The letter from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to Atheist Ireland about unconscious bias against atheists in an ICCL project

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has been responding to concerns about unconscious bias in its anti-discrimination law project, by repeatedly telling members of the public that the ICCL has sent a detailed 5-page letter to Atheist Ireland about the issue.

Here is the ICCL letter, which we received on 13 December, together with comments by Atheist Ireland.

There have been developments since this letter, which we will address elsewhere, and our comments on this letter refer to the situation at the time that the letter was received.


I refer to your letters of 25 October and 10 December 2012, as well as to numerous emails and your recent online comments on your own blog, and elsewhere.

I hope that, by the time you read to the end of this letter, you will understand that responding in the necessary detail to the issues that you have raised has required time and reflection, both of which are scarce commodities at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) during its busiest time of year.

I also note that, according to your own timescale, your communications with the ICCL on 25 October, 8 November and 12 November 2012 each received responses from the ICCL on the days on which they were sent.

Readers can judge whether it should take seven weeks to prepare a letter like this. The responses from the ICCL, on the days on which they were sent, were emails with an ambiguous response to one of our five concerns, and saying that the ICCL would respond to our original letter when it had time, followed by a four-week silence in response to a request that we meet to discuss the issue constructively.

‘Setting straight the facts’

Let’s begin by setting straight the facts:

– Atheist Ireland did not “discover” the ICCL’s Anti-Discrimination Law Project on 23 October 2012. You were informed about the project by the ICCL at its conference The Future of Anti- Discrimination Law in Ireland, held on that date. You had been expressly invited to the conference, at which you were welcomed as our guest, as you have been on many previous occasions. At that conference, you and other participants were also provided with copies of the first research output of the project, on which your comments were requested;

The ICCL is mistaken about this. We were not invited to this conference, or if we were we did not receive the invite. Somebody else who was invited told us about it and forwarded us their invite. Also, the invite did not mention the project. It was an invitation to a book launch and conference.

– Eoin O’Mahony does not represent the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on the project’s Advisory Group. He serves on the Advisory Group as a Social Researcher and was selected based on his knowledge and expertise in relation to anti-discrimination law on the religion ground. Members of the Advisory Group are free to give their views either in their own capacity or as representatives of their respective organisations. In Eoin’s case, the former applies, as it does for some of the other legal practitioners on the group. I appreciate that you may have received information regarding the composition of the group that this has been corrected.

This has been addressed in detail here. The person in question was listed as a representative of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference on official ICCL documentation about the project. When this was raised at the conference, neither of the ICCL officers on the panel said it was a mistake, and indeed both defended it. Even if the ICCL is now saying that the person is there in a personal capacity, there are still conflict-of-interest issues because he is employed by the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference. Also, irrespective of his status, there is still no representative on the advisory group of those who are discriminated against on the religion ground.

– In any case, from the standpoint of anti-discrimination law, the issue is not whether or not a particular organised religion does or does not discriminate against atheists. The issue is whether or not the state allows a legal framework that does not effectively prohibit discrimination to remain in place. And this issue is being fully examined by the ICCL’s research project, in particular on the basis of the stakeholder inputs that have been requested from organisations including atheist Ireland;

We have never suggested that the issue is not being examined by the project. What we have questioned is why, on other grounds of discrimination, the advisory group includes a representative of the people discriminated against, while on the ground of religion, the advisory group both fails to include a representative of the people discriminated against, and also includes a representative of (and/or an employee of) the main body that discriminates. Both of these are separate problems, and the ICCL has not even addressed the first of them.

– On the basis of the issues that you raised at the conference, you were invited to write to the ICCL setting out any residual concerns that you might have about the project, but you are not at any stage encouraged “to seek representation on the advisory group”.

The ICCL is mistaken about this. The ICCL specifically asked Atheist Ireland to write to seek representation on the advisory group, immediately after the conference session at which we raised our concerns.

Unconscious bias

I would like now to address your suggestion that the project is “seriously flawed by unconscious bias on the issue of discrimination on the ground of religion”.

As you may know, the ICCL’s founding principles required that it “shall be independent of all political and religious organisations and shall work actively to promote a tolerant, inclusive, pluralist and secular society in Ireland”. The work, and the approach to work, of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has remained true to these founding principles for more than three decades. The ICCL does not have, and never will have an “unconscious bias against atheists”; in fact, it has a conscious bias in favour of a tolerant, inclusive, pluralist and secular society. In other words, the values that you purport to uphold are already deeply mainstreamed into all of our work, including into this particular project. To suggest otherwise is not only unfairly damaging to the ICCL’s reputation, it is preposterous.

