I beg to move
That this Assembly believes, in the context of the development of a Bill of Rights, that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has failed to discharge its remit, as given to it by the Belfast Agreement 1998, in its various contributions to the debate on developing human rights in Northern Ireland.
This motion questions whether the Commission has kept within its remit. It is not a motion about whether human rights are, to quote from the old book ‘1066 and All That’, "A Good Thing". Human rights are a good thing, but they require careful definition. The Belfast Agreement said that the Commission was to be
"invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".
Note that the agreement said "advise and consult on the scope". It did not say "campaign and dictate".
The critical point in today’s debate is whether the Commission has kept within that remit, especially in the booklet ‘Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’ published earlier this month. I believe that it has not. By definition, human rights apply to human beings, so it is not self-evident that a human being in Belfast should be afforded more or less protection than a counterpart in, say, Birmingham or Berlin. At the very least, the Commission needs to have done much more to establish its case. I will address three ways in which Northern Ireland’s "particular circumstances" might be argued to be relevant, and evaluate the Commission’s response.
First is the constitutional question. In other parts of western and eastern Europe there are also disputes about the national identity of various territorities. Significantly, the European-wide Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has enshrined the principle that national frontiers should stand, given consent and self-determination. Our Commission, the official human rights body, has pointedly, but unsurprisingly — given its own intellectual descent from the Committee on the Administration of Justice — declared neutrality on the constitutional position. Is it proper for an official human rights body to enshrine such neutrality? No.
Secondly, the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland should include the awful death toll consequent from terrorism over the past 32 years. In pro rata terms, it is equivalent to New York City suffering 20,000 fatalities, or three World Trade Centre atrocities. Using the "cost of the troubles" figures, of the 3,593 people who were killed between 1969 and February 1998, 56% died as a result of Republican group action, 27% at the hands of Loyalists and 382, or 11%, as a consequence of state action.
Undoubtedly, almost all the latter cases were legitimate self-defence. However, so far, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has given privileged consideration to the perceived victims of state action as opposed to the greater numbers of victims of paramilitary abuse. Regrettably, they are again following the pattern set by the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ). Persons with a CAJ background continue to have a disproportionate representation on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).
On page 46 of the September 2001 document ‘Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’ the commission argues that search-and-seizure operations should not be used in the future, as they allegedly have been in the past, to harass certain sections of the community. No proof beyond the anecdotal is provided for their assertion of guilt.
In chapter 18, on the enforcement of any bill of rights, it refers to "human rights violations" rather than to violations and abuses. This seems to imply a sole focus on perceived state-led violations of rights. To date, the commission has added little or nothing to the most basic of rights — the right to life. It has leaned too far towards protecting the rights of those terrorists who in the past — and in the present — have taken innocent life.
The third way in which the NIHRC claims to be reflecting particular circumstances is with respect to social and economic deprivation in Northern Ireland. Every Member of the Assembly should be concerned about such deprivation — low wages, unfit housing, sickness rates, lack of basic numeracy and literacy, et cetera. We should all strive for improvement, as was said in the Budget debate. However, Northern Ireland is no longer uniquely deprived. Other parts of the United Kingdom, for example Wales, share similar gross domestic product (GDP) per capita levels, wage rates and illiteracy rates. Yet no one has credibly suggested supplementary rights to the European Commission on Human Rights in those cases.
Whatever the noble intent of most socio-economic rights, their realisation is crucially dependent on increased economic resources or public spending. Therefore, they may not be justiciable. In other words, they cannot be created by waving the magic wand of a court decision. They need public spending resources, voted for politically, through the Assembly.
In short, the commission has acted outside its remit, as defined in the Belfast Agreement. In this, as in everything else, we are arguing for full implementation — no more, no less. The commission, unconvincingly, tries to use section 69(3)(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to trump the agreement on page 14 of the September document. It interpreted its assigned task, to promote awareness of human rights, in the wider scope of promoting the human-rights culture. This matters because human rights can be a powerful ideology. It has almost become a secular religion, constituting as it does a novel, and sometimes disturbing, use of language and a way of prescribing how people should behave.
I will go through some of the commission’s detailed policy proposals in the lengthy September 2001 document. On page 21 it recommends proportional representation for Westminster elections. On page 22 it suggests removing the debarment of the mentally ill from election candidacy and the reduction of the voting age to 16 or 17.
Page 33 refers, incongruously, to a right to positive action. It is unclear whether that implies positive discrimination and, therefore, the absurd right to be discriminated against in certain circumstances. The commission has previously endorsed the fifty-fifty policing quota of the Patten report.
