“The republic that was created from the ashes of the rising was a perversion of the human rights ideals of 1916,” the outgoing Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has said.
Addressing the first evening of the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal, she said people were not yet fully aware of what a real republic looked like. Delivering the 13th annual John Hume lecture, Ms O’Reilly said it was particularly appropriate that the lecture was named after the Nobel peace prize winner as he was a “pre-eminent human rights defender”.
She criticised the successors of the 1916 leaders, accusing them of franchising the State “to a private organisation called the Catholic Church, shedding in particular its responsibility for the education and health systems, and thereby allowing little actual space for the elected leaders of this republic to play their role in pursuing the happiness and prosperity of the nation”.
It was difficult for citizens to remind themselves that “we are actually the ones in charge”.
This was a difficulty, she added, that the executive and judiciary also struggled with. Referring to former attorney general Peter Sutherland, she said his core assertion made in a speech earlier this year, that the courts were “inappropriately forced to decide not alone what our values in this republic are or should be, but also to divine what the elected representatives of the people think about those values”.
She said that while the courts had too much unwanted power, parliament spent “much of its time ducking and diving and pretending it has no power whatsoever”. She accused the executive of “planting its boot far too firmly on the neck of the parliament and wielding power in a manner never envisaged by the Constitution.”
Quoting President Michael D Higgins, she said: “There is a deep-seated anti-intellectualism prevalent in Irish life,” and that our political and cultural life was marked by the false notion that one person’s ignorance was as good as another’s knowledge. She turned to the Constitution, quoting article 28.4.1 which states that the Government “shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann”.
“Quite clearly this is not the case. The nub of the problem is that parliament does not take itself seriously,” she said. “Our failures are essentially human rights failures and we should be particularly alive to the fact that, never more so than at a time of recession and austerity, are bodies such as a Human Rights Commission and an Equality Authority needed to make sure that in a decade’s time we won’t be weeping our way through another pitiful cataloguing of State-inflicted abuse, albeit with a modern twist.”
In his opening address, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he looked to 2016 and the centenary of the Easter Rising. “To be a real republic, Ireland has to be a sovereign republic,” he said. “We will strive . . . and work even harder so that we will become the best small country in the world for business, to raise a family and to grow old with dignity and respect. This will be the republic of 2016.”