THE Good Friday Agreement promised a new dawn for Northern Ireland where the rights of all would be protected.
But in a row which questions the future direction of the accord, the organisation it created to defend human rights has been accused of “undermining those very protections”.
In the same week that the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission [NIHRC] was called into question in a report compiled by a House of Commons committee, two
former members of the commission have made unprecedented criticisms of the organisation.
And while the commission last night hit back, it is facing an attack from
former colleagues who have served on some of the north’s best known public bodies.
Inez McCormack resigned from the commission in September last year, but when she was appointed to it she brought with her a long history of
A former president of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (and its first female president), she was also a founding member of the Equal Opportunities Commission (where she was deputy chairwoman for 10 years), and was a founding member of the Fair Employment Commission.
Christine Bell, a professor of law at the University of Ulster, resigned from the commission at the same time as Inez McCormack.
Last week they were followed by Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities [NICEM] and former deputy chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland.
After his resignation NICEM indicated that there was disquiet at commission proposal’s which “would seriously undermine the equality and human rights protections for all those who need them”.
A fourth commissioner, Angela Hegarty, resigned before her three
former colleagues though at the time the commission said her departure was for personal reasons.
While Inez McCormack yesterday said there was a vital need for a defence of human rights, she said she was disillusioned by the commission’s performance.
“Four years on, four commissioners have resigned, and we have the
comments of the Commons joint
committee, yet there is not a recognition by the commission that there is a serious problem,” she told the Irish News.
“It is still saying ‘we could make a
difference’ – four years on we are entitled to think it should have already. I think that is complacency.”
When the commission was created under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it was handed the task of framing a Bill Of Rights for Northern Ireland – an overarching document that would enshrine the rights of all.
She now believes that the draft prepared by the commission threatens to “undermine”, rather than defend, equality provisions.
“To me, the core purpose of our resigning was the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement in terms of parity of esteem and equality, and the Bill of Rights process being in tatters.
“I am now calling for a meeting between the British and Irish governments, at the highest level, to restore confidence in the protection of human rights.
“And also for current commissioners to consider their positions.”
The commission prepared draft proposals on the bill, which it released in 2001, but which it is continuing to work on.
While the existing legislation on fair employment, as well as that protecting ethnic minorities, would continue to exist after a bill of rights is created, it is understood that the bill would ‘stand superior’ to it.
Experts in the field have claimed that if the existing legislation is found to clash with the bill of rights, it will be the existing legislation that will be redrawn.
“The agreement had a vision of the setting up of a human rights commission which was better than what went before, and that specifically that it was to enhance existing protections and develop new ones,” Dr McCormack said.
“And the commission in my view now, is undermining those very protections. Its job was to enhance them.
“In my view it is undermining the ethos and requirements outlined in the Good Friday Agreement – to protect and enhance human rights, but specifically around equality issues.”
She said 30 years of divisions over the issue of fair employment, sparked by discrimination against Catholics, risked being reopened.
“In the Good Friday Agreement we found a way of saying, ‘there isn’t a level playing field, but let’s go forward inclusively’,” she said.
“In my opinion this is about reopening a debate and trying to undermine existing protections, that is, to take us back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.”
She called for “the protection of and enhancement of human rights, for the benefit of everyone”.
“You have to have human rights protections which are strong and able to protect those who need it. In my opinion what we have currently is the undermining of those protections.”
The House of Commons’ Joint Committee on Human Rights has proposed that the work on the new bill of rights be brought forward by an independently-chaired body.
The committee said this should be made up of representatives of the political parties and civic society, but with the commission “at arms length from these discussions”.
Both Dr McCormack and Prof Bell said they support such a move.
Last night Prof Bell expressed her own concerns about the commission’s draft proposals for the bill of rights.
She claimed that within the commission, the bill of rights work received “a minimum of resources” and that no individual had been appointed to coordinate the project.
“The commission was prepared to include options that could, in my view, have undone the powersharing relationship at the heart of the agreement (by creating the possibility of legal challenges against it),” she said.
“We can have a legitimate debate about the powersharing relationship and the bill of rights, but it has to be a legitimate debate.”
She claimed: “Key elements of the draft bill of rights were undermining all the equality provisions in the Belfast agreement.
