The European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) held its fifth Freedom Drive in Strasbourg between 12th and 15th September 2011. The majority of the Freedom Drive participants were Independent Living activists, many of whom are a part of the national or local centres for Independent Living (CILs) in their countries. The central theme for the 2011 Freedom Drive was Free our People Now!
In August, one year on from the last Strasbourg Freedom Drive I talked with Gary Lee, Executive Director CIL Carmichael House about what had happened since they came back to Ireland from the 2011 Strasbourg Freedom Drive.
Lee began by explaining that there were two significant things to note in the Irish context in the follow up to the Strasbourg Freedom Drive:
- CIL Carmichael House managed to have questions asked to the European Commission and received a reply back from the Commission.
- From an awareness raising point of view, it was very successful.
He noted that from an awareness point of view it was hard to quantify. On a practical level it can be measured to some degree. Lee went on to explain how meeting with a politician on a European Level differs from meeting them at a national level. In Ireland it is very hard to get exposure to a TD if you are not a constituent of theirs. In the European context you are the only constituent there. MEPs take the time to listen to you and once they hear, they really listen. They can then talk to a colleague back in Ireland and influence them although to what extent is hard to quantify. Irish MEPs can also do other things such as chasing up the Irish Government to ratify the UNCRPD which is not done yet.
Lee also pointed out that a number of things can be raised with MEP such as deinstitutionalisation in terms of the use EU Structural Funds in Eastern European countries, although he acknowledged that is difficult to show actual outcome.
Lee pointed out that there was also the possibility to raise the non-transferability of personal assistant services in Europe with MEPs. There is no free movement of workers with disabilities and of personal assistant services in Europe. He made the point that if you are assessed for personal assistance and are granted it in one jurisdiction; this should be automatically transferred to another jurisdiction should you choose to live and work there. Lee calls for harmonization or portability of Personal Assistant services. At present we cannot ensure free movement of workers with disabilities.
One of the direct results of the relationship established with the Irish MEPs was that a number of them became members of the Disability Intergroup, most notably Paul Murphy from the Socialist Party in Ireland and European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL).
On the Strasbourg Freedom Drive event in and of itself Lee pointed out that you cannot underestimate the power of a gathering of people with disabilities who are champions of Independent Living and who are representative of many thousands. We cannot underestimate the power and influence that has on human lives.
At the Freedom Drive 2011 there were nine demands which were presented to Members of the European Parliament:
- Independent Living central in all relevant EU policies.
- Respecting the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with provisions on non-discrimination, accessibility, right to live in the community and personal mobility as the minimum benchmarks for the EU Law and Policy.
- Inclusion of people with disabilities through universal design and the abandonment of special solutions
- De-institutionalisation-closure of institutions by 2020
- Personal assistance for all in need
- Freedom of movement
- Independent Living in international development programs
- Full ratification and implementation of the UN CRPD
- Disabled People’s Organisations in policy making.
Lee said it was now time to look at what issues we want included in the 2013 Freedom Drive Demands. On a European Level “they have taken the ball and run with it”. He noted that Ireland is slow to embrace social rights in our legislation. If you look at Irish Employment Law, it is as a result of our international obligations as there was a dearth of legislation pre-1973 and this changed when Ireland joined the European Union in 1973. We cannot underestimate the power of the European Union to influence what going on here in Ireland on a national level. One example of this that Gary Lee put forward was to look at the Mental Health Act.
Ireland ratified the European Convention on Human Right in 1953. Under the convention there was provision for an independent review on detention of people involuntarily detained in Mental Health Hospitals. However, Irish national legislation at the time did not. In 2000 a case was taken to the High Court and went all the way to the Supreme Court of Ireland and went to the European Court of Human Rights, Croke v. Ireland. The Irish Government settled on the steps of the court giving financial compensation but also agreeing to bring in the Mental Health Act 2001 which provided for an independent review.
Lee clearly stated the point that had it not been for international obligations Ireland would still be subject to the old regime. Ireland is a small country where the loudest and wealthiest can be heard above vulnerable people in Irish society. There is a valid reason to bring things to the European Table.
Lee made reference to Europe’s current climate of austerity and what could be done to prevent people with disabilities and vulnerable people being adversely affected. Ireland has negotiated a bailout package with Europe. Lee calls for a clause to be inserted into the resulting documents; that people with disabilities and vulnerable people in society should not be adversely and disproportionately affected in the quest by the Irish government to satisfy the terms of this bailout package. Lee points out that the Troika cuts are affecting the people on the ground the most. He argues that these terms of the Troika are being used as an excuse by decision makers nationally to reduce services for people with disabilities. There have been cuts PA services and CE schemes are being cut which provide vital services to people with disabilities in Ireland in order to satisfy the demands of the Troika. If you think about this on any level it is wrong. Lee sees that a comprehensive directive on disability from Europe would go a long way in Ireland.
It is clear from the meeting with Gary Lee, CIL Carmichael House that the Strasbourg Freedom Drive has had a positive impact both on a national and a European level. Although, this impact may be hard to measure, it is significant. As we move towards the Strasbourg Freedom Drive 2013 we must build on the success of the Strasbourg Freedom Drive 2011 and become ever more determined to have our demands heard.
Click here to see the video of the Irish CIL’s at the 2011 Strasbourg Freedom Drive!