Liam Herrick, CEO of the ICCL Credit: ICCL social media

How the ICCL obstructs democracy

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is an organisation with an interesting sounding name. It is not just a council for civil liberties, the name reminds you, but one that bears the nation’s title on it, suggesting that it is not just any council, but one that represents the interests of Irish people.

Most organisations with “Irish” in their names, suggesting official status, draw their legitimacy from somewhere. The Irish national sports teams, for example, represent and are governed by the grassroots sporting organisations they represent. The Irish farmer’s association, love it or loathe it, has tens of thousands of members up and down the country. The Irish Bar Association is made up of Irish barristers.

But there are no grassroots “civil liberties” organisations. There is no widespread national network of activists, holding elections for the top job. The membership is tiny – no more than a few hundred people – and the funding is lavish, coming from a range of state organisations and state backed organisations, as well as the usual array of left-leaning “philanthropic” funds. It is, in short, an entirely self-appointed body, with no particularly well established claim to represent the views of anyone at all on almost any matter.

This question of legitimacy in Irish public life is not a question that is often explored: In many cases, organisations that claim to represent large swathes of Irish society have that claim taken at face value by the state simply because it suits them to do so. Does the national women’s council represent women? The answer to that question can be provided with another question: Do Irish women get a vote in its policies?

The answer is no. Just as nobody with a particular interest in civil liberties gets to decide the policy of the ICCL.

This lack of democratic legitimacy is what distinguishes many of Ireland’s leading NGOs from the truly representative organisations: This writer for example is no particular fan of the unions, but they draw their funding and their legitimacy from the fact that they have tens of thousands of paying members in health, and education, and services. The Union might imperfectly represent their views, but they do have the power, should they seek it, to change the policies and leadership of their unions. Irish women have no mechanism to influence either the leadership or the membership of the NWCI.

In fact this lack of legitimacy is actively buttressed: It is a statement of objective fact that if the NWCI was reliant on the financial support of Irish women to survive, it would be out of business by next Wednesday. Its funding is entirely handed to it on behalf of Irish women by Irish politicians who actively grant them the right to claim to represent womankind.

I write all this because we were informed, yesterday, that the ICCL now has some “concerns” about the hate speech bill – though it remains broadly supportive.

It is an obvious point, though it cannot be written often enough, that a “council for civil liberties” that supports restrictions on civil liberties – in this case free speech – is a contradiction in terms. It should also be an obvious point that a council for civil liberties that is in receipt of funding from the Government is entirely and totally compromised in terms of its dealings with that Government, since funding that is awarded can always be quietly unawarded.

That these points are obvious to anyone with a brain need not be elaborated on. The only question which remains is “why?”

Why are NGOs which do not really represent anyone allowed to continue to claim a mandate that they simply do not have? The answer, simply, is that it is very convenient for those in power – by which I mean the broad governing class, rather than the specific group of people currently in government – to have supportive voices external to the governing class to bolster their own claims of representation.

When the only voice for women in Ireland is the national women’s council, and that council favours things like putting biological men in female prisons, there is no remaining democratic space for regular women to make their concerns – if such concerns exist – known.

The purpose of NGOs in Ireland is just that: To consume democratic space. They exist to provide supportive noises in places where critical noises might otherwise be heard. Their purpose is to crowd everybody else out of the debate. Why do you need to listen to women, when you have a bunch of academics paid to represent the views of all women, whether they like it or not? Why would you listen to concerns about civil liberties, when the ICCL speaks authoritatively for everyone who cares about such matters? Why would you listen to the voices of actual travellers, when Pavee Point claims to speak for them all?

All three of the organisations I list here exist primarily with the consent and support of the state. Were that support withdrawn, many of them would lay off staff. And because that support is so vital to their interests, their entire purpose is reversed.

And so we live in a country where the womens council does not represent women to the Government, but represents the Government to women. And where the ICCL does not highlight concerns about civil liberties, but downplays them. Essentially the Irish state has lived up to the old joke: The politicians have voted out the voters, and replaced them with groups far more to their own liking.

The entire basic idea of democratic representation has been actively corrupted, and until these organisations are swept away, it will be very difficult to get it back.

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