Pages 37 and 89 refer to "access to sexual reproductive healthcare". What does that mean in practice? Could it be a back door to introducing abortion on demand in Northern Ireland? Page 60 refers to equality for "long-term domestic partnerships" relative to traditional marriage. Page76 recommends that education be conditioned to inculcate support for the ideology of human rights. Presumably, the commission’s own interpretation of rights — and interpretations vary — would be the authorised version in schools.
That very extensive list — and much more can be found in the document — reminds me of Jeremy Bentham’s dismissal of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as "imaginary rights, a bastard brood of monsters". In short, there is an attempt to achieve massive social engineering to reconstruct the totality of Northern Ireland, as though it were a blank sheet and to forget about the wishes of the majority. What role in the process is left for the Assembly or for the sovereign Westminster Parliament? Not very much.
In Northern Ireland, certain interest groups have stirred up extraordinary expectations of the perceived improvements that could be delivered by a bill of rights, particularly with respect to the social and economic position. Those with such expectations are almost bound to be disappointed. That is politically worrying and indeed cruel. One indicator of the commission’s rather grand view of its remit — indeed, its global reach far beyond this Province — is the commentary last week by the chief commissioner of the NIHRC, who was quoted in the press on 20 September. He criticised the American President, no less, for his choice of language to describe the attacks on Manhattan and Washington.
Every Member should pause before endorsing the commission’s maximalist interpretation of human rights. A maximalist human rights culture is in danger of eclipsing this institution. Under direct rule, limited democratic accountability lasted for too long. The intervention of a massive bill of rights into all areas of policy-making would imply that judges would have decision-making powers that would otherwise rightly rest with this democratically accountable body.
In summary, we do not criticise human rights per se; rather, we criticise the way in which the commission has so far chosen to interpret them. Speaking in the House of Commons on the first day of the second world war, 3 September 1939, Winston Churchill said that that war was necessary in order to "establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual". Rights are worth protecting — a lesson that, in these weeks, is being learned once again on an international level.
The problem with the commission’s document, and, indeed, its record to date, is that it combines undue protection for those who are the ultimate enemies of liberty, with the pursuit of other rights that are both undefinable and undeliverable. I therefore urge support for the motion.
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "Commission" and insert
"has been hindered in discharging its remit due to limits on its powers and resources but congratulates the Commission on its substantial contributions to the debate on and in developing human rights in Northern Ireland."
The proposer of the motion said that he was not criticising human rights per se. I welcome that, because the alternative would be grotesque. I cannot, however, welcome much else that he said.
Dr Birnie said that the bill of rights proposals do not refer to the right of self-determination or to the principle of consent. That is rightly so, because, as he knows, those issues are already exhaustively and extensively addressed in the Good Friday Agreement, in the amendments to the Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, arising from the Good Friday Agreement and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Legislative and statutory guarantees already recognise the Irish people’s right to self-determination and to the principle of consent. Given that there are constitutional guarantees in law and in practice, it would be highly improper if, in a bill of rights, we should then create a Constitution in regard to those issues.
I suggest that Dr Birnie’s wish to see those principles addressed reveals his lack of confidence in that for which the Irish people voted and which was endorsed by the British Parliament, the Irish Parliament and the Irish people in the referendum and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. There is every reason to be confident in relation to the constitutional position of the North, and there is no further reason to put into a bill of rights that which is already secured and guaranteed elsewhere in the British and Irish states.
Dr Birnie quoted the Good Friday Agreement, which says that the bill of rights should
"reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".
In that regard, he then criticised the fact that the bill of rights outlines proposals in respect of economic and social guarantees. Are we not saying that in Northern Ireland there are particular circumstances that extend to economic and social issues? Should people who suffer economic and social disadvantage — whatever their background — not have the protection of the law and the benefit of good practice when it comes to improving their conditions?
The proposed bill of rights says that, given that the communities of the North have a common need and a common agenda in regard to economic and social guarantees and protections, these should be protected and enhanced. Dr Birnie, however, says that there should not be recognition of the particular inequalities, needs, disadvantages and requirements of both our communities as regards economic and social welfare.
Rather than saying that the bill of rights proposals should not guarantee economic and social rights, I suggest that in a society which is emerging from conflict and based around difference in that conflict, we should actively seek opportunities to promote common agendas and common needs. The bill of rights enables that to be addressed.
Dr Birnie also said that the issue of victims was inadequately addressed and that the needs of the victims of non-state abuses have not been addressed in the various interventions of the Human Rights Commission since its formation three years ago.
