The crisis surrounding the Human Rights Commission dates back to 2001, but details only became public during the last six months.
Steven McCaffery charts the controversy
Inez McCormack and Christine Bell resign from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). They are concerned its 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, resigns from the commission citing the same concerns. This leaves 10 serving commissioners.
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 documents published along with the report raise two issues publicly:
n firstly, in statements to the joint committee, former commission members and academics detail their 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 religion. 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 such a move could provide the basis for a legal 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 which represent 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 knowledge of the parent, commission chief Brice Dickson 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. In the same letter the then chief constable suggested Mr Dickson remove funding for the case. Mr Dickson wrote back asking Sir Ronnie to “delay taking a decision” on disclosing his letter. 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.
The commission continued to fund the case but Madden and Finucane said: “It is our view that his correspondence amounted to a breach of trust…”
Inez McCormack and Christine Bell detail their concerns for the first time in an Irish News interview. Inez McCormack, a founding member of the Fair Employment Commission, said of the alleged threat to fair employment laws: “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 Christine Bell added: “The commission was prepared to include options that could, in my view, have undone the power-sharing relationship at the heart of the agreement.”
Chief commissioner Brice Dickson, who is also a professor of law, is interviewed in the Irish News. He confirmed the correspondence with Sir Ronnie Flanagan, but denied 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.
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. The UUP later criticises the commission for the delay in preparing a Bill of Rights. 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.
It emerges commissioners Patricia Kelly and Frank McGuinness have withdrawn from its day-to-day work, leaving only eight commissioners. At its height there had been 13.
The City of New York Comptroller William Thompson and State of New York Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who control investment capital of $180 billion, write a joint letter to the British and Irish governments. The pair are bound by US law to only invest in those companies in Northern Ireland which adhere to fair employment practices. The pair call for Brice Dickson to resign.
NIHRC issues its ‘Action Plan’ aimed at responding to criticism.
The commission announces that Chris McGimpsey is resigning from the body to stand as an Ulster Unionist party candidate in the assembly election, leaving seven active commissioners in place: Brice Dickson, Margaret-Ann Dinsmore, Tom Donnelly, Lady Christine Eames, Rev Harold Good, Tom Hadden and Kevin McLaughlin.