The Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights [FRA] has praised the “impressive” scale of COPE Galway’s reach and applauded the organisation for putting human rights “at the centre” of its work.
Speaking yesterday (Monday 21 December) at the virtual launch of COPE Galway’s 2021 annual report, Mr O’Flaherty said the voluntary sector was “under pressure” right across Europe.
“You’ve quite rightly spoken to the financial pressures you face – I have to say, I don’t know how you can do what you do, on the budget that you have,” he told the launch. “So really our deepest respect, but you’re not alone.”
Mr O’Flaherty is Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) since 2015. He was previously a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, latterly as Vice-Chair, and has held a variety of other positions at the United Nations.
Mr O’Flaherty said he wanted to acknowledge “with respect” the focus that COPE Galway puts on human rights.
“Keeping human rights at the centre means that we’re not asking for favours. We’re not asking for charity. We’re not asking for kindness. We’re insisting that the human rights of the people that we, that you serve, are honoured and respected by the State.”
“When we talk about human rights, far too often we think just about things like privacy and free speech, the right to a fair trial – they’re all very important,” he said. “But human rights are also about a roof over your head, access to basic social welfare, access to a decent chance to get a job, and protection from violence, and all of the things that that you focus on.”
He referred to some of COPE Galway’s stated values: ‘Hope’, ‘Respect’ and keeping ‘Our People’ at the heart of the work.
“But how is that achieved? Well, I suggest that the key rests in the value you place at the very top of your values chart, and that is rights.”
He said next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We need to look at organisations like COPE Galway and see how already you’re doing. You’re bringing to life the opening words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: achieving a world where everybody is free and equal in dignity, and in rights.
“And I want to thank you for that work.”
He described the voluntary sector in Europe as “often overlooked and undervalued”.
But he said: “The role of the voluntary sector of civil society is absolutely crucial. It’s crucial for service delivery, and for advocacy. And it’s in this context that I want to express the deepest appreciation for COPE Galway. The 2021 report demonstrates impressive results.
“I have to also acknowledge your very clear strategy, and your choice of focus areas, your very tight focus of what you do. And I do that because I’m running an organisation myself, and I know how incredibly difficult it is to make choices.”
Mr O’Flaherty also said he was “impressed by the scale” of COPE Galway’s work, “from Inisbofin to Portumna, from Inis Oirr to Ballygar”.
“That’s impressive,” he added.
Mr O’Flaherty, who is also a former Professor of Human Rights at the University of Nottingham and the National University of Ireland, said we had “shocking levels of distance between the richest and the poorest in our societies, and it’s getting worse”.
He went on to say: “If you would ask me which group keeps me most awake at night in terms of how far from the centre they are, it’s the Roma and travelling communities. There are six million members of these communities across the EU. And the levels of exclusion are truly appalling.”
He noted the report showed a 14 per cent rise in clients in homeless services.
“We also, from our work [in the FRA], see a worrying situation,” he said.
The FRA surveyed the travelling community in Ireland in 2019 and found that 24 per cent of the members of the travelling community are experiencing “severe housing deprivation”, 30 times higher than the non-travelling community.
Mr O’Flaherty noted the rise in the use of COPE Galway’s domestic abuse services by 15 per cent.
“When we last surveyed the community, we found that 26 per cent of Irish women have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse,” he told the launch. “And by the way, the reported figures of abuse don’t even touch on the reality. We know from repeated survey work that only 20 per cent of cases of domestic abuse are ever reported. And of those, only 14 per cent of that 20 per cent go to the police in general.”
He said the FRA’s own engagement with older people echoed what was in the report. “Older people are feeling overlooked, disregarded, and very rarely consulted on important decisions that impact for their wellbeing.”
He told the launch:
“Speaking as a Galwegian, your work in COPE Galway makes me proud by association. But beyond being proud, your work gives me hope.
“I read the human stories, I read the stories of John, Elizabeth, of Phila, and Paul, as well as your many staff and volunteers. And their stories of things getting better. Things can get better, or things can improve. This is really important because we’ve got to find the places of hope, and then share them with each other as we face a very bleak environment.
“And so I really encourage you to continue telling stories, continue giving your clients a place to share their lives and experience. We need to hear from them.”
COPE Galway CEO, Michael Smith, thanked Mr O’Flaherty, and said: “It’s great to hear such insights from a global top leader on human rights, specifically on some of our local issues here in Galway.”