Ireland: Placing community voices at the heart of policymaking 

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has an incredibly diverse range of human rights mandates – some current, others upcoming – covering issues as diverse as torture prevention, disability rights, human trafficking and gender pay gap reporting. Central to the Commission’s efforts to effect lasting change is ensuring that policymaking at all levels reflects and responds to the lived experiences of people at risk of human rights violations. Former Chief Commissioner Sinéad Gibney discussed the Commission’s priorities and principles at the 14th International Conference of NHRIs. 


What are the priority areas for the Commission in your efforts to prevent and respond to torture and ill-treatment? 

In terms of the prevention of torture and other ill-treatment, our key role will be as coordinating body for the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) once it’s established in Ireland. Unfortunately, we have had significant delays in the legislative process to enable the establishment of that framework, the identification of NPM bodies, and our own designation as NPM coordinator. But that is the key focus for us and drives our thinking. Some years ago, we started the process of mapping and understanding what the NPM model would look like and identifying all the relevant bodies. Since then, we have been engaging with the legislative process, primarily to make sure the legislation is strong, robust and provides pathways through which civil society can engage effectively with the NPMs when they are established. We also want to push for a broad interpretation of ‘place of detention’ in the legislation.  

Another priority for us in this area is the abolition of Direct Provision. Direct Provision is the name we give to Ireland’s system of accommodating people seeking international protection while in the asylum process. Essentially, it was set up in emergency mode more than 20 years ago and has remained in emergency mode ever since. People in Direct Provision experience serious human rights violations. Making sure their rights are adequately protected and safeguarded through an effective NPM framework is one of our key priorities.  

The other issue where we have been vocal involves the experience of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had a huge ‘success story’ in Ireland where there was zero infection throughout the prison system during COVID. However, it only emerged afterwards how detrimental that was to prisoner rights. Prisoners were blocked almost entirely from family visits and from even basic access to education and recreation. A huge number of prisoners were essentially placed in a form of solitary confinement during that period. Although there is acknowledgement of this by the State, we are not comfortable as an NHRI that there are steps in place to prevent it from happening again. It was such a clear example that, had an effective NPM been operating, this would not have occurred.  

NHRIs have a responsibility to pay specific attention to the experiences of people in situations of vulnerability, which can be magnified when they are deprived of liberty. How does you approach this aspect of your work? 

As an NHRI, we have a deep commitment to the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us’. As an example, we have a statutory function within our legislation that allows us to bring in outside expertise. We have assembled a Disability Advisory Committee which is now entirely comprised of people with lived experience of disability. And that committee has helped us greatly as we prepare for the NHRI to be designated as the independent national monitoring mechanism under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  

It is essential that the voices, concerns and priorities of at-risk or marginalised groups are heard in all processes that affect them. That participation – and it has to be meaningful participation – is something that we are constantly pushing. So, for example, in all of our parliamentary appearances, we always point to the fact that ‘yes, we’re here to answer questions on rights and equality issues, but you must hear directly from the people whose lives will be most impacted by the policies you’re creating’.  

In terms of your monitoring mandate, what relationships do you seek to build and strengthen in order to deliver the best human rights outcomes? 

There must be a relationship with the communities whom we serve. That’s first and foremost for us. We have also established good working relationships with the bodies that we know will be part of the new NPM framework, such as the Inspector of Prisons. And, of course, we continue to build relationships across the public sector. I think over our 10 years we have earned respect, with the judiciary and with many parliamentarians and policymakers, as to the value we can bring. And although the press might describe us as a ‘watchdog’, we are also a collaborator and an asset to the State. We are a team of 90 people who have incredible human rights and equality experience, passion and dedication. I always want to make sure that we offer that to our partners and stakeholders so we can achieve the best human rights outcomes for individuals and communities. 

What are some lessons or encouragement that you could share with other NHRIs from your experience with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission? 

As Chief Commissioner, it is the contact with those people whom we serve that has most enriched my professional and personal experience. For example, the Disability Advisory Committee that we established has been such a great success story in helping us to prepare for our upcoming role of independent monitoring mechanism. But more broadly, it has imbued all our work with the experience and understanding of people with disabilities. And we didn’t get it right at first, it took a while to do it. And I think that has been an important lesson I have learned. You can’t necessarily wait to get things totally right. Sometimes you just need to dive in and make a start.