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Liam Herrick is the Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, an Irish non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the civil liberties and human rights of people in Ireland. For many of those working in the NGO or Human Rights sector, Liam is a familiar figure. His work on penal reform with the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), as a former advisor to President Higgins, and as head of legislation and policy at what was the Irish Human Rights Commission, set Liam apart as a major influential figure in the development of progressive legal policy in Ireland.
For many, a career in law means working as a solicitor, barrister or academic, however for Liam, pursuing a different path was of more interest. “I never really had a strong inclination towards becoming a solicitor or barrister” says Liam. “I was interested in the law reform side of things, particularly around the potential to achieve reform through legislation.”
Liam’s interest in law reform and social change was sparked by a number of figures in his life. In part, Liam attributes this to his father’s influence on him as a child. “My Dad always had a passion for social justice and was always involved in voluntary work, with the Traveller community or with other marginalised groups.” This led to Liam developing an interest in what he refers to as “the unpopular causes”. “I’ve always had that interest in the hard arguments, the group or issue in society where it’s more difficult to get sympathy, whether that’s prisoners, minority groups who suffer a lot of prejudice like the Traveller or Roma communities, or challenging issues such as transgender rights.”
Liam studied law at UCC where he was inspired by lecturers such as Professor Maeve McDonagh and Professor Siobhán Mullally. “I started doing law in college without a clear idea as to where it was going to take me. I was very unsure going into third year, then I started studying human rights and it suddenly made a lot of sense to me. It showed me a way in which my values and my political beliefs could find expression through law. Having those teachers just inspires you to take a particular direction.”
Having completed his degree, Liam began a human rights internship in the Department of Foreign Affairs and went on to work in the Law Reform Commission (LRC), in statutory drafting and interpretation. He then worked in the ICCL as a research and parliamentary officer before taking up head of policy and legislative review in what was the IHRC. “My early career revolved around law reform questions, developing observations on legislation, preparing amendments and submitting them to the Oireachtas or Government. I had a strong interest in the potential for human rights to guide the development of law and policy. My role at the Human Rights Commission was assessing legislative proposals against human rights standards and advising Government and the Oireachtas on how legislation could be improved to comply with human rights standards. I still believe that there’s a lot of potential in Ireland for a higher level of compliance with human rights standards that would achieve a lot of good social outcomes.”
As much as Liam enjoyed working in legislative reform, at this point he found himself looking for a different channel by which to bring about change. “I had felt for a number of years that I was seeing a couple of areas in my work where I really felt there was potential for significant change, change that just couldn’t come about by legislation but needed a political and campaigning drive.” It was at this point that Liam left the IHRC and became involved with the IPRT.
“Over the years, I had come across the weak oversight and accountability in the prison system, as well as the very serious human rights issues which resulted. The opportunity came up to take over as Executive Director of the IPRT. When I took over I was the only member of staff and had to build the organisation from the ground up.” Liam speaks fondly of his time at the IPRT and was very happy with what the organisation achieved “I think over the 7 year period that I was there we were able to achieve quite a significant level of impact on the direction of penal policy, culminating in the strategic review group on penal policy that was set up by Minister Shatter. The review group mapped out a vision for development of the Irish penal system based on principles of penal moderation and respect for human rights, which I think is very progressive, and we’ve seen some really significant changes. Overall, IPRT played, and continues to play, a meaningful role in helping to shift the direction of penal policy.”
After leaving IPRT, Liam went on to work as an advisor for President Higgins for three years. Was he sad to leave IPRT? “I think it was the right time for me to move on and it was the right time for IPRT. We had a very successful transition to Deirdre Malone, who took over following me, and the organisation has gone from strength to strength since.”
And it seems his work with President Higgins further inspired him. “It was really fascinating to work with somebody who I would very much share the same political values as, and who has tirelessly campaigned for decades on difficult social issues. I think it’s sometimes forgotten that issues which might be popular today were very difficult not that long ago. It was very hard to advocate for women’s rights, for LGBT rights and for traveller rights in the 70s and 80s. It took great courage for political leaders like Michael D and for the communities themselves, we should never lose sight of that, that really is what would inspire me today.”
