The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Ireland’s leading NGO working for progressive reform of the penal system, is celebrating twenty one years in existence.
I was privileged to chair IPRT between 2010 and 2014. Meeting current and former staff and board members at Áras an Uachtaráin, at a reception hosted by IPRT Patron, President Michael D. Higgins, and Sabina Higgins, brought home to me once again the importance of well resourced, professional civil society organisations. The use of evidence and the creation of constructive and concrete proposals for reform have also been hallmarks of the work of IPRT. It was also very evident that NGOs require a wide variety of strategies and tactics, and the support and input of a wide variety of actors. The photograph of those attending the event shows the diversity of interests and talents which have combined to make IPRT the authoritative organisation it has become.
The question of strategy and the role of NGOs was also very evident at the most recent seminar in the ‘Changing Ireland, Changing Law’ project, which I am co-directing with Professor Ivana Bacik of Trinity College Dublin. It is funded by the Irish Research Council, and will produce an edited collection with contributions from former litigants, lawyers, academics and NGOs, in 2016. This project works with the Public Interest Law Alliance as its lead partner. The project examines how litigation has acted to shape social policy in Ireland and models of change adopted by NGOs. It wishes to document and share the experiences of the individual litigants behind the cases which have shaped law reform in Ireland. Our first seminar was with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and explored women’s rights and social change in Ireland. Our second was with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, and looked at the transformative effect of cases taken by Senator David Norris, and Senator Katherine Zappone and Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan. Our most recent seminar involved us partnering with the Immigrant Council of Ireland, to hear about the pressing need for reform in the area of immigration and asylum. The Mallak v Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform decision was a key point of discussion in this seminar. This case, which has fundamentally altered administrative law in Ireland, held that there is a right to reasons even when a decision is entirely within the discretion of a Minister, when fundamental rights are affected.
The Mallak case has a lot of potential in the area of prison law. The right to reasons has potential application across a wide variety of areas. It is central to a truly accountable prison system.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust has worked hard to reform the penal system in Ireland. Its work on accountability in particular remains urgent and critical to the development of better penal and social policy in Ireland.