Ireland’s new law expanding access to abortion services came into operation, but restrictions remained, and healthcare providers continued to be criminalized in certain circumstances. Concerns grew about homelessness and housing rights. The law on political funding impacted civil society groups’ freedom of expression.
Sexual and reproductive rights
The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 came into operation on 1 January, expanding lawful access to abortion services. From that date, abortion services were provided without cost within mainstream healthcare. Previously, a pregnancy could be lawfully terminated only where the life of the pregnant person was at “real and substantial risk”.
Significant gaps remained in the law, however. These included a mandatory three-day waiting period for access on request, a high threshold of “serious harm” to the pregnant person’s health, the lack of provision for access in cases of pregnancies with severe rather than fatal foetal impairments, and the continued criminalization of health professionals for providing abortion outside lawful grounds.
By year’s end, just ten out of the 19 maternity hospitals or units offered full termination of pregnancy services, with concerns that healthcare professionals’ conscience-based refusals to provide abortions prevented the expansion of services in some.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
There were growing calls for an alternative to the “direct provision” accommodation system for the 6,082 asylum-seekers housed there. A report of a parliamentary committee review published in December found the system of “shared, institutionalised living fails to fully respect the rights to privacy and human dignity of those placed in these centres”. Also in December, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at the “inadequate living conditions in direct provision centres and its significant impact on mental health and family life of asylum seekers”. It also criticised the “substandard living conditions” of emergency accommodation provided for new asylum seekers due to capacity pressures, and the lack of necessary services and support provided therein.
The government, in partnership with UNHCR and civil society groups, in March commenced rolling out a Community Sponsorship Programme as a complement to the traditional state-centred resettlement programme. The programme, officially launched in November, provided private individuals and community-based organizations an opportunity to directly support the arrival and integration of refugee families. By year’s end, 25 refugees had been settled under this programme.
Right to housing
Increasing numbers of people experienced homelessness, many as a result of the shrinking availability of affordable privately-owned rental properties. In September, 10,397 people (including 3,873 children) were officially experiencing homelessness, representing an increase of 278% since December 2014.
In July, a government-sponsored review of the Traveller Accommodation Programme found that this community disproportionately experiences homelessness. It identified persistent under-delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation by some local authorities. It also found that the increasing reliance on private rented accommodation for low-income households impacts Travellers because they face barriers in securing and maintaining tenancies.
The criminal offence of “brothel-keeping” continued to be used against sex workers. In one reported case, two young migrant women, one of whom was pregnant, were sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment for “brothel-keeping” when the police found them working together in an apartment.
The government issued an apology to people who were sexually abused as children in schools before 1992. In July, a former High Court judge acting as Independent Assessor had ruled that the State had misinterpreted the 2014 decision against it by the European Court of Human Rights in O’Keefe v Ireland, by only providing redress to survivors where there had been prior complaints made against their abusers by others.
In April, the fifth interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes run by religious orders between 1922 and 1998 found that, for the overwhelming majority of children who died in seven of these institutions, their burial locations are unknown and burial records non-existent. It also confirmed 2014 media reports that hundreds of children were buried informally in underground chambers designed to hold wastewater and sewage on the grounds of the Tuam institution, Co Galway.
Freedom of expression
Concerns continued about the impact on civil society groups of the Electoral Act 1997, a law which regulates political funding. The Act, as amended in 2001, prohibits overseas donations, or domestic donations over €2,500, to “third party” organizations for vaguely defined “political purposes”.
The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill progressed from the Seanad (upper house of parliament) to the Dáil (lower house), where it passed its second reading vote in January but was then blocked by the government. This landmark bill would prohibit trade in goods and services with illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.[i]
[i] Amnesty International: Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories: Destination: Occupation digital tourism and Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (MDE 15/9490/2019)