Minorities across Europe routinely experience discrimination. As a child, FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty saw first-hand how prejudice led to violence and hatred in his native Ireland. Michael shares some early experiences of violence against Irish Travellers. He also speaks about what motivates him to fight to protect human rights for people everywhere.
Richard Miron: Welcome to the Fundamentally Right podcast from the Fundamental Rights Agency, I’m Richard Miron. The FRA is part of the European Union, and provides independent advice on the protections due to people and the obligations of the authorities to ensure that happens.
The cornerstone of the FRA is the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which came into force ten years ago. In this podcast, we’re going to show what these rights are, and what they mean through the personal stories of the people who work for the FRA. We’re also going to be hearing from those same people about the significance of a particular aspect of the Charter.
My first interviewee is Michael O’Flaherty, the FRA’s Director. Michael’s originally from Ireland, but spent many years working in various locations around the world, including hotspots like Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he represented the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Michael began his personal backstory by telling me about an incident from his childhood in the west of Ireland.
Michael O’Flaherty: One of my earliest memories is late one evening, being woken by a commotion on the street below my bedroom window where we lived in the town of Galway on the west coast of Ireland. And when I got up and went to the window to see what all the fuss was about, I saw the owner of a small bar across the street from our house brutally beating a Traveller man with a big wooden stick or mallet. What was striking was the ferocity of the attack – it really looked like that guy was going to get killed – but also the absolute sense that the barman was going to get away with it, that this was just somehow normal behaviour for how you treat a client in your bar that isn’t obeying whatever rules were being broken that night. I can remember the shock of the violence, violence of a kind I’d never seen before that, of a man with the full force of his strength pounding a guy lying on the street with a great big wooden stick. There was the evident wounding, the blood, the utter defencelessness and vulnerability of that man of the street, whatever condition he was in – he was probably drunk, but that’s not the point. I don’t know how long I watched, but what is striking now in retrospect, was the extent to which I just filed it away as something if not acceptable, then normal. It was just a particularly extreme violent outburst of the endemic prejudice and marginalization of Travelling People that was absolutely standard in the Ireland of the 1960s and 70s where I grew up.
Galway is a city on the Atlantic; about 100,000 people these days, very vibrant, very lively. Back when I was a kid though, very sleepy, with not an awful lot to hold its people other than the sheer beauty of its situation on Galway Bay, looking out into the Atlantic, while with the mountains of Connemara in the background – very beautiful place. The Travelling community had a very strong presence – and still does – in County Galway. Significant numbers of Travellers would come into the city on fair days, on the days when social welfare was being collected and things of that type, and inevitably there would be a lot of drinking; and my corner of the city was one of the more favoured places where they congregated. And as I said, one the street where we lived right across from our home was one of those few bars that actively welcomed or rather, did business, with Travellers. It’s difficult today to convey the extent to which Travellers suffered from an extreme form of apartheid, but it was an apartheid that nobody noticed or commented on. It was just normal, it was absolutely hardwired into the settled community that these people were different, somehow inferior, liars, thieves. In retrospect, absolutely shocking – not only in the extremity of it, but in the fact that it was considered to be pretty much normal back then.
I only got to know them much later, when as a university student doing voluntary work, I had the occasion on a very small number of occasions to visit Traveller communities in and around Galway. They were nice experiences. They were real, they were meaningful, they weren’t abusive, they were very very rare. It’s really only since I worked more four-square in human rights in the more recent past that I’ve had the opportunity to deal with the Traveller and Roma issues and come to get a much better grip of the reality that they experience. Tragically, the situation for Roma in very many places of Europe is not an awful lot different today to that that I described of the Travellers back in Galway then.
I was, a few months back, in a small village where I met with a lady – I was invited into a Roma lady’s home. It was a very poor house, some broken windows, desperately in need of paint. There was no inside toilet, there was a facility in the yard, the yard itself was scruffy, overgrown and all her neighbours were Roma. They were, in a sense, ‘relegated’ to that part of the village by the community. What I remember most of all is the fact that this woman kept apologising to me. She apologised for the fact that the house wasn’t very presentable, she apologised that her children weren’t very well dressed, she apologised that she didn’t have anything nice to offer us by way of food or drink. She kept apologising and I got very angry. Not with her. I got angry that she should apologise to me. We should be apologising to her, because it’s we, through our attitudes and our prejudice and our discrimination, that have shoved that woman to the edge of our society, it’s our fault, so the apology should be from us to her, side-by-side with doing something meaningful for her and for the hundreds of thousands in her situation.
