This article is a guest piece by Jane O’Sullivan of Community Law and Mediation first published in the PILA Bulletin: 24 May 2017

The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Initiative (ESCRI) is a coalition of over 60 civil society organisations that support strengthening the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the Irish Constitution.  Members of the ESC Rights Initiative include Age Action, All Together in Dignity, Community Action Network, Community Law and Mediation, Focus Ireland, Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Mercy Law Resource Centre.  ESC rights belong to everyone in Ireland. The Irish Government committed to uphold them when it ratified the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1989. The protection of these rights is necessary to ensure a life of dignity.

On Wednesday 29th March 2017, the ESC Rights Initiative’s first conference brought together a diverse range of stakeholders to consider enforceability and accountability mechanisms for ESC rights at national, regional and international level and the need to enhance the protection of these rights. Speakers considered why enforceable ESC rights are important and the real and practical difference enforceability could make for individuals and groups in Ireland.

The conference was opened by Aiden Lloyd of the ESC Rights Initiative.  Before a capacity crowd, Jamie Burton of Doughty Street Chambers in London gave an enlightening keynote address.  The first panel, chaired by Anastasia Crickley, examined a State’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, how these obligations have been interpreted in other jurisdictions and how a balance can be achieved in the separation of powers between the different branches of government.   Dr Helen Johnston, Senior Policy Analyst, National Economic and Social Council, Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast and Gerry Whyte, Professor of Law, Trinity College Dublin provided a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion.

The second panel was chaired by Dr. Liam Thornton of UCD Law School and asked what enforceable economic, social and cultural rights would mean in practice.  The wonderful contributions of Siobhan Curran of Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, Eoin Carroll of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Dr Austin O’Carroll and Debbie Mulhall of Dolphin House Community Development Association and founding member of Rialto Rights in Action, put socio-economic rights in the context of real life and gave everyday examples of how the protection of these rights would affect the lives of people, particularly those at the margins of our society, for the better.

The third panel, chaired by Cecilia Forrestal of Community Action Network, explored how we can meaningfully progress towards the realisation of ESC rights in Ireland. In particular, panellists suggested mechanisms and strategies to trigger the implementation of ESC rights in a manner that allays the concerns of the State and citizens alike.  This final panel featured excellent presentations by Mary Murphy of NUI Maynooth and IHREC, Eilis Barry, CEO of FLAC and Dr Padraic Kenna, Lecturer in NUI Galway’s Department of Law.

Michael Farrell, member of the Council of State of Ireland, the Irish member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and former senior solicitor at FLAC expertly summed up a day of rich discussion in his closing remarks.

The consequences of a lack of enforceability of ESC rights in Ireland are stark.  There is work to be done and this event, showing the wealth of knowledge in theory and practice, as well as a strong sense of solidarity and decency backed by strong legal obligations, was an important step on that journey.

The ESC Rights Initiative is delighted to announce that videos of contributions  and photos of the event  are now available on its website.

You can follow the work of the Initiative on Twitter and on its website.

This conference was funded by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Grant Scheme 2016-2017.