THE British and Irish governments are to come under pressure to intervene in the growing controversy surrounding the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
Sinn Fein has confirmed it has written to both governments seeking talks at the earliest opportunity, while SDLP leader Mark Durkan has already called for “full and frank answers” to criticisms of the body’s leadership.
The commission met yesterday, announcing it was to discuss the report on its work which was issued earlier this week by a Westminster committee.
But the commission meeting also came days after it faced unprecedented public criticism from two former members.
In Wednesday’s Irish News, Inez McCormack and Christine Bell, who resigned from the commission last September, claimed its draft plans for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland threatened to erode the ethos of the Good Friday Agreement and set fair employment provisions back 30 years.
Dr McCormack, a former president of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions, said the Bill of Rights draft undermined “the parity of esteem provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the provisions in the fair employment legislation”.
University of Ulster law professor Ms Bell said: “Key elements of the draft Bill of Rights were undermining all the equality provisions in the Belfast agreement.”
Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, also resigned his position on the commission last week, and has since backed this critique of the commission’s draft.
Critics claim the draft proposals risk shifting the human rights focus from one of protecting “minorities” to instead providing for the rights of “communities”.
Supporters of this proposal say it will free individuals from the obligation of being placed in either nationalist or unionist ‘boxes’.
But critics insist it fails to recognise the realities of life in Northern Ireland.
These same voices claim that, for example, fair employment protections – born out of a history of discrimination against the north’s Catholic minority – would be undermined.
In addition, they claim the setting of such a legal precedent could create the grounds for a challenge against the 50:50 recruitment scheme introduced for policing under Patten.
Experts in this field have also told the Irish News that the plans could potentially create a legal basis for challenging the Stormont assembly’s voting system which obliges parties to be designated as ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or ‘other’.
This, it is speculated, could derail the cornerstone of the power-sharing arrangements set up under the Good Friday Agreement.
Last night Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun said: “These are serious matters of concern to Sinn Fein and the wider human rights community.
“We are seeking to meet with both the British and Irish governments at the earliest opportunity to discuss the current situation regarding the Human Rights Commission.
“The commission is a cornerstone of the agreement and we will continue to support a Human Rights Commission which is in a position to drive forward the human rights-based society demanded by the agreement.”
Last night the Human Rights Commission’s chief commissioner Brice Dickson declined to be interviewed. But a spokesperson for the organisation said it would issue a detailed response to the criticisms early next week.
The commission has already defended its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and repeated its “total commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights for everyone in Northern Ireland”.
But the commission also faces criticisms of its handling of a case relating to the Holy Cross dispute.
The report published on Monday by the parliamentary joint committee on human rights raised a series of issues, including incidents which it said risked breaching the commission’s independence. It 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 Mr 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”.
Other documents supplied to the committee by solicitors Madden and Finucane, who represented the unnamed Holy Cross parent who brought the legal challenge, gave further details of Mr Dickson’s correspondence.
A memorandum supplied by the solicitors 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 who 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 described as of particular concern: “The chief commissioner’s decision to write to the respondent (Mr Flanagan) 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…”
SDLP leader Mark Durkan claimed this raised important questions of confidence in Mr Dickson’s leadership, saying: “Those questions will only grow if, as a first step, full and frank answers are not provided.”
The commission declined to comment saying the Holy Cross case is still before the courts, but added: “The case was raised by the Joint Committee in the context of the independence of the commission from external influence of any nature, from whatever source. Such independence is one of the core values of the commission.”