That is an inaccurate representation of what the Human Rights Commission has done. Those who can use the Internet — that does not include me — should download the submissions and casework of the Human Rights Commission from the past three years. It runs to three pages and covers 80 or 90 separate activities. When that material is analysed, it shows that the proposer’s conclusion does not stand against the evidence. The evidence confirms that the Human Rights Commission has attempted to cover every aspect of life in Northern Ireland’s communities in an effort to address and identify human rights issues. The commission’s work is as exhaustive and expansive as its limited powers and resources allow.
I have no doubt that the proposer believes that, when it comes to interventions in court cases in Northern Ireland, there is a tendency for the Human Rights Commission not to address non-state abuses. There have been only 20 instances in three years in which the Human Rights Commission has sought to intervene, under its limited powers, in cases arising from killings and the use of violence in the North. In those instances, the cases tended to involve state killings rather than non-state killings, but the Human Rights Commission will also intervene in court cases relating to the activities of non-state organisations. The best evidence for that is that the commission intervened in the inquest into the deaths in Omagh. After the greatest atrocity committed against human life and standards in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, at the invitation of the Coroner for Greater Belfast, intervened on behalf of the families of the Omagh victims to assert their right to see the evidence that the RUC made available to the inquest. In that case, the Human Rights Commission intervened to ensure that the rights of the victims of a non-state organisation were protected and enhanced. There is no more eloquent and powerful evidence of the commission’s readiness to intervene — without fear or favour and regardless of whether someone has been the victim of state or non-state violence — on behalf of citizens in the North.
If the proposer of the motion wants to talk about the Human Rights Commission and the bill of rights and about how they protect the victims in Northern Ireland, he should consider that evidence and see that they are impartial.
The point is that it is difficult to balance the rights of victims, the right to privacy, the right to information and all the other relevant rights. The intervention of a body such as the Human Rights Commission can be open to a certain interpretation by one side or the other.
The fact that the Human Rights Commission intervened to try to restrain what the BBC might publish, and to ensure that victims and their families had more information than they might otherwise have received, confirms its best intentions rather than the Member’s worst fears. By intervening in that way, the Human Rights Commission confirmed its good faith, good intentions, good standards and good values. Its intervention was not evidence of partiality and unfairness, as the Member concludes. Dr Birnie’s point confirms my point rather than disproving it.
I will deal with some issues that were not addressed by the proponent of the motion. Rather than damn the Human Rights Commission, I praise it and would try to enhance it. Rather than claim that the bill of rights does not meet the standards that Dr Birnie says would be appropriate, we must try to enable the commission to meet the standards that would enable it to provide all the citizens of the North with the fullest possible protection and enforcement of human rights.
It is a matter for regret that Dr Birnie did not take the opportunity to address issues identified by the Human Rights Commission in its response to the Secretary of State’s review of its powers and resources, which were authorised by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I would be more convinced by the proponent’s comments if he had dealt with the wider agenda of trying to strengthen the Human Rights Commission with the powers and resources needed to identify and address all human rights issues in the North. That is what we have tried to do in our amendment.
At the moment, according to the Human Rights Commission, it does not have the powers and resources that it needs to enable it to do all that it would like to do. Its restricted powers and limited budget have prevented the commission from carrying out the extensive consultation on the bill of rights that it wished to do. It was unable to organise event training in preparation for the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 in October 2000; nor was it able to create a presence outside Belfast. It was unable to employ as many staff as it needed to deal with research, investigations, legislation, policy and educational development.
The Human Rights Commission has a limited budget of £750,000, which is 10 times less than the Equality Commission’s funding, and the same amount that the RUC spends on 10 hours of activities in one year. Rather than condemn it for what it has produced, we should try to enhance it by giving it the powers and moneys that it requires. That is particularly relevant at the moment, because we are on the threshold of a new beginning for policing. The Patten Report said that human rights should be at the core of a new beginning for policing. The Human Rights Commission has a statutory function to ensure that human rights legislation is complied with and that that compliance is witnessed throughout Northern Ireland. If it is starved of its resources, it will be starved of the ability to give life to the new beginning for policing.
The Government might be about to announce the independent members of the Police Board. Is it not, therefore, appropriate to enable the policing board to carry out its functions and to give the Human Rights Commission the moneys needed to enable it to perform its statutory role of assisting the Police Board to fulfil its human rights requirements? The Republic of Ireland set up its statutory Human Rights Commission only a matter of weeks ago. Is it not time to upgrade the funding of the Human Rights Commission in the North to enable it to work with the commission in the South? That would enable them to build the joint programme of work and create the charter of rights, which are envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement, and which would be applicable to the citizens, political parties and the Governments on this island.
