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A recovery for all? Holding Ireland's government to account




Ireland has been been praised by European leaders for its “outstanding example” in the implementation of austerity measures. With the country slipping back into recession, and levels of both poverty and unemployment soaring, day-to-day life for ordinary people shows no sign of improving, however. Indeed, a meaningful recovery still remains a long way off, as the property market continues its lengthy decline and successive waves of spending cuts lay siege to the wellbeing of normal households.

The human rights impact of the austerity measures in Ireland is analyzed in a recent CESR report on the causes and consequence of Ireland’s ongoing economic crisis. Mauled by the Celtic Tiger: Human rights in Ireland’s economic meltdown finds that the both the current and previous administrations have been derelict in their duties with regard to human rights. Through a detailed statistical analysis of the deteriorating economic and social rights situation, it makes the case that policies implemented both before and after the crisis hit have failed to meet Ireland’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These include the duty to ensure that austerity measures do not have discriminatory effects and to use the maximum of its available resources to safeguard against retrogression in the enjoyment of economic and social rights.

As the report documents, the measures taken in response to the crisis have had a disproportionately harsh impact on vulnerable groups such as women, children, older persons, Travellers, migrants and people with disabilities. Prioritization of spending cuts over tax reforms, despite the country’s markedly regressive tax regime and exceptionally low overall tax take, indicates that more equitable alternatives to plugging the deficit have not been explored.  Moreover, the exigencies of Ireland’s own Constitution, which contains provisions for the protection of economic and social rights as directive principles of public policy, seem to have been brushed aside in a similar manner.

The Irish government has recognized its human rights obligations in the face of this crisis. At its appearance before the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) last year, it affirmed that respect for dignity and human rights was the “incontestable baseline of decent politics everywhere” and that there was “no room for moral relativism or selectivity” in this regard. Such declarations belie an ongoing austerity drive that has markedly undermined the economic and social rights of vulnerable communities up and down the country.

Just last month, at the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, Ireland accepted 29 of the 50 recommendations it agreed to consider at its earlier appearance before the UPR. Among the 17 recommendations that received only partial acceptance was the call for concrete steps to ensure the economic crisis does not erode human rights. In its response, the government stated that it was “committed to tackling the economic crisis in a way that is fair, balanced, and which recognizes the need for social solidarity”. While such sentiments are of course welcome, they fall far short of a determination to protect ESC rights in a way that complies with international human rights law. The government likewise shied away from fully accepting the call for it to incorporate the rights to health and housing into the domestic legal order. Since coming to power in January 2011, the new Fine Gael government has made some modestly encouraging reforms and commitments, not least its decision to ratify the Optional Protocol to ICESCR, establishing an individual complaints mechanism. However, the effective mainstreaming of human rights principles into the economic recovery strategy remains little more than a distant aspiration, despite the promise that such standards would be integrated into the functioning of all public bodies.

As part of its Rights in Crisis project, CESR will therefore continue to work with allies on the ground in Ireland to combat the ongoing retrogression in economic and social rights, and to advocate for an economic recovery strategy that takes fully into account the human rights of all the people of Ireland.