Thursday, 29 March 2018
Appointment of Members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission: Motion
That Seanad Éireann, noting that the Government on the 27 February, 2018, nominated Francis Conaty, Heydi Foster-Breslin, Salome Mbugua Henry, Caroline Fennell, Patrick Connolly, Tony Geoghegan and Colm O'Dwyer for appointment by the President to be members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, recommends, pursuant to section 12(3) and section 13(1)(b) of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, that Francis Conaty, Heydi Foster-Breslin, Salome Mbugua Henry, Caroline Fennell, Patrick Connolly, Tony Geoghegan and Colm O'Dwyer be appointed by the President to be members of the Commission, with effect from a date to be determined by the President, for a term of office of 5 years.
I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to make my remarks on this important motion today to recommend the appointment of seven commissioners to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC. The commission is Ireland's national human rights institution and also our national equality body. The functions it serves in the protection and promotion of human rights and equality are core elements in the proper functioning of a democratic society.
These appointments are significant for all of us. The commissioners work in pursuit of an inclusive Ireland where human rights and equality are respected, protected and fulfilled for everybody everywhere. The IHREC's mission is to build a fair and inclusive society that protects and promotes human rights and equality in Ireland. I cannot overstate the importance of its work.
The IHREC was established as an independent statutory body by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. Now in 2018, we see the commission really hitting its stride with a recent public human rights and equality awareness campaign underpinned by a public information service. Significant progress has been made on the public sector duty raising awareness in public bodies of their legal obligation to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect human rights. Furthermore, the IHREC has a significant programme of research under way that has already seen publications in a range of key areas to support equality and human rights policy development. This represents only a sample and snapshot of the important work undertaken by the commission.
We are fortunate in Ireland to have a human rights and equality commission with an "A" status accreditation from the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions. This recognition underlines the commission's domestic and international standing and institutional independence. It is because of the structural independence of the commission that we have this motion before us today.Members of the commission are appointed by the President following the passage of a resolution in each House of the Oireachtas. This safeguards the independence - the word appears again - of the commission and precludes any Government influence in the appointments process.
The 2014 Act sets out the appointments process. It requires the Department of Justice and Equality to engage the Public Appointments Service to carry out the selection of the best available candidates. The Department consulted with the Public Appointments Service in agreeing the selection criteria and process to be implemented. The process took account of the skills needs identified by the commission and sought to ensure that the provisions of the 2014 Act were complied with. The State boards process is followed in these circumstances with one notable exception, as provided for in the legislation. Instead of providing the Minister with a list of suitable candidates to select from for appointment, the final selection was made by the Public Appointments Service. The Public Appointments Service appointed a selection panel with no representative of the Department on either the shortlisting panel or the interview board. The entire selection process, from the placing of the advertisement on the Public Appointments Service website to the final selection, was managed independently by the Public Appointments Service. There was a high level of interest with a total of 149 applications. Seven candidates were recommended for appointment. I note that two of the seven selected served a previous term on the commission.
I doubt there can be any disagreement that the seven candidates recommended by the Public Appointments Service are eminently qualified for the role of commissioner. They possess a broad range of skills required by the commission, an in-depth knowledge of matters connected with human rights and equality and bring a wealth of experience across multiple sectors. It is important that membership of the commission is suitably diverse to broadly reflect the nature of Irish society. This is a requirement under the 2014 Act, which also includes a provision to ensure an appropriate gender balance. These are the types of issues that the Government considered when it accepted the recommendation of the Public Appointments Service to appoint the seven members.
It would be entirely remiss of me not to take this opportunity to pay tribute and express my sincere thanks to the outgoing commissioners for their hard work, dedication and in particular for the expertise and knowledge they contributed to the essential work of the commission in its implementation phase. It is my privilege today to recommend the candidates to the House for appointment.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank him for his outline of the appointments to the commission, which is important for the protection of Irish human rights and equality. Much remains to be done to achieve the aims and objectives of the commission. As the Minister of State pointed out, the inclusion of Patrick Connolly and others who have served in other areas, such as Caroline Fennell who served on the Irish Research Council, and Tony Geoghegan, who is chief executive of Merchants Quay Ireland, is welcome. It is important to have such diversity of views and backgrounds. We welcome the appointments and the ongoing role of the commission. We will, of course, be looking at the broader debate on the work and recommendations of the commission at a later date.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish those who are set to be appointed to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission the best of luck. I wish to use this opportunity to remind those involved that it is okay to rock the State boat and to criticise where fair criticism is required. It is okay to hold the Government to account and call it out on its failures in the area of rights and equality.