We have never suggested that the ICCL’s founding principles, and its overt approach to work, is unsupportive of secularism. Indeed, it is because of this that we are so disappointed by its approach to selecting the advisory group for this project, and to its response to being asked about this. It is clear that a bias exists, in that the ground of religion is being treated differently to other grounds of discrimination, and we have described it as unconscious bias precisely because we do not believe that is deliberate. The ICCL is aware of the concept of unconscious bias, and should be more open to considering that it is not immune from this phenomenon.

Respectful engagement

Let me also emphasise the “tolerance” dimension of the ICCL’s founding principles. The clear implication of this principle is that our dealings with others should be characterised by respectful engagement, based on a mature consideration of all of the facts. In other words, that we should live out the values that purports to hold through the manner in which we conduct ourselves in our professional lives.

In this respect, I hope that you will allow me to share with you my deep disappointment upon discovering that, on International Human Rights Day 2012, you chose to pen a blog entry headed “the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is discriminating against atheists, and is failing to address the issue”. And that you supplemented this with a number of other online postings repeating those unfounded assertions, including one on, in which encouraged users to “contact the ICCL directly and let them know your views on this issue.

Would it surprise you to know that this has generated a wholly unjustified online backlash against the ICC L, which has occupied staff time and resources in a completely disproportionate way? Or that the only other occasion during my tenure as director of which this has occurred was during her work on the universal periodic review in 2011, and was the handiwork of the religious right? Quite simply Michael, this is no way to do business. As I noted in an online response to your blog, and I am happy to repeat, I expect better of Atheist Ireland.

Atheist Ireland has constantly approached this issue on the basis of respectful dialogue. We did not ‘pen a blog entry’ on 10 December; we published a letter that we had sent to the ICCL. And it was only after seven weeks of the ICCL repeatedly saying that it was going to respond to us, and yet not doing so, that we eventually made this issue public. Since then, we have remained respectful, while the ICCL has made increasingly intemperate and personalised comments on the issue.

  • On 23 October, seven weeks ago, we first discovered about this discrimination at the project’s conference and book launch at the Law Society. The ICCL asked us to write to them about our concerns, and to ask them to invite us to nominate a member to the Advisory Group.
  • On 25 October, two days later, we emailed the ICCL, the coordinator of the UCD Research Team, and the Chairperson and the Catholic Bishops representative on the Advisory Group. The contents of that letter are summarized above.
  • Later that day, we received a constructive email from the UCD Research Team saying they would be in touch the following week, an acknowledgment from the Catholic Bishops Conference representative on the Advisory Group, and then an email from the ICCL saying that they had told the members of the Advisory Group to whom we had written that the ICCL would be replying to us shortly.
  • On 8 November, two weeks after our first email, we emailed the ICCL again, seeking a reply before our strategy workshop that weekend. We said that we really needed to know that we are all working together, and actively supporting each other, and we suggested that we meet for coffee before they reply.
  • Later that day, the ICCL replied saying that they did not envisage, at this stage, inviting us to join the advisory group, and that they would send a more detailed response setting out the rationale for that decision in due course.
  • On 12 November, we emailed the ICCL again, expressing our disappointment and confusion that they were not standing alongside us on this issue, asking what ‘at this stage’ meant, and suggesting that we meet that week to discuss it further and try to ensure a constructive outcome.
  • Later that day, the ICCL replied, saying that they had a rather full agenda that week but that, as promised, they would be writing to us in due course.
  • On 13 November, we emailed the ICCL again, asking when they would be free to meet us. We said we didn’t want to deal with this exclusively through exchanges of letters, that the reason we wrote was because we were asked to write, and that, as well as writing, we would also like to meet to discuss it.
  • On 10 December, seven weeks since we first raised this issue, and four weeks since we sent our last email asking when we could meet to discuss the issue, we had no response from the ICCL to our request for a meeting. We wrote to the ICC L again, and this time published the letter online.
  • On 11 December, the ICCL published dismissive comments online about atheist Ireland, in a way that it would never even dream of publishing about any other discriminated against advocacy group in Ireland.
  • On 13 December, the ICCL sent us the letter which we are dealing with here.

Engagement with Atheist Ireland

Perhaps it might be useful to recall some of the principal occasions over the last couple of years on which the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has reached out to Atheist Ireland as a partner and actively solicited your engagement with their work. These include:

The ICCL letter then includes a spreadsheet description of nine occasions in the past two years in which Atheist Ireland and the ICCL have interacted.

– March 2011: Atheist Ireland made a formal submission to the Your Rights Now Civil Society Stakeholder report to the Universal Periodic Review. Submission was referenced under Section 13 Right to Education at footnote 143 and 145 of the report.
– March 2011: Consultation on UPR featuring ICCL. Spoke at length with Director of ICCL on Atheist Ireland issues in relation to UPR.
– January 2012: Michael Nugent, Jane Donnelly and Prof David Nash met with Stephen O’Hare at ICCL offices at the request of Atheist Ireland.
– March 2012: Attended the ICCL-organised live screening of the UPR hearing from Geneva.
– March 2012: Invited by the Director of ICCL to roundtable discussion with select cohort of NGOs regarding Constitutional Convention.
– March 2012: Invited by the Director of the ICCL to attend parliamentary briefing on Constitutional Convention with ICCL and select cohort of NGOs. Included at Michael Nugent’s request as panelist at briefing session.
– June 2012: Invited by the Director of ICCL to attend ICCL International Symposium on the Constitutional Convention.
– July 2012: Invited by ICCL to nominate experts to be put forward for consideration by Government on Constitutional Convention under ICCL-led Hear Our Voices initiative. Accepted nominations of Michael Nugent and Prof David Nash. Nominations submitted to the Secretariat of the Convention.
– October 2012: Invited as part of a targeted mail-out of NGOs to participate in the ICCL book launch and conference on the the anti-discrimination law review project. Asked to provide feedback on first output from the research project: The Discrimination Complaint.

Given this track record of partnership and genuine engagement between our two organisations, I am frankly at a loss to understand why you have chosen to engage the ICCL in such an unnecessarily adversarial manner on this occasion.

We have never suggested that the ICCL has not engaged with Atheist Ireland. Indeed, it is partly because of this engagement that we are so disappointed by its approach to selecting the advisory group for this project, and to its response to being asked about this.


Nonetheless, given the shared interests and values of our organisations, I agree with you that it is important that we seek to restore the positive and mutually supportive working relationship that I had believed we enjoyed.

So here is what I suggest:

– The composition of the advisory board of the ICCL’s anti-discrimination law review project is well settled and has proven itself fully capable of assisting the research team in the manner originally agreed. It is not envisaged that it would be altered at this stage. However, there are other ways in which Atheist Ireland (and a wide range of other stakeholders) have been invited to put his space in the project. In particular, we would welcome your comments on the draft research output with which you are provided on 23rd of October 2012. I believe that the research team have also offered to interview you, and if you have not already done so, I would encourage you to take up this offer.
– I would also welcome the opportunity to meet with you, early in the New Year, in order to ensure that I understand any remaining concerns that you have and that you may feel are not fully addressed in this letter. I would encourage you to contact the ICL office before the end of your holidays with a view to identifying and mutually convenient date.

I do not envisage that would be necessary for us to engage in further correspondence on these issues prior to our next meeting, but I hope that you will reflect on the content of this letter and consider how a respectful and professional relationship between our two organisations may be best restored.

I hope that you will enjoy a peaceful holiday season and look forward to speaking with you in the relatively near future.

Yours sincerely.

These suggestions do not engage meaningfully with our concerns.

Our immediate concerns about this particular project have been simply dismissed, with no effort made, or opportunity offered, to discuss the concerns and tease out how to address the issue collectively. And there is an increasing urgency to resolve this issue, as the project in question is soon concluding.

Our wider concerns about unconscious bias against atheists in the ICCL will obviously take longer to address, and early next year seems a reasonable timescale to begin this process. In this context, the response to our original concerns is more worrying than the original problem.

There have been developments since this letter, which we will address elsewhere, and our comments on this letter refer to the situation at the time that the letter was received.

Atheist Ireland

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Conor Kelly December 19, 2012

    I find the content of this letter staggering. Also inexcusable, in a letter that took so long in gestation, are the intermittent typographical and grammatical errors. If, as I suspect, this letter was drafted by a lawyer, it shows a shocking disregard for the English language and would lead one to doubt the professionalism and seriousness with which the task was addressed. For example: “the opportunity to meet with you” and “I believe that the research team have also offered”.