Is it not time to enhance the moneys of the Human Rights Commission in the North to enable it to work with its sister body in the South and ensure human rights compliance through a chartered bill of rights on this island? Is it not time to give the Human Rights Commission additional moneys so that the problems identified whereby the commission cannot adequately intervene on behalf of a third party in various court proceedings on this island can be addressed? The commission should be able to intervene so that people appearing before a court can benefit from the help of a statutory agency in preparing their case, and the court could also benefit from the expertise of the Human Rights Commission when a hearing is scheduled. In that way, rather than deny and diminish the role of the Human Rights Commission in the North, we can enable it and enhance its powers.
I make these points because as Frank Wright, an academic at Queen’s University, once said, "when conflicts are fully developed, they revolve around issues of law, order and justice". Our experiences on this island in the last 30 years confirm that the conflict has always revolved around issues of law, order and justice. That is why those issues are put centre-stage in the Good Friday Agreement: that is why reports were commissioned on policing and on criminal justice; and that is why the agreement provided for the creation of the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Ombudsman and the Prisoners’ Release Commission. To fully resolve the conflict that has revolved around issues of law, order and justice, we put mechanisms in place to address those issues, including the Human Rights Commission.
Why is that significant, not just for us, but internationally? When Mary Robinson was here in December 1999, she said that countries around the world, particularly those emerging from conflicts, were most interested in the Good Friday Agreement because of its human rights provisions. People around the world could easily and quickly identify with those provisions. If we can get our human rights mechanisms right — if they function properly and defend the rights of citizens and communities in the North — then we will provide an example of conflict resolution to other communities and other countries that are emerging from conflict. If we can get our bill of rights and our Human Rights Commission right, then we will be a candle in the darkness that is about to invade the world order.
I support the motion. Not surprisingly, I cannot support the amendment that has been put down in the name of Mr Attwood and Ms Lewsley. The issue of human rights is fundamental — the establishment of good human rights is something we should all support. However, the role played by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has diminished the human rights issue in Northern Ireland. It has led many people to reflect that those who speak for human rights issues are speaking on behalf of criminals, terrorists, and people who do not wish goodwill to others in our country.
Often, those who represent the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission seem more interested in the rights of criminals and terrorists than in the rights of ordinary individuals. When the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was set up, Mo Mowlam gave it the kiss of death by her appointment of the board. Two SDLP members were appointed. It comes as no surprise that the SDLP are leading the fight today in defending the commission – [Interruption].
No member of the SDLP was appointed to the Human Rights Commission.
That is fact. Ms Hegarty was not a member of the SDLP at the time of her appointment. She had left the SDLP several years before her appointment. I assume the other person to whom the Member refers is Mr Donnelly. He was an SDLP councillor back in the early 70s and is no longer a member of the party. He was not a member of the SDLP at the time of his appointment.
I accept that you can leave the SDLP. You might not be able to leave the IRA just as easily, but you can leave the SDLP. Nevertheless, the fact that they had membership of the SDLP made their political allegiances quite clear.
The Human Rights Commission did not have representatives from the Unionist community, nor did it have people who had previously been members of either of the main Unionist parties. In fact, some people of good standing in the community, who had a good legal background and who were well placed to take positions on the Human Rights Commission, were refused places. I understand that as resignations from the Human Rights Commission have taken place, the current Secretary of State, and the previous Secretary of State, sought to remedy that situation. However, because people felt that the credibility of the Human Rights Commission was at a low ebb, they wanted to take no part in it.
It has failed to gain the confidence of the Unionist community by its actions. For example, it has given support to the Finucane, Hamill and Rosemary Nelson cases but has failed to give support to the cases of Billy Wright, Superintendents Buchanan and Breen or Lord Justice Gibson. The Commission also did a critical analysis on the use of plastic bullets but did not seem to take much account of those people who were in the line of fire and had to use plastic bullets. It did not appear to give much credence to the fact that people’s lives were being put at risk by petrol and acid bombs, bricks and even live bullets being fired at them, yet it is very critical of the use of plastic bullets by the RUC.
It complains about a lack of resources — the commission has some £750,000 — yet it clearly spent a great deal of money on the document ‘Enhancing the Rights of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People in Northern Ireland’. This is a fairly extensive document — a document that was not published without a great deal of cost. I have to say that some of the proposals in the document are extremely offensive. For example, it reckons that the Blood Transfusion Service’s ban on men who have engaged in anal sex, from donating blood — one of several categories of exclusion from blood donation — to be discrimination. The commission believes that it is a human right for homosexuals to be able to give blood. I say that it is a human right for people receiving blood to know that they are getting clean blood — blood that has not been contaminated with the HIV virus. I believe that it is essentially wrong to be claiming, on the one hand, to be protecting one person’s human rights but, on the other, to be attacking the human rights of other individuals.
