Martin Naughton – Leader, Pioneer and Inspiration behind the Freedom Drive

Martin Naughton – Leader, Pioneer and Inspiration behind the Freedom Drive

John Evans – a member of the ENIL Advisory Board and pioneer of the Independent Living movement in Europe – remembers Martin Naughton with his touching words below.

On 13th October the European Disability Rights movement was stunned when we lost our dear friend and fellow freedom fighter Martin Naughton. It is still hard coming to terms with the sad passing of Martin, one of the great leaders of the Irish and European Independent Living Movement. He is an immeasurable loss both as a personal friend and a fellow Independent Living activist to many of us.

Martin was one of the founders of the Irish Independent Living movement in the early 1990s. His contribution to both the development of Independent Living in Ireland and Europe was outstanding and revolutionary. One of his many achievements was the ENIL Freedom Drive, which was his brainchild and which he established with his colleagues in 2003. ENIL prospered from his leadership and support for over 20 years. He was also instrumental in establishing the Irish ENIL Secretariat in the late 1990s. Dublin remained one of the constant main homes for ENIL for many years thanks to Martin.

Martin was one of the most inspirational, dynamic and charismatic leaders of the European Independent Living movement I have known. He masterminded along with his Irish colleagues Centres for Independent Living (CILs), personal assistance and the struggle for disabled people’s rights. He accepted nothing less than true equality and inclusion for all. He was always ready to challenge authority for what he believed were infringements of disabled people’s rights.

He was a larger-than-life character and his intense passion for Independent Living and disabled people’s rights touched many. Aside from this, he will always be remembered for his contagious sense of humour and his ever present smile. It was always fun to be around and his optimistic look on life was just as inspirational as were his creative ideas.

He was endowed with subtle persuasive skills and always ready to make his position clear when attempting to influence change to those in power. His argumentative skills and abilities could not be underestimated.

It is impossible to do justice to all of Martin’s achievements in life. This has been reflected in all the many tributes made to him, even from the President of Ireland, the Irish Times and Irish TV news, all of whom were represented at his funeral along with many of his disabled peers.

I first met Martin when he and seven other Irish disabled colleagues came along with their personal assistants to an Independent Living study trip we organised in the UK in 1991. We held sessions for them in the first three CILs in the UK, Hampshire, Derbyshire and Greenwich. What was obvious from the start was Martin’s infectious humour and insatiable enthusiasm to learn more about the skills of activism. We were his mentors then, but it did not take long for this mentoring to reverse roles as he became one of the most effective mentor’s I have ever met.

Following this trip it did not take long before CILs flourished in Ireland in the early 1990s under Martin’s leadership. In 1994, he and his Dublin colleagues organised a unique seminal European Independent Living conference. This brought together many of the European leaders along with some from the United States, including Judy Heumann – one of the original founders of the Berkeley Centre for Independent Living in California.

This event galvanised the European Independent Living Movement on to another level. It helped strengthen ENIL for the challenges ahead and placed Independent Living at the centre for the fight for disabled people’s rights for a generation.

Throughout the 1990s, the Irish played a leading role in organising different Independent Living events helping to strengthen the Irish and European networks. Martin was always the key figure at the centre of these developments. At one such event he even managed to organise a totally wheelchair accessible train to transport us all back to Dublin!

Then in 1998 Martin and his colleagues established the first Secretariat for ENIL in Bray, Co. Wicklow, south of Dublin which was opened by the Irish President Mary McAleese. When it closed three years later the Dublin CIL helped to support the administration of ENIL until an office was opened in Brussels in 2015.

In 2003, one of his greatest ideas came to fruition and manifested itself in the ENIL Freedom Drive in Strasbourg. Since then this event has flourished every two years and in 2015 it was the seventh Freedom Drive! Each year it has grown and grown, and has become the main event for ENIL. It is always such an uplifting experience attending the Freedom Drives, sharing the unique experience with fellow Independent Living activists from all over Europe, campaigning for Independent Living and the right to personal assistance.

Last year Martin finally achieved a lifelong ambition with the support of his personal assistants. He spent six weeks on a personal pilgrimage travelling to all the significant places from the black civil rights movement of the USA in the 1960s. He visited Selma and other famous places where the many civil rights marches occurred. He was even given a letter by the President of Ireland to accompany him on his journey. Thankfully, he realised this personal dream of his.

Through all his achievements and the developments he has set off, shaped and supported, his inspiration and leadership will live on for many years to come, not only in the Freedom Drive but in the new generation of Independent Living activists who will carry his mantra forward in the continued struggle for our human rights and equality.

John Evans, OBE.

October 2016

Photo: Martin Naughton speaking at the sixth Freedom Drive – Strasbourg, France in 2013; taken by Lukasz Michalak

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