When we repudiate Roma from our communities in this way, we get what we call de facto segregation; clusters of Roma living in certain parts of town and other people not wanting or choosing to live there. That’s one form of marginalisation. Another form is in the schools. In many places in Europe, there is de facto segregation in schools. Schools put the Roma in certain classrooms and this lack of mixing with the rest of the population compounds the sense of marginalisation and alienation. Then you’ve got services. I remember visiting a Traveller facility a few years ago. They described to me, for instance, how they never get the post – the mail – because the postman, the mail delivery service will not go into the community there. It doesn’t matter why – it just won’t happen. And so what happens? They don’t get their bills. The bills don’t get paid, the services get cut off. They showed me phone and electricity wires, dangerously exposed, unfixed for years. Why? Because the services put them so low down the priority for attention, that nobody ever comes to fix the basic infrastructure. And on and on and on it goes, all of it resulting in people living on the very edges of our society, barely subsisting in many places.
In every situation, in every community, we humans seem to need to ‘other’ some group. We need to identify some small group, a weak group, not a majority, a small minority, as the ‘other’, as the ‘different’, against whom we channel our aggression, our distaste, and whatever else. Within large parts of European society, that ‘other’ group is Roma, or among the others, it’s Roma. In some places it will be the Jews in your community, in other places it will be the Muslims in your community, in others it will be the Roma. Frankly in many places it’s all three and still more. Our business at the Fundamental Rights Agency is to name that and to try and bring this group back into the heart of communities, where they are treated with respect. As an outsider, observing this whole story from childhood has informed me with a sense that we’re grappling with an issue of history here.
Richard Miron: Michael, we just heard there your personal, in a way, testimony, about what propelled you towards the jobs that you have done. Nowadays, you work for the EU. How much, first of all, did those formative experiences of your childhood inform your choice of profession with the Fundamental Rights Agency?
Michael O’Flaherty: If I didn’t feel that I could make a difference, or contribute to making a difference, for real people and particularly those most in need, then I couldn’t do this job. I’d be wasting my time. The EU, working as EU but also with its Member States, can transform our societies. Can and does, in a way that’s often underacknowledged, make a fantastic difference for the lived experience of people right across the populations of the Member States. I spoke a lot about Roma with you just now, and there’s a very large, strong investment in supporting Roma to be fully integrated, respected and honoured in our societies as an EU priority. It is making a difference. It’s slow, it’s hard work, but for example, we see better results in the school room in some places because of the focus of EU investment. In some places, we see Roma living more respected in their societies. I don’t want to overstate the achievements though, we still have a long way to go to deliver on those formal human rights and fundamental rights commitments that the EU has committed itself to already many years ago.
This year, we are celebrating – well, we’re now into the 11th – but we’ve just finished celebrating the 10th anniversary of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as a binding legal instrument. It’s a fantastic document, in terms of the promises it makes, the commitments it enters into, the guarantees it delivers. Equality, non-discrimination. It sets out a vision of a society where everybody can thrive. We, every day, when we come into work, we are part of the project of turning that document into a lived reality for the 450 million people in our European society.
Richard Miron: What you’re talking about, in a way, is a top-down process, but we all know, unfortunately, that prejudice often comes bottom-up. Can there be a meeting point? Or can really the top-down affect the bottom?
Michael O’Flaherty: I wouldn’t put it in the terms you’ve used of ‘top-down’. What I would say is that in the form of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, we see that the EU has set itself very strong and very powerful commitments. But the realisation of those commitments has to come from every level. The realisation of those commitments has to galvanise the Mayor in a local village, where Roma are living, as much as it has to galvanise the President, in his or her palace, in the capital and all in between, with the EU supporting all in between. It has to be used as an instrument to empower the affected people themselves. Take Roma, since that’s the group we’re talking about in particular today. We have to sit with Roma communities, look at this Charter of Fundamental Rights, and work out together how we realise it in the villages and on the streets – it’s something we have experience of here in the Fundamental Rights Agency.
For example, we recently completed a multi-year programme of going into villages, across a number of EU Member States, sitting with the local Roma community and working out with them, “so, what’s the particular problem here? What’s the solution here? And how can we – together – deliver that solution?” We saw some impressive results from that programme, with very different agendas for the group we met in, let’s say, Finland, as opposed to the group we met in, to take another example, Hungary. But all informed by those same guarantees contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Richard Miron: The Charter is, as you say, 10 years old. It is, ultimately, just a document. What are your concerns about how that document works that it becomes more than just a set of proclamations, more than a piece of paper?
