Fighting for rights

Aisling Reidy, the formidable executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is going to an international posting, leaving the advocacy group all the more vulnerable. By John Byrne.


On Saturday 29 January, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) found themselves without both their Executive Director and their headquarters. The Executive Director, Aisling Reidy, left the previous day to become senior legal adviser to Human Rights Watch in New York. The headquarters was destroyed that night in an accidental fire which laid waste to the entire contents of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties offices.

Insurance will take care of a new premises, but replacing Aisling Reidy, a former barrister and very formidable human rights activist will be another matter. At 34, she does not carry the gravitas of former ICCL luminaries – Mary Robinson was a founding member, as was Kadar Asmal, who subsequently served in Nelson Mandela's cabinet in South Africa– but her rise has been impressive. She was the youngest lawyer to plead at of European Court of Human Rights at the age of 26. She prosecuted the infamous Bosanski Samac case at the UN war crimes court at The Hague, named after a Bosnian town where nearly the entire Muslim population of 17,000 was killed or driven out during the ethnic cleansing campaign of the early 1990s. And next month, she will take up the plum role of senior legal adviser to the Human Rights Watch in New York, one of the world's leading human rights organisations.

"She is impressive, determined, brave", says Inez McCormack, a former head of ICTU. Maurice Manning, President of the Irish Human Rights Commission, says: "She's quite brave in taking up issues, she isn't afraid at hitting out at people, at powerful groups."

Born in South Africa of Irish parents in January 1972, Aisling Reidy came to Ireland via Greece and Canada, aged 11. She went first to Sutton Park, an expensive private school on Dublin's north side, and then boarded in Alexandra College in Milltown. She subsequently studied law in UCD, where she was an enthusiastic member of the college Dramatic Society. But it was human rights that most interested her, and when she graduated in 1993, she went to the University of Essex to do an LLM in International Human Rights Law.

During her time in Essex, she worked as a junior researcher with the Turkish Human Rights Association, taking the Turkish government to the European Court of Human Rights over allegations of false imprisonment, rape and torture, as well as representing the relatives of those who 'disappeared' at the hands of the Turkish authorities.

"It was a real eye opener," she says. "For me, and for the Turkish government and police, as they had to account for themselves where previously they hadn't. These were the first cases taken against the Turkish government by Turkish people."

After that, she worked for the missing persons project in Kosovo in 1999. This involved exhumations and recovery of bodies in Kosovo; she worked out of an office in the mortuary.

"You got used to it – it was kind of like being a doctor," she says. "You were part of a big team. You'd use a lot of black humour to get through it. The smell was terrible, so you'd always get plenty of room at the bar – that kind of thing. The most difficult part was talking to the families afterwards, explaining to them that you've located the body of a relative."

After her contract was up in Kosovo, she went to work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as a junior lawyer in January 2001, and this is when she became involved in the Bosanski Samac case.

"It was intimidating, but when were in the middle of it, it wasn't too bad. There were a lot of plea bargains done beforehand. They [the defendants] were very defiant, and didn't feel culpable. But as the trial went on an more witnesses were heard in court, they began to feel more uncomfortable."

When Aisling Reidy took over as Executive Director of the ICCL in 2002, she inherited a body which had a distinguished but perhaps under-appreciated role in Irish society.

"[The ICCL is] one of the unsung heroes of Irish society," says Maurice Manning. "Long before human rights became a major issue they were doing work. It is a body that has a very good track record and very good pedigree."

Established in 1976, the issues it sought to tackle then included civil rights abuses in Northern Ireland, and the antics of 'The Heavy Gang', the notorious Garda unit which allegedly used brutal tactics to extract confessions from suspects. The ICCL remained a voluntary organisation until the late 1990s, when Michael Farrell, and others raised funding to allow the body to pay staff – Michael Farrell, a solicitor and former leader of the People's Democracy, a radical civil rights group that was active in the late 1960's and early 1970's in Northern Ireland. They got funding from charitable organisations such as the Ford Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Trust, and more recently, Atlantic Philanthropies, which donated €3 million over five years.

As Executive Director of ICCL, Aisling Reidy was very much involved in the citizenship referendum, the campaign to have a Garda Ombudsman appointed and the establishment of the Human Rights Commission. "She will be much missed," says Malachy Murphy, co-chairperson of the ICCL.

As to the future for the ICCL, burnt-out offices and departed directors are not the only issues facing the body. A provision brought in under the Electoral Act in 2002 means that advocacy groups, such as the ICCL, may be subject to the same rules and regulations as political parties or political individuals in regards to monetary donations. If deemed to be receiving money for political purposes, bodies like the ICCL would be precluded from receiving foreign donations, and donations valued at more than €6,348.69 from any one donor in one year.