The Irish peace process and me

Peace brings optimism. FRA’s Alice Hamilton explains her passion for access to justice and victims’ rights. Growing up with a Protestant father and a Catholic mother at the height of the Troubles gave Alice a valuable insight into living in a divided Ireland. As a child, she dreamed of equal treatment in both communities – a society where you are free to marry who you choose. Now Alice shares her optimism for the future in a Europe that protects fundamental rights.


Richard Miron: This is the Fundamentally Right Podcast from the Fundamental Rights Agency. I'm Richard Miron. The FRA's part of the European Union and provides advice on people's human rights, as well as the obligations of the authorities to ensure that they're protected. The FRA's work is based upon the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which came into force 10 years ago in December 2009. In this programme, we're focusing on the personal stories of some of those working at the FRA. They talk about the experiences that led them to work in human rights and why the Charter and a particular aspect of it is so important.

This episode features Alice Hamilton, who works in the FRA's Research and Data Unit, specialising in the rights of victims of crime and the access of people to justice. Alice grew up in the Republic of Ireland at a time when there was violence in the north involving different paramilitary groups, the British army and police, with civilians caught in the middle. Her family background gave her a personal view of the conflict.

Alice Hamilton: I'm Irish. I grew up in a small town by the sea in Dublin. I had a wonderful childhood upbringing. I think from very early on, I had a sense that certain things were just very normal such as having parents with a steady income, being taken to the doctor when I was sick, holidays in France once a year. So a very, very happy, lucky childhood. I also grew up in a very political household where having the news on in the background at almost any time of day or on TV was a reality for us, and something that always then later impacted me and gave me a healthy appetite for news and politics.

So my father, he was a Protestant from Dublin and my mother was a Catholic from Northern Ireland. And so very early on, I had the sense that their union, their love had not always been something that was very simple to the ones they loved, although it seemed to me the most obvious thing in the world. Some of the key topics of the day, of course, when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s was Northern Ireland and peace, and just an understanding of how people are the same, but how hate and differences were a reality that had driven this particular society apart. And it was something that I couldn't in my child's mind understand. It was as simple as my mammy is Catholic, my daddy is Protestant, and living in Dublin, one couldn't get the real sense of that.

We were driving over the border quite often to visit family in the north, and so I did have this feeling of fear, of course going over the border, seeing British soldiers there, stopping cars. But always a sense of relief and normality, when I returned home, that this is a very secure, safe society I live in where these differences don't exist. Very, very seldom in my life was the fact that I was Protestant even an issue, or if it was, then jokingly or my friends would make fun of me in a playful way. So that was something that informed me. And as a child, I really followed the news closely, followed events there. I would hear it growing up, and really just hoped for peace and hoped that this hatred and these divisions that seemed to me so superficial would end. As a kid, I wrote a diary. It was an essay we had to do for school. It was 1993 and the essay was titled 'Things I would like to happen in 1994'. I found this recently as my parents were clearing out the house. 'So there are a lot of things I would like to happen in 1994. The first thing is that there be peace in Northern Ireland and then I would like to win 80,000 pounds in the lotto. First of all, I would stop people cutting down all the trees. Then I would buy a big car and house and keep 2,000 pounds and give the rest to charity. But any of that is unlikely to happen.' And later, I ended the essay by saying I'd also like all members of the IRA and UFF to be locked up in a big prison.

And what strikes me about reading this, seeing back into the mind of myself as an 11 year old child. I know that I got to grow up with this sense of wanted fairness. I wanted justice. I wanted solidarity, people to be unified, a sense that what are these things that are driving us apart? I wanted peace in Northern Ireland and I seemed to have a sort of negative opinion that this could happen. So flash forward to today and where I am. I think I'm a much more optimistic adult than when I was as a child. We've seen the peace process in Northern Ireland. It's a great source of pride for me to see just how quickly we've come as a society, which was still criminalising homosexuality. And in 1993, the same year I wrote that essay as an 11 year old child to today, thankfully a society where all are free to marry. That's just one example, maybe the most extreme of how, how far our socially conservative society has transitioned. I mean, one thing I would still say is there's never going to go away because as long as we have society, we're going to need to fight to keep that society, to keep equality, solidarity and all of the things that make us human. I think that, yeah, there are good things happening as well as all the bad we read every day.

Richard Miron: Alice, we've just heard about your background and the experiences which shaped you personally. Now, here at the FRA, you work as a research officer, specifically looking at access to justice and victims’ rights. One of the aspects of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, is solidarity What does solidarity mean to you?

Alice Hamilton: So the Charter has a very specific Title just on solidarity. What this title contains are many rights that are bound up in this concept: workers’ rights, rights to health, housing, education, also consumer rights and environmental rights. I think for me, at a very basic level, the concept of solidarity is about the needs that humans have in society. Certain things that bind us together needs exactly such as those I've just mentioned, the need to work, the need for health, for education, basic needs of food and water. And I think solidarity, it's about recognising that these needs are rights, they're human rights. And there's something that we should want for everyone just by virtue of being human and not something that we just see as we are entitled to have ourselves.

Richard Miron: This has touched on a particular aspect of your work, I assume. Can you tell me how, I mean, taking this title, how your work has crossed over with this, what you've done as a specific piece of work on this?