Rights and equality are fundamental pillars in any functioning forward thinking society that holds egalitarian values at its core. Incidentally, rights and equality are at the centre of the debate around the current impasse at Stormont. It is, therefore, integral that those who hold those positions acknowledge their influence and power and keep them to the forefront of their minds when partaking in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission or any other rights advocacy bodies. I am confident that those entering the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in the coming weeks will do precisely that and that they are more than capable of doing so.
I know the Minister of State has been sent certain documents. I am unsure whether he or his officials are aware of the questions being raised and the perceived conflict of interest between the Public Appointments Service and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. I do not intend to go into the matter in depth or make individual accusations but I know the matter was raised in the Dáil recently. I am happy to give way for the Minister of State to respond if he so wishes.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House. He was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality when the issue of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission was discussed on many occasions. I believe the commission is doing a good job.
The country has an unrivalled reputation in championing human rights. We are considered a neutral country. Ambassadors and volunteers from Ireland have gone abroad to assist in conflict resolution over many decades. The work carried out by the Defence Forces, including the Army, in peacekeeping illustrates this as does the work of the thousands of people who went to the Third World over many decades to try to promote human rights and to help people who were in challenging situations.
It is appropriate that we have a human rights and equality authority completely above reproach. The fact that neither the Government nor the Department of Justice and Equality has any hand, act or part in anything in terms of the selecting of the commissioners is relevant. The Minister of State has quite rightly pointed this out in outlining the process from the placing of the advertisement right up to the appointment. The list of candidates is not required to come before the Minister in shortlist form as with other State boards.
Those involved have an important job to do. I hope sometime we will be able to look at our country as a society that is completely equal and that respects human rights of all minority groups and all citizens. The work that must be carried out by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is immense and important. I agree with Senator Warfield that the commission should not be afraid to challenge Government. Challenging Government and those of us in the Oireachtas makes us do our job better. Ultimately, the net beneficiaries will be the citizens and, in particular, those whose human rights may not have been protected and respected the way they should have been.
I welcome this motion. Perhaps at some stage, the Minister of State could come to the House for a more in-depth discussion on equality and human rights issues. From a Fine Gael perspective, we are very happy with the work being done by the commission and we wish it well.
I thank Senators for their contributions and support for the motion. I wish to emphasise one or two points. The commission has A status accreditation from the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions. That is important and it includes the method of selection of commissioners. Government has to be completely distant from the process; it must have nothing to do with it. That is why the Public Appointments Service is involved. As Senator Conway said, I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality when the commission was established originally and that point was understood by everyone involved.
The structure and independence of the commission is important. There is no Government influence in the appointments process and those who the PAS nominates. The service nominates seven people. Today, both Houses are tabling a motion to enable the President to appoint them. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is completely and totally independent. The commission has an important job to do under the Act. The commission must also bear in mind the required skills needs. There must be balance in this regard and it is up to the commission to identify the required skills.
There was a high level of interest in the advertisement. It was completely up to the Public Appointments Service to select the seven from the 149 applications submitted.The Government had no hand, act or part in that. The service nominated seven people. I appreciate that it was probably a difficult job; I do not know that but that is my guess. What we are doing today is accepting the seven who were nominated by the independent Public Appointments Service to go forward.
The commission has an important job to do. As I mentioned earlier, there is also a public sector duty of raising awareness in public bodies of their legal obligation to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect human rights. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is responsible for working not just with the Government but all State agencies and bodies. It has important domestic and international standing, as well as institutional independence. It has an "A" status accreditation from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and would not have that accreditation unless it was completely independent and was seen to be independent. The Government and these Houses acknowledge, respect and champion its independence.
I again thank the Senators for their comments on this important institution. I wish the new appointees and the commission the best. Incidentally, the commission has its own Vote, which also ensures its independence.