Liam is now the Executive Director of ICCL, another small civil society organisation with a long and illustrious history. Liam spoke about some of the challenges facing such organisations in modern Ireland. “In a small country like Ireland, having a sustainable, independent civil society sector that is sufficiently resourced is challenging, particularly for work on issues which are not necessarily popular. The financial challenges have been a preoccupation for many of us in the human rights and civil society sector for the last 10 years or so. Our biggest challenge is to make our work understood, valued and sustainable.” The struggle is worth it though as Liam believes that these organisations are crucial to the betterment of society “I believe passionately that there is a very important and valuable role for these organisations and the principle of people organising together to achieve change. We have shown over the years the value of this role in shaping social policy in Ireland.”
Ireland is a very different place now than when Liam first started out but there are still major issues for groups like ICCL to address. “We are now coming to a realisation as a society that direct provision is profoundly unjust. We are still coming to terms with the legacy of institutional abuses and there are issues of discrimination emerging in the new communities that have grown up in Ireland over the last 20 years. We also have the impact of the huge economic inequality in Ireland leading to issues such as homelessness. While some historical prejudices and injustices have been addressed, we are sadly still a very unequal society. Ireland has not fulfilled it’s potential as an equal republic and I think the work of achieving this is ongoing.”
And in terms of reforming the legal system? “There’s still a lot of scope to modernise and improve access to the legal system here. It’s under-resourced and requires modernisation. The State should see its role as empowering people to use the law in a positive way, rather than creating barriers to people seeking justice. There are a lot of leaders in the legal system that are committed to trying to make the law more accessible to people but it needs a more concerted effort. It’s not a popular issue politically, there are very lazy stereotypes and tropes out there about legal fees. It’s all too easy for governments to shift responsibility and blame over to others for their failure to vindicate the rights of the public but in reality, if an excess of legal costs arise because of a denial of justice and rights, the problem does not lie with the lawyers. Litigation is a symptom of a problem, not the cause. From ICCLs most recent work on the Coroners system, the penny pinching and under-resourcing of the Coroners system over several decades ultimately has huge social and financial costs down the line. It’s a short sighted approach which denies people justice.”
In terms of his career path, Liam is at pains to emphasise that it is one which has simply happened to him. “I’ve always fallen from one role into the next” he says, emphasising that he was just happy to get any relevant employment after he left college. Regardless, it’s a career he has loved and enjoyed. When I ask him what he would be if he wasn’t changing the world through NGOs, he’s pretty definitive that there was never anything else he wanted to pursue. “I don’t believe in looking back and doing things differently. I don’t regret the career I’ve had or the choices I’ve made at all. I’ve always found the work very rewarding.” However, coming from a family of teachers, we laugh that that could have been a route for him and he admits it is something he has dabbled in and enjoyed.
Liam has worked in many organisations in a number of roles but a highlight for him are his achievements with the IPRT. “I’m very proud of what IPRT was able to achieve in shifting the direction of penal policy away from expansion to a principle of moderation. You don’t see these changes overnight, they take time. And civil society never achieves change on its own, it’s always acting in conjunction with other people. I feel that in that period with IPRT we were able to drawn alliances with political parties and public servants and that’s a lesson of how real meaningful long-lasting reform can happen.”
And with ICCL? “With ICCL, I feel we are making real impact in shifting the debate on issues such Garda reform, data rights and hate crime; and we are very proud of how we have made the case for the protection of human rights during Covid.”
Liam is unwilling to take much credit personally for these achievements. “The principle of building strong movements is about empowering as many people as possible to have a role in change. That’s why the work of civil society is different to elected politicians or the role of influencers, it’s about trying to achieve long-lasting change by people coming together.”
Finally, is there anything Liam would say to newly qualified lawyers or those coming out of college? “I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make a career in something I really enjoy which is a real privilege; not everybody gets that opportunity. There are really exciting and interesting opportunities for graduates right now so I would encourage those starting out in their career to pursue the issues and the areas that they’re most interested in to the greatest extent that they can. We always have to make compromises and sometimes you might end up doing something different to what you might have envisaged but certainly starting out, when you have the benefit of being in your early career, take chances and do different things. You will always get more out of things that you enjoy and are interested in.”