State has chance to usher in new human rights culture

Published date19 October 2021
Publication titleIrish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
The timing of the festival could not be better. Through the last 19 months, we have all been starved of art and culture. We have also lost out on that artistic engagement with political issues that is a long-standing feature of Irish society. As we emerge cautiously from COVID-19 restrictions with a new appreciation for cultural experiences, the estival's chosen theme of "Hope, Courage and Resilience" seeks to ask whether a new human rights culture can take root in Ireland post-pandemic.

If ever such a development seemed likely, that time is now. Mindful of the devastation caused to so many by this terrible virus, we need to build upon the collective solidarity and sense of communal purpose that have got us so far. Now is the time to shape a new future, one in which public services are prioritised, in which the State continues to take a central role in ensuring delivery of real change on housing, childcare and social care, climate action and public amenities. This is the new culture that we need.

We have had some very important moments in the past, pre-COVID times, where a new human rights culture appeared to be taking hold; where arts, theatre and civic spaces came together to celebrate the winning of enhanced protections for citizens against abuses of power through the use of key human rights documents like our Irish Constitution; and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Those moments have happened with key political developments, like the passing of constitutional referendums to provide for divorce in 1995, marriage equality in 2015 and women's reproductive rights in 2018. They have happened also with the judgments given in key human rights cases like the Máirín de Búrca case on women's rights in the 1970s, the David Norris case seeking decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1980s, the Lydia Foy case on transgender rights in the 1990s and most recently the 2020 Climate Case before the Supreme Court.

Increase in litigation In key public interest litigation, we have seen the power of human rights guarantees at work. More awareness of human rights concepts, and indeed an increase in litigation, have thus ensued with the adoption of legal guarantees of human rights. But the embedding of a rights culture is limited by the reality that both our Constitution, and the European Convention, only offer protection to a selection of individual, rather than collective rights; to what are called civil and political, rather than economic and social rights. In...

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