Michael O’Flaherty: You know, the first time I ever physically saw the Charter – I saw a copy; a signed, original copy of the Charter – was in a case, a glass case, in the European Parliament. And I remember being shocked when I saw it, because the text in front of me was literally fading away because of the relentless beam of sunlight that was hitting the case. I thought at the time, and I still think, that’s not a bad image, if you will, of the unrealised potential, the fadedness, of the Charter in terms of the work we all do. We have to do a much better job of waking everybody up to the existence of the Charter, its guarantees, and how we realise those guarantees.
And that’s everywhere, as I said, from the mayor of the village right through to the institutions in Brussels. In this anniversary period, we need to invest in awareness-raising, we need to invest in showing the difference that can be achieved through the application of the Charter. We need to explore those bits of the Charter that are not familiar to people who work on human rights. Did you know that the right to establish a business is in the Charter of Fundamental Rights? Most people would be very surprised to hear that for the EU, this is identified as essentially, a human right. So it’s a very impressive Magna Carta, if you will, for how we can shape Europe, of which we can be proud. We have to use the second decade now to bring that to life.
Richard Miron: You’ve talked about the potential and your aspirations for the Charter, but there are some countervailing forces against all the rights that are put in there. What are your concerns in the coming years for the fate of those rights and for the Charter itself?
Michael O’Flaherty: I recognise the ‘countervailing forces’, as you put them. I recognise the push-backs, the repudiations – not just violations of fundamental rights, but the repudiation of the whole system, in some places. But I’m confident, and I’m hopeful – and I’ll give you some reasons for that confidence and hope. First, I see that for all the criticism that they attract, the EU institutions are committed to advancing an agenda of rights and values. And I see that evidenced every single day across the EU system. Secondly, we must never lose sight that the goals laid out in the Charter and in other instruments are not voluntary codes; they are binding law, and they can be enforced. I have also seen repeatedly that if we generate evidence for our claims, then we can actually realise what we are seeking to achieve. That’s a big part of what the Fundamental Rights Agency does. We go out there into society, we identify what works and what doesn’t work. We do the hard evidence of surveys of our communities. What is their real experience? And then we bring all of that material, all of that knowledge to support the demands that we’re making. And supported by knowledge, supported by evidence, we can actually shape the policies.
If I may take an example outside the context of Roma. We have a problem with antisemitism in Europe – we know that. But it was rather vague and unspecified until the Fundamental Rights Agency did the largest survey ever attempted of the Jewish community in Europe to ask it to tell us what is the actual experience of being a Jew in Europe today. And we’ve repeated this survey twice, and the evidence was shocking from it. A dramatic majority of Jewish people identified antisemitism as the biggest problem in their lives. Not healthcare, not lack of access to education, not tax, but antisemitic acts. We identified that a significant number of Jewish people consider emigrating from Europe, which to me is unthinkable. If we lose our Jewish community, then we lose the whole point of this Europe of values we built since the atrocities of World War Two. I could go on with many other examples of evidence we generated but the point here is that this then fed into policymaking in the European Union and contributed to the EU having strong, clear positions on the utter unacceptability of antisemitism, which are then matched by all manner of initiatives and efforts to work with the Jewish communities and with the EU Member States towards the eradication of this curse.
Richard Miron: You began by talking about the Roma. How do you think the Charter, and the implementation of the Charter, has changed and will change the status of those people?
Michael O’Flaherty: If I didn’t believe that we can eradicate hatred in our societies, then I shouldn’t be doing this job. We have an extremely long way to go. The story I told of seeing a man beaten up on the street back in the 1970s could be a story of today in too many places. But if we all work together to realise the vision of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, we won’t eradicate bad behaviour from our societies, but we can succeed in identifying, challenging the unacceptable, empowering the impacted vulnerable communities to stand up more effectively for their own rights and deliver this vision of a just and free and fair society to which we’re all committed.
Richard Miron: That was FRA Director, Michael O’Flaherty, on the power and threat to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. In future episodes, we’re going to be hearing from other individuals on the experiences that have shaped them, and what human rights means in their lives. This has been the Fundamentally Right podcast, with me, Richard Miron, from Earshot Strategies.