccuracies, as opposed to asserting differences of opinion or judgment. On both of these factual matters, the ICCL is mistaken.

They mistakenly believe that they invited us to the conference at which we raised the issue, when in fact they didn’t. And they mistakenly believe that we weren’t invited to seek representation on the Advisory Group, when in fact we were.

We’ll also address those issues separately, as we don’t want them to distract from this more significant issue.

While they are minor issues, we can appreciate how the ICCL’s mistaken assumptions about them might have influenced their reactions to our substantive concerns. We will explain to them how they are mistaken, and we ask that they please don’t repeat these allegations again before we explain to them how they are mistaken.

Today’s allegation by the ICCL is mistaken

The ICCL is mistaken to allege today on its Facebook Page that:

“The erroneous notion that there is a “representative” from the Catholic Church emanates from Mr Nugent, and is amongst a number of material inaccuracies corrected in the ICCL’s 5-page letter to him. There is no “representative” of any religious body on the panel.”

In fact, what has happened is that two contradictory notions have now emanated from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and whichever of the two notions is erroneous has emanated from the ICCL and not from Atheist Ireland.

This is the fourth time this week that the ICCL has publicly alleged that Atheist Ireland is guilty of factual inaccuracies, apparently because we have believed and repeated what they themselves have published and said about their project.

We have at all times tried to address this issue with reason, patience and understanding. We have repeatedly expressed our desire to address the issue constructively. We have repeatedly expressed our desire to meet with the ICCL, even for coffee and a chat, to try to communicate as fellow human beings and as fellow advocacy groups with similar aims.

We want to have a positive working relationship with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. We have believed that we had such a relationship in recent years, and we and they both do important work in areas of common concern. But their repeated mistaken public allegations about us are not helping to restore the confidence that we have lost in them.

We will reply in detail over the weekend to the letter that we received yesterday evening from the ICCL. We will seek to do so in a way that enables everyone involved to address these issues openly, transparently and fairly, so that we can continue to work together as civil advocacy groups.

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1 Comment

  1. As well as contacting the individual members of the advisory group comprising the ICCL’s Anti-Discrimination Law Project, it’s time to contact the ICCL staff to let them know about how poorly this situation is being handled by their director. See http://www.iccl.ie/iccl-staff-2.html. In particular, please contact Walter Jayawardane, the Campaigns and Communications Officer, and Stephen O’Hare, the Equality Officer.

    Judging by the email address provided for Walter Jayawardane on the ICCL “Contact Us” page, email addresses for ICCL staff are composed of firstname.lastname@iccl.ie, so you can figure out what each member’s staff mailbox is.

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