Liam Herrick, CEO of the ICCL Credit: ICCL social media

Both the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) have failed to respond to queries regarding statements they have made, over a number of years, about harassment and intimidation of pregnant women and hospital staff by pro-life protesters.

Whilst the ICCL and the NWCI have repeatedly claimed that the introduction of exclusion zones around hospitals that provide abortion services is necessary to protect women from harassment and intimidation, with the NWCI outright claiming there have been “displays of intimidating, harassing and distressing behaviour outside healthcare facilities” in Ireland, a recent Gript investigation found no evidence that protesters have been engaged in such behaviour.

As part of that investigation Gript contacted every hospital providing maternity services in the country, with 16 of the 19 hospitals responding to us. Not a single hospital responded in the affirmative when asked if they were aware of any incidence in which “pro-life protesters have impeded the ability of patients to access the hospital or attempted to intimidate or harass patients.”

Displays of intimidating, harassing and distressing behaviour outside healthcare facilities have been ongoing in both the Republic and North of Ireland – NWCI

We reached out to the ICCL and the NWCI highlighting that investigation and asking them what evidence they had showing that pro-life protesters had been engaging in harassment and intimidation before they began to made public statements on the matter. To date we have received no response from either group.

We also reached out directly to Liam Herrick, the Executive Director of the ICCL. Herrick has personally argued in favour of exclusion zones on the basis that the right to protest does not include the right to “intimidate, harass or prevent women from accessing health care” and that healthcare workers have a “right to work in a safe environment.”  A reasonable member of the public, hearing those statements coming from a man in Herrick’s position, would likely have assumed Herrick had solid evidence that pro-life protesters had been engaging in behaviour which had intimidated women and meant healthcare workers were unsafe. To date we have received no response from Herrick as to what steps he took to ensure his statements were correct.

 Safe zones have been viewed as necessary to protect women – ICCL

The ICCL report, “A Rights Based Analysis of Safe Access Zones,” states that the ICCL has confidentially been told by doctors that pregnant women have been distressed by pro-life protesters, but no details are provided as to the affiliations of those doctors or what steps the ICCL has taken to verify any information provided to them.

Whilst part of the report seeks to link Irish pro-life protesters to the American pro-life movements, and through that connection link Irish pro-life protesters to violence and intimidation in America, at other moments the ICCL seem to hedge their words quite carefully on this issues, saying that “some may argue that a strong evidence base for introducing safe access zones has not yet been established in Ireland,” but that “we don’t necessarily have to wait until people are seriously harmed before we take measures to protect them.”

Another claim in that report, that the Garda Commissioner is incorrect when he said that the Criminal Justice Act 2006 was sufficient to address any harassment or intimidation by pro-life protesters, is sourced to the Abortion Working Group (AWG.) The AWG, whilst sounding like an impartial body, is merely a collection of NGOs, chaired by the NWCI, who advocate for the introduction of exclusion zones. It includes groups such as the Coalition to Repeal the Eight Amendment; Doctors for Choice; the Transgender Equality Network Ireland; Alliance for Choice; Amnesty Ireland; and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

The Irish Government has a duty to protect women and pregnant people from unwanted harassment, intimidation and distress…it must take steps to prevent such activities and to protect the fundamental right to safe access to private medical care – ICCL

Whilst the involvement of the NWCI, both directly and through the creation of another official sounding paper organisation is expected, the case of the ICCL is more interesting given that the ICCL has itself said that laws bringing in exclusion zones “may interfere with the right to protest, including the right to freedom of expression.” It appears that that the NGO meant to be protecting civil rights may have been calling for the restriction of civil rights based on insinuations of widespread intimidation and harassment that no longer seem to stand up.

Gary Kavanagh

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