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'I've lived in a house with mould, damp and sewage, until I said, no more'

Debbie Mulhall has lived in Dublin 8 all her life and says she accepted her living conditions until she was told she had rights.

Debbie Mulhall

MY NAME IS Debbie Mulhall. I’ve lived in Dolphin House, Dublin 8, all my life. In recent years, I’ve also begun to work there as a Development Worker.

My community is a strong, vibrant one: some residents are like me and have lived there for generations. All residents put their hearts and souls into building homes for their families.

But, for years, the odds have been stacked against us.

We have lived – and continue to live – with poor housing, which has damp, mould, sewage and overcrowding. For this, we pay rent, though it costs a fortune to heat and decorate.

These conditions impact negatively on our health and the health of our children, which in turn results in medical bills, time off school and huge stress on a daily basis.

I felt frustrated and powerless

Until such time as we engaged with naming this lived experience as a violation of human rights, we were getting no satisfactory response from the state. Given the lack of any independent complaints process for local authority tenants, we had nowhere to turn and were left frustrated, powerless to get on with it.

It was in this context that myself and other residents began working with a community action group, who suggested a human rights based approach to naming our experience and campaigning for change. The only human right I had ever heard about was the right to remain silent but, over time, I learned that I and you have human rights because we are human. We are supposed to live a life of dignity and respect.

From the very beginning, I really connected to that idea of emphasising the “human” in all of us. We began a campaign, re-naming the poor housing as human rights violations and holding the state to account for their failure to respect, protect and fulfil our right to adequate housing.

Highlighting our issues 

We learned the power of using human rights language, of gathering evidence, of using the media to highlight our experience in a new way.

Our campaign has delivered real measurable outcomes in terms of empowerment, better quality short-term refurbishment and a regeneration programme. We have also experienced more respectful engagement with the council.

But it is a long journey and one where we have to keep the pressure on all the time!

My involvement in the campaign has changed my understanding of poor housing. I now see it as a violation of human rights.

I now know about Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and about the revised European Social Charter.

I can’t quote them in detail but I know about them and what Ireland signed up to when we put our name to them. I also know that it is not acceptable to sign up and then totally ignore the rights in question.

I know the importance of holding the state to account for failure to deliver on the right to adequate housing. I know it is no longer about asking please and being made to feel grateful, undeserving and blamed.

This way of working is all about shifting the blame from residents to systems. It is all about taking power and feeling equal.

Debbie Mulhall is one of those participating in #MakeRightsReal, a new initiative of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The MakeRightsReal campaign is an initiative of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which was set up in November 2014 as an independent public body.  The Commission’s goal is an inclusive Ireland where human rights and equality are fully enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. The ‘Make Rights Real’ campaign is co-funded by the Progress Programme of the European Union.

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