Martin O’Brien

Martin O’Brien was the Country Representative for Northern Ireland and the Director of the Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme for Atlantic Philanthropies. This grantmaking program works actively to bring about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa and the United States by promoting peace-building and access to human rights. Prior to joining Atlantic in 2004, Mr. O’Brien worked for 17 years co-ordinating the work of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), an organization dedicated to securing the highest standards in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. It was during Mr. O’Brien’s tenure in 1998 that CAJ was awarded the prestigious Council of Europe Human Rights Prize in recognition of its contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Mr. O’Brien has written, spoken and publicly campaigned on a wide range of civil-liberties issues. He has been centrally involved in the campaign to secure a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and active in securing strong human-rights protections in the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. Mr. O’Brien has brought concerns about the abuse of human rights in Northern Ireland to international audiences, including the United Nations. Mr. O’Brien received his degree in Sociology and Social Administration from Queen’s University Belfast in 1987. In 1996, he was awarded a first class Master’s degree in human rights law. In May 1999, Notre Dame College presented him with an honorary Doctorate in recognition of his work to promote justice and peace in Northern Ireland. He is the cofounder of several organizations, including Youth for Peace; the Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training and Education (INNATE); and Kilcranny House, a rural education centre committed to healing the divisions which exist in Northern Ireland. His work has also been honored by Human Rights Watch, which selected him as one of 12 international human rights monitors for 1992.

I started working at the Committee for the Administration of Justice in Northern Ireland in 1987. The committee has three jobs. First, it publishes and disseminates information on citizens’ rights, such as how the police should behave when conducting an arrest, or how prisoners are treated. Northern Ireland is a very segregated society-so much so that it is quite possible to reach the age of eighteen without ever having met someone from a different political background. In an effort to tackle this segregation there are a range of groups that organize different activities designed to bring Protestants and Catholics together, perhaps by sponsoring activities, talking about sports, or discussing a number of uncontroversial topics. Over time, more controversial issues arise within these groups. Tension, for example, might be created within the group if someone has a family member in prison. At this point, CAJ might be invited by the group organizers to facilitate a discussion about prisoners’ rights or have a general discussion about human rights: why are rights important and where do our ideas about rights come from? CAJ publishes materials about abuses and gets that information into the press. As an extension of this, the committee acts as an informational resource for students, journalists, community groups, church people, members of the public, politicians, international delegations, and others.

Secondly, CAJ offers legal advice and assistance to people whose rights have been violated. The committee either acts as their lawyers (as in the five cases presently in the European Court of Human Rights), or helps victims and their families manage a case beyond the court proceedings. For instance, members might help the family in a miscarriage of justice case by identifying sympathetic politicians and attending meetings between the two parties. Likewise, members meet with people from Amnesty International or the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights to enlist their support.

Lastly, the committee is involved in lobbying for changes to laws and practices that violate human rights. For example, it has worked to secure laws prohibiting racial discrimination in Northern Ireland. This has provided protection for minority groups like the Chinese and Indian communities in Northern Ireland. Another example would be our work to secure safeguards to prevent the ill-treatment of detainees. Lobbying and campaigning are critical to ensure that the government lives up to its commitment to international human rights law. Over the last few years our work centered on getting I got involved in this kind of work in 1976 when I was twelve years old. A group of people knocked on the door of our house and said, “Do you want to go on a peace march to demonstrate against the violence?” My older brother and sister went and I said I would go with them. We marched every weekend in different parts of Northern Ireland and, in doing so, formed a local group that brought together diverse people. The Peace People won the Nobel Prize in 1977. With demonstrations drawing approximately twenty to thirty thousand people, a popular movement developed. It was exciting. A number of us went to a summer camp in Norway designed to bring together Catholics and Protestants from different backgrounds and locations throughout Northern Ireland. We had discussions about politics, about religion, about violence, and life in Northern Ireland. We discussed nonviolence as well. At the summer camp, I met a Norwegian woman who came to work in Belfast after the summer camp. With the help of an American, we formed a group called Youth for Peace.

About twenty of us organized a three-day fast on the steps of city hall to highlight hunger around the world and to call for peace. We were all sitting there and fasting for peace when a bomb suddenly went off a few streets away. It was discovered that the IRA had planted it in a car. It was pouring rain and we went around to see if there was anything we could do. Nobody had been killed, but there were a lot of passers by covered with glass from the windows. Glaziers arrived and life quickly returned to normal. It was impossible to see, it was so wet, blood was dripping off the pavement, but life was proceeding as normal, and yet this dreadful thing had just happened.

I had been learning about nonviolence, hearing what Gandhi and Martin Luther King were saying. It was wrong that people should mess up the lives of others for some political ideology, for a flag, over who should govern this particular place. That night, it became very clear to me that violence was inhumane and that we didn’t have the right to use it. In my family we were brought up with a strong sense of right and wrong, that people were to be treated well and not abused. The sanctity and the preciousness of life was emphasized.

In every case, the impact of the violence is terrible. In Northern Ireland, people get categorized either as innocent victims or “other” victims. If you haven’t been involved in anything, you are an “innocent” victim. On the other hand, if you are in the IRA and you are out doing something and end up getting shot, you are not categorized as innocent. In this case, there is a sense that you do not deserve any sympathy and, by extension, neither does your family. This is in spite of the fact that everyone’s grief is the same.

There is a hierarchy of victimhood. If you are involved in politics, for example, you are not considered innocent. Whenever somebody is killed in Northern Ireland, media interviews with the relatives are conducted. The first thing asked is, “Was your husband involved in anything? Why would somebody have done this?” People rush to say, “He was a very quiet person. He just lived for his family. He wasn’t involved.” But if you are involved in public life, somehow a violent death seems to be understandable.

The worst thing is apathy-to sit idly by in the face of injustice and to do nothing about it. There is a real responsibility to challenge things that are wrong. I believe that nonviolent tactics are right and effective. Though nonviolence is a backdoor approach to combating human rights abuses, it is both morally and pragmatically right. If you believe that a greater world exists beyond this one, then it is more important from a larger standpoint to do the right thing rather than to be effective or to survive. There is a bigger frame of reference.

I have been afraid a couple of times. When I was very young and we were going on the peace marches, some of the marchers were attacked with bricks and bottles and a number of people were beaten. At those times, I remember being frightened. When Pat Finucane, a defense lawyer doing a lot of work on human rights, was killed, it became clear that he had received threats beforehand and that there was official collusion by elements within the police and army. I and other people working on human rights were frightened. And on March 15, 1999, Rosemary Nelson, a lawyer and member of the CAJ’s board and a friend, was killed by a bomb left under her car. That was truly terrible. But you can’t live your life in fear and give people power over you who want to create fear. At the end of the day, it is very important that these people are not allowed to do that. It would be better to die early than to refrain from doing things because you are fearful about the consequences.