Guest piece by Michael Farrell, human rights law consultant on the Conference on Using the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The conference was held in Croke Park, Dublin on 10th May 2017 and was organised by Disability Action Northern Ireland, Disability Federation of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Centers for Independent Living, Disability Research Network Queen’s University, Centre for Disability Law and Policy NUIG, Irish Disabilities Studies Association, and Social Change Initiative. Michael Farrell was one of the organisers of the conference.

The Irish Government must ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and do it quickly, Diane Kingston, former vice Chair of the Committee that monitors the implementation of the CRPD told a major conference in Dublin on 10thMay last.  Ms Kingston said 173 countries had now ratified the Convention but Ireland was not one of them. It is the only member of the EU that hasn’t ratified the Convention and almost the only state in Europe.  Ms Kingston said that the cost of excluding people with disabilities far outweighed the expense involved in including them.~

The conference, which was organised by seven major disability bodies from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the human rights organisation Social Change Initiative, began with a moving tribute by Senator John Dolan of the Disability Federation of Ireland to pioneering disability rights campaigners Donal Toolan, who died just two weeks beforehand, and Martin Naughton, who died six months earlier.  They had both been strong advocates of ratifying the CRPD.

But the mood was not despondent.  Veteran Northern Ireland activist Monica Wilson set the tone by saying that people with disabilities were sometimes afraid to speak out for fear of being seen as troublemakers.  “We should be troublemakers”, she said.

The conference came at an important time for the disability movement North and South in Ireland.  The CRPD monitoring Committee in Geneva will examine the first report by the UK, including Northern Ireland, in August, while the Irish government has promised to ratify the Convention before the end of 2017, having failed to keep a similar promise in 2016.

The strength of the CRPD lies in the way it seeks to implement the principle of the disability rights movement – “Nothing about us without us”.  It provides for disability bodies to lobby and brief the CRPD Committee before it examines government reports and it requires governments to establish independent domestic mechanisms “to promote, protect and monitor” the implementation of the Convention.  It also requires that people with disabilities and their organisations should participate fully in this process.

Rhoda Garland, executive director of the Maltese CRPD monitoring body, described how they had established an advisory group made up entirely of persons with disabilities to ensure that their voices were directly heard. She had a message for people frustrated by the Irish government’s delay in ratifying the Convention on the grounds that it was necessary to ensure that they had all the necessary legislation in place beforehand.

She said that if you wait for everything to be right it would never happen.  Since Malta ratified the Convention in 2012, they had amended five or six different statutes to bring them into line with the CRPD and it was ratification and the prospect of being reviewed by the UN Committee that had given them the impetus to do so.

Another speaker, Juan Ignacio Perez Bello, from the International Disability Alliance in Geneva, described how they helped disabled peoples organisations to prepare ‘shadow’ or alternative reports for submission to the CRPD Committee and to meet with the Committee when it was drawing up lists of questions to put to their government.  He had helped the UK disability groups, including those from Northern Ireland, when they had gone to Geneva in March last to brief the Committee on the questions they would like it to put to the UK government.

And one of the most powerful contributions of the day came from Tony O’Reilly, from Derry, who had been a member of the Disability Action Northern Ireland group who went to Geneva to meet the CRPD Committee.  Tony’s emotion and enthusiasm that he, as a disabled person, could get to put his views directly to international experts, who would then question the UK government about their response, moved everyone at the conference.

Another moving contribution came from blind activist Robbie Sinnott, who had recently won his legal action to require the Irish government to enable blind or visually impaired persons to cast their votes in elections without having to rely on other persons to do it for them.  Robbie’s anger at having to go to court to secure such a basic right and his determination to keep fighting was inspirational.

It was disappointing that there were no representatives of the Irish government or the Department of Justice and Equality, which is responsible for ratifying the CRPD, present.  However, the chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, Caoimhghin O Caolain TD, who was there, strongly supported the early ratification of the Convention.

There was a strong representation from Northern Ireland at the conference which was held in Dublin, and hopefully it will lead to greater information sharing and cooperation between disability bodies, North and South, in the future and especially about how to use the CRPD most effectively in both jurisdictions to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities.