Defender of rights

Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin: “To see people risking their lives to become rights lawyers and that commitment to the rule of law, it was huge for me.” Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin: “To see people risking their lives to become rights lawyers and that commitment to the rule of law, it was huge for me.” Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle – Galway woman Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who has devoted her career to promoting people’s rights all over the globe, has been appointed to a new position by the United Nations. Judy Murphy tells her story.

Furbo woman Fionnuala Ní Aoláin is known internationally for her work in promoting people’s rights in Ireland and across the world. This warm, open person, possessed of a brilliant legal mind and formidable work ethic is Professor of Law at Ulster University and the University of Minnesota in the USA, dividing her time between both.

Her books on legal affairs have won academic awards on both sides of the Atlantic, while the UN and the Irish government have called on her expertise through the years – she’s a member of the Irish council for Civil Liberties and a former member of the Irish Human Rights Commission. In the 1990s, she was a representative for the prosecutor at the International War Crimes trial in Bosnia. And in 2003, the UN named her as a Special Expert on promoting gender equality in times of conflict and peace-making.

Now, the UN has just appointed Fionnuala to a new position – UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.  It involves working with selected countries to investigate, report on and advocate for citizens’ rights, especially in places where there’s concern that these are being violated.

When we meet in McCambridge’s Restaurant on a rainy Friday, Fionnuala and two of her three children, Noa (13) and Malachy (almost 12), have just come from Tipperary where’s she’s been visiting relatives. She’s trying to pack in as much family time as possible here before returning to Minnesota, to her Israeli-born husband Oren Gross and their oldest child, Aodthan almost 16.

Over coffee, she explains how her teachers at Taylors Hill Secondary School in Galway City and her father, Pádraig Ó hAoláin – the former head of Údarás na Gaeltachta –  were major influences on her decision to study law, where she went on to focus on human rights and conflict resolution.

While she was at secondary school, her father did a law degree. Fionnuala was intrigued, especially by the criminal law cases he was studying.

“He was the biggest influence for me to become a lawyer,” she says.

At school, one of her teachers, Sr Freda, advised her to apply for a scholarship to Pearson College in Canada, a small college founded by ‘peaceniks’ so students from around the world could meet and study together.

She won the scholarship, and spent a year there after finishing her Leaving Cert at the age of 17.  It had a huge influence. When Fionnuala returned home and decided she definitely wanted to study law, she opted for Queens University Belfast, rather than the more obvious locations of UCG or Trinity.

Her reason was simple. In Pearson, with its multi-cultural student body, there had been many discussions about inequality and human rights and she’d become hooked.

 

 

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.