Alice Hamilton: Well, at FRA we actually started in-depth research into the issue of labour exploitation that touches on this issue of solidarity in terms of the right in the Charter, Article 31, to fair and just working conditions, including the right to health and dignity. This is a very, very important right. And it's something we started to research in terms of the reality of exploitation in the EU, because it's something that was little researched to date. There was much research on sexual exploitation, for example, but little was known in terms of the number or experiences of migrant workers experiencing these terrible working conditions, such as long, long hours, 14 hour days, pay of a euro or two an hour, sometimes even a day, and things going on right under our noses here in the EU, in every single country of the EU. And things that were happening not only to third-country nationals who crossed into the EU, but also to EU workers who migrate to another EU country just to make a better life and indeed pursue those rights under the charter that they are entitled to. And our research was quite sobering. I mean, it uncovered reality - having interviewed some 250 migrant workers, including at least a quarter of those EU workers themselves, about their experiences in eight Member States. And this research covered people from over 40 countries across the world. And we found the reality of workers having to hide when inspectors were coming, being locked in freezers and fridges, sleeping on shelves out in containers where they were to sleep while working in fields. Really, the findings were quite shocking and it was something quite, the first really comprehensive research evidence on this issue.

Richard Miron: Is there one case that really stood out for you, one person that really stood out for you?

Alice Hamilton: Well, I think for me as a researcher sitting in my cozy office and reading and hearing these interviews that we did, which by the way were anonymous to protect people's identity - one in particular stood out. It was a man who'd been working in the UK and he had come from an Eastern European country and he'd worked in agriculture and in construction and various jobs, and was terribly exploited. But the shocking… having read many of these stories, it's terrible to feel that you become numb to the things you read – but what really shocked me was his attitude was: 'Well, it wasn't so bad. I came to work and I did get work'. Even though he was paid five euros a day and slept in the most terrible conditions, he felt like it was maybe no more than he deserved. And this for me was shocking that a human being in an EU country, and let me stress the UK was not alone in this. These stories came up in all the countries we researched. But to have a human feel that this was no more than they deserved and that they shouldn't have rights to minimum wage and basic human dignity when sleeping, and workers’ rights, all of which are enshrined in the Charter, to me was really, really shocking.

Richard Miron: There's also been other work, hasn't there, on other things that have been going on in the European Union, across the European Union, which link to solidarity?

Alice Hamilton: I think one of the most interesting pieces of research we've done recently is on the integration of young refugees in the EU. Following the so-called migration crisis in 2015, FRA decided to undertake research to find out what happened to young, young meaning aged 16 to 24, young people who arrived in the EU. And we wanted to find out what happened to them in terms of their access to education, to housing and so on. So this research was carried out in 15 locations across 6 Member States, where a lot of migration happened after 2015 and those were Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Sweden. It was particularly interesting to find out how young people, of course who are among the most vulnerable, how even they didn't always get to enjoy the rights that they deserve. So the research showed that there's a lot of promising things in these countries.

But there are also major gaps, particularly in two very important points in the lives of young refugees, that's when they turn from children to adults. And also when they get there, their right to stay, their right to be granted international protection. FRA's research was able to show all these rights as well and we've mentioned and talked about in solidarity, they impact on each other. So your right and your safe housing will have an impact on how you get on in education, will impact on your work or access to health, on all of this. So it was an important, it was important to really see what just happens to these people beyond just arriving at the EU and Member States thinking ‘job done’. So the research will help Member States now to really focus on closing some of those gaps and making sure that the most vulnerable of people deserving the international protection, being children really can avail of those rights.

Richard Miron: Of course, this right to solidarity is laudable. And, of course, the work that the FRA does around this is laudable. But the question is, the research is done and these terms exist on paper. How substantial is that when it comes to really changing the reality of people's lives across the European Union?

Alice Hamilton: Well, research, as you've mentioned, it's a first step. It is important for policy and lawmakers to have evidence to then base changes in law and policy. And in terms of the issue of labour exploitation, for example, there's now a lot going on at the EU level in terms of recognition that there is a problem. One recent development is that there will be, or there was formed last year, a new European Labour Authority. And this is a new agency, for example, that's been set up to try and ensure that the rules surrounding fair labour mobility and workers’ rights across the EU are respected in terms of EU workers who migrate to other countries. And that will have a role also in tackling issues such as undeclared work, where workers end up being then vulnerable to labour exploitation.

And that agency will also have a role in ensuring joint labour inspections. And that's something that our findings showed up as a real first point that needs to be tackled. And that's, that the issue of inspectors showing up on a worksite, that's where if we don't look, we don't find. So if you don't have an effective system of labour inspections, you won't find the hidden realities going on in fields, in homes where domestic workers are working all day and night looking after children and doing household chores, in construction sites, manufacturing sites, which are all particularly prone to labour exploitation. So one of the findings was this recognition of a need for a stronger inspection and that very first level to uncover the issue of labour exploitation and then moving on to ensuring that justice is done and that exploiters know that there are consequences. So there are things moving in the right direction in the EU in that respect and new laws directive came out last year as well, was adopted on the issue of transparent working conditions. So it's all about ensuring now that that we give teeth in Member States and at the EU level to the rights that are enshrined in the Charter and should not remain just there in this very important bill of EU rights.

Richard Miron: That was Alice Hamilton on the importance of human rights and of people knowing about them. If you haven't already, do listen to the other episodes in this series where you can hear how student activism led one man to work with refugees, and how growing up behind the Iron Curtain shaped the view of one woman to pursue a legal career. This podcast is being presented by me, Richard Miron, and produced by Anouk Millet. This is an Earshot Strategies production.