THE Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was created to promote equality, but is now accused of undermining it. Steven McCaffery reviews the events that have brought a key creation of the Good Friday Agreement to the point of collapse

September 2002:

Inez McCormack and Christine Bell resign from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). They are concerned that the commission’s proposals for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland could undermine fair employment legislation. They are also alarmed at chief commissioner Brice Dickson’s role in the Holy Cross affair.

JULY 7 2003:

Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, also resigns from the commission. He cites the same concerns as Inez McCormack and Christine Bell.

With a fourth commissioner having resigned for personal reasons the original 14 strong commission is now reduced to ten members.

JULY 15 2003:

The Westminster Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes a report recommending that the British government improves the powers and resources available to the commission. But it also says the NIHRC is blighted by a lack of focus and coordination. In a further development documents published along with the report bring two major areas of controversy to public attention for the first time.

n Firstly, former commission members and academics raise concerns over NIHRC proposals for a Bill of Rights. They point to a possible shift in how rights are applied, moving away from Catholic and Protestant categorisation and towards attaching rights to individuals regardless of religious background. It is argued that this ignores the realities of life in Northern Ireland and would undermine existing fair employment laws which monitor religious balance in the workplace.

In addition, it is claimed that such a move could spark a challenge of 50:50 Catholic/Protestant recruitment in policing or even allow a legal challenge of the power-sharing assembly’s voting system where parties must be designated as ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or ‘other’.

n The report also revives memories of the violent loyalist protest at the Holy Cross girls’ school in north Belfast in 2001. It carries a memorandum from Madden and Finucane solicitors representing a Holy Cross parent who sought a judicial review of the policing of the protest. The NIHRC agreed to fund the legal action, but without the parent’s knowledge commission chief Brice Dickson later wrote to the then chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan in December 2001 saying he believed the case had no merit.

Mr Flanagan wrote back on March 2002 saying his lawyers were “anxious” to use Mr Dickson’s letter in court and suggesting that Mr Dickson remove funding for the case.

At the subsequent commission meeting Mr Dickson proposed dropping the Holy Cross case but would later say this was because of its likely cost and not because of pressure from Sir Ronnie.

In the end the commission continued to fund the case but Madden and Finucane says: “It is our view that his correspondence amounted to a breach of trust…”

JULY 17 2003:

In an interview in the Irish News Inez McCormack and Christine Bell publicly detail their concerns for the first time.

A former president of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions and founding member of the Fair Employment Commission, Inez McCormack says: “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.”

On the alleged threat to fair employment legislation she says of the commission’s plans: “In my opinion this is about reopening a debate and trying to undermine existing protections, that is to take us back to the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Professor of Law at the University of Ulster, Christine Bell, adds: “The commission was prepared to include options that could, in my view, have undone the powersharing relationship at the heart of the agreement.”

JULY 18 2003:

SDLP leader Mark Durkan reacts to the Holy Cross revelations, saying: “This raises important questions of confidence in [Brice Dickson’s] position. Those questions will only grow if, as a first step, full and frank answers are not provided to questions on the handling of this case.”

Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun seeks an urgent meeting with the British and Irish governments over the commission.

JULY 23 2003:

Chief commissioner Brice Dickson is interviewed in the Irish News for the first time on the growing crisis.

He confirms the correspondence with Sir Ronnie Flanagan but denies that this influenced his decision to propose dropping the Holy Cross case. He reveals that commissioners were split on the case and that he wrote to Sir Ronnie to prevent resignations.

“I did what I felt was right at the time in view of the deep divisions which had surfaced within the commission,” he said.

“Looking back, I might have dealt with those divisions differently.”

He adds: “As regards my own position I intend to stay until I lose the confidence of my fellow commissioners or staff.”

JULY 29 2003:

Sinn Fein and the SDLP hold separate meetings with Mr Dickson lasting a total of five hours. Both parties claim that he failed to address their concerns.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan says “basic questions remain about the tenability” of Mr Dickson’s position.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness says “the human rights commission is broken and needs to be fixed”.

The UUP later criticises the commission for the delay in preparing a Bill of Rights and claims that its problems are of its own making.

The DUP hits out at nationalists for criticising the commission but adds that this comment should “in no way be viewed as an endorsement” of a body it has always opposed.

The Women’s Coalition, Alliance and Workers’ Party are all broadly supportive of the NIHRC and Mr Dickson’s leadership.

SEPT 12 2003:

It emerges that commission members Patricia Kelly and Frank McGuinness have withdrawn from its day-to-day work leaving only eight of the organisation’s original total of 14 members to run it.

SEPT 16 2003:

The SDLP holds talks on the commission’s future with Irish foreign affairs minister Brian Cowen.

Meanwhile the Sinn Fein national executive calls for the British government to initiate a “programme of reconstruction” to restore confidence in the commission’s work.

THIS is a copy of the letter sent yesterday to both Irish foreign affairs minister Brian Cowen and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Paul Murphy by the City of New York comptroller Hon William C Thompson Jr, top right, and the State of New York comptroller Hon Alan G Hevesi, below right.

Mr Thompson and Mr Hevesi are elected into office for terms of four years. They oversee two of the largest pools of investment capital in the world. The assets at their disposal are drawn mainly from public pension funds and are worth a combined total in excess of $180 billion.

Dear Minister:

We are writing to you today about a most urgent matter whose resolution will have lasting implications for the maintenance of peace and stability in Northern Ireland – the current crisis over the future direction of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

As the comptrollers of New York City and New York State we are the custodians and trustees of public investment funds with more than $180 billion in assets, over $15 billion of which is currently invested in corporations doing business in Northern Ireland. Both the New York City and New York State comptrollers’ offices operate under statutory guidelines that mandate the promotion of fair employment practices by companies in our investment portfolios that do business in Northern Ireland.

The paramilitary ceasefires of the 1990’s, and the subsequent signing of the Good Friday Agreement greatly improved the investment climate in Northern Ireland and both New York City and New York State have taken steps to encourage US companies to invest there with the understanding that progress would continue to be made toward equality and fairness for all.

It is for that reason that we have been dismayed to learn that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, one of the main institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement to help achieve that goal, is now being used to undermine key provisions of current fair employment legislation.

The draft Bill of Rights produced by the commission jeopardizes important legal protections for the Catholic minority community and greatly endangers years of progress that have been made in this area.

Three prominent members of the commission have resigned in protest over the direction the commission has taken and the current chief commissioner Brice Dickson is now embroiled in controversy over [allegations] that he took steps to actively undermine a key human rights case brought by the parents of the Holy Cross school, that was funded by his own commission.

As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement your government must take immediate steps to restore confidence in this vital institution. To do that the government must first recognize that

the Human Rights Commission as currently constituted is a failed entity.

The position of the chief commissioner has been hopelessly compromised and Commissioner Dickson therefore should be urged to resign. There must be a complete reorganization of the commission with the reconstituted body given the full statutory powers, funding, and independence needed to fulfil its mission that it has heretofore been denied.

Finally, the responsibility for the drafting of a new Bill of Rights should be given to a new body with an independent chair and

with the broadest possible participation of the political parties and civic society. It is vital that the government act now. Allowing the commission to languish will only threaten existing human rights and equality protections and further undermine confidence in the promise of the Good Friday Agreement.

Very truly yours,

William C Thompson, Alan G Hevesi.