“Given that the mandate in the Belfast agreement was that a bill of rights should be signed with particular regard to equality issues, that would seem itself to violate the agreement.”
Endorsing the Commons’ committee proposal, she added: “The commission has not been up to the task.”
Responding to these criticisms, NIHRC chief executive Paddy Sloan said: “The current proposals, which are still being debated, no “end product” exists, allow for the expansion of current equality provisions and the development of positive measures to enhance protection.
“The bill of rights work has been the primary priority of the commission since March 2000 and resources of an additional 50 per cent of the commission’s core budget were secured to
promote the initial consultation phase.”
She added: “One full-time member of staff has had the support of various other short-term posts together with interns and researchers, trainers and the involvement of all staff and commissioners in many different areas of work.”
She said the commission is “deeply conscious of the equality and human rights commitments that are at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement” and “remains open to discussing the concerns of anyone”.
But the Commons’ committee also raised concerns over episodes which it said had risked breaching the commission’s independence.
The committee report said: “The Human Rights Commission’s impartiality must be evident throughout its work.
“We note that at least one external institution has already sought to put pressure on the commission in carrying out its role.”
The report referred to the commission’s decision to fund a judicial review of the policing of the Holy Cross school protest in September 2001, and subsequent correspondence between then Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan and the NIHRC chief commissioner Brice Dickson.
Evidence submitted to the committee showed that Mr Flanagan “…‘Very strongly urged the commission to review its funding decision’ and ‘strongly’ maintained that it was inappropriate for the commission to continue to commit public funds to this litigation”.
“The commission cannot be expected to tolerate interference in its independence,” the committee reported.
Other documents supplied to the committee by solicitors Madden Finucane – who represented the unnamed Holy Cross parent who brought the legal challenge – gave further details of Prof Dickson’s correspondence.
A memorandum supplied to the committee by the solicitors’ office said that in a letter to the chief constable Mr Dickson wrote: “I myself am strongly of the view that the policing of the protest at the Holy Cross school has not been in breach of the Human Rights Act.”
He also named three other commissioners whom he said shared his concerns over the commission’s role in the matter.
The Madden and Finucane memorandum reads: “We have grave concerns about the Chief Commissioner’s conduct with respect to the applicant’s case”.
It stated that of “particular concern” was “the chief commissioner’s decision to write to the respondent [Sir Ronnie] in a case funded by the commission and communicate his views that the applicant’s case did not have merit.
“It is our view that his correspondence amounted to a breach of trust…”
Last night the commission’s chief executive Paddy Sloan said the commission could not comment on the matter since the Holy Cross case was still before the courts, but added: “It is accepted that the Commission must operate independently from any external influence, statutory, political, NGO or any other. We would not seek to do otherwise.”
She welcomed the report by the commons’ committee as “a constructive endorsement of our work which will be given due regard by the NIHRC”.
Despite the allegations around this episode, Christine Bell claims the commission was wary of allowing outside organisations access to its day-to-day work.
“The commission was, ironically, in some respects hysterically paranoid about its independence,” she said.
“It viewed its independence very
narrowly in some respects, and yet was blind to interference in other respects.”
She said there was a reluctance that “anybody should get to see its inner-workings”.
“Now that ran contrary to its stated policy of any openness and transparency and I think was really a reflection of the commission not wanting people to see what a mess the commission was in its day-to-day practices,” she added.
But commission chief executive Paddy Sloan said: “I fail to recognise the commission as “hysterically paranoid” in its determination to avoid external scrutiny.”
She added: “In its four years of
existence, the commission has conducted and cooperated fully with a range of reviews of its operation.”
She listed a series of examples including “a formal review of its powers and effectiveness conducted internally and with the involvement of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights”.
“There is no evidence that we are reluctant, or in fact anything less than enthusiastic, to work with others.”
Mrs Sloan added: “Organisational weaknesses identified in the early days of the commission’s operation have been and are being addressed.
“All commission minutes and reports are posted on the website and available for public scrutiny.”
Inez McCormack and Christine Bell said they hope to see positive steps forward which would meet concerns which they say others share over the commission’s work.
Professor Bell added: “I think the commission has tended to want to be all things to all people, and as a result has been nothing to anybody.”