Often when we see the case being put for one individual’s human rights, it actually undermines the human rights of another individual. I noted that its ‘Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’ mentions language rights. This document says that everyone has the right to communicate with any public body through an interpreter, translator or facilitator. If we were to go down that road, with the Department for Regional Development having somebody in every office who could translate into Gaelic and into Ulster-Scots, and if every school, hospital and Housing Executive office in Northern Ireland were to have a translator, how much would it cost? What are the cost implications of many of the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission? If such costs were to be met, how many more people would be waiting for hip operations or cardiac surgery? How many more people would be discriminated against because too few houses were being built in their area?
The proposals of the Human Rights Commission, in many cases, are not costed. It claims that people are being discriminated against, but if the commission’s proposals were to be implemented, many more people would be discriminated against.
Mr Attwood defended the Human Rights Commission by reference to its support for the victims of the Omagh bomb. When representatives of the Human Rights Commission were before the Committee of the Centre, I asked what its views were on two particular victims of the Omagh bomb, the twin children who were murdered while still within their mother’s womb, seven months into her pregnancy. They did not have a view on that. They could not express a view on it.
Mr Attwood is therefore defending a Human Rights Commission that will not defend the human rights of unborn children. It could not admit that the rights of two unborn children were destroyed by the Real IRA. What sort of Human Rights Commission is that? The children were healthy in their mother’s womb, but because they did not happen to have been two months older, they were deemed not to have any human rights.
In relation to paramilitary organisations the Human Rights Commission has not done enough work. There have been 323 human rights abuses by these organisations, on all sides, in the last year, but I have heard no hue and cry from the commission about that, nor has it produced an extensive document on the matter. The commission has also neglected other issues, such as third-party planning appeals. It seems to have concentrated its efforts on what it would see as pro-prisoner, pro-terrorist and pro-Nationalist programmes. It has not done the work it should have been doing. It has not established faith among the Unionist community, and I do not believe it has established faith within the broader community who find terrorist and criminal acts offensive.
The Human Rights Commission has been on trial for the past three years. The funding it has received has been on a trial basis. Having been tried, it has been found wanting. I cannot therefore support Mr Attwood’s analysis and amendment, because the Human Rights Commission has failed — and failed miserably.
Many Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and for that reason I shall limit each Member to five minutes.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion and support the amendment. The motion should be seen for what it is — another attempt by Unionists to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. They want to purge, in the words of Sylvia Hermon, that section on rights, safeguards and equality to which they signed up to and now do not like. The words "rights" and "equality" are alien to the Unionist mindset, but the agreement and the Act put human rights at the centre of political, social and economic change on this island.
The Human Rights Commission has been given the specific task of ensuring that that happens. Part of the task is to advise the British Government on a bill of rights, complementary and additional to the Human Rights Commission, which will reflect the particular circumstances of the North. After 18 months and six- county-wide consultations with the commission, the UUP has suddenly discovered that all sorts of people, precisely 67% of Protestants and 88% of Catholics, think that the bill of rights it is not only a good idea, but is essential.
Unionism has never recognised, let alone reflected on, the particular circumstances of the North and the construction of a state whose very existence depended on division, inequality and the abuse of human rights. It is precisely because of that, and to address the human rights deficit, that Sinn Féin argued strongly that the sections on rights, safeguards and equality should ensure that the causes of conflict were prioritised and addressed.
All parties that signed up to the agreement accepted that and affirmed their commitment to mutual respect. However, the party that tabled today’s motion has done absolutely nothing to confirm its commitment to mutual respect and parity of esteem. It has never acknowledged the right to self-determination, the only human right for which an explicit formulation was agreed in the Good Friday Agreement, which was supported in referendums North and South. The motion is about trying to change the agreement and the composition of the Human Rights Commission because it does not suit the narrow Unionist agenda. It is an example of a party on the run: on the run from the DUP; on the run from the Human Rights Commission; and on the run from the agreement to which it signed up.
It is even out of step with its own people. They want a bill of rights, and they wish to contribute to it, judging by the e-mails that we have received. On 8 May, David Trimble, in one of his more lucid periods, said that the core principles of human rights and equality are woven into the fabric of the agreement and reflected in the Programme for Government. However, how do Unionists make progress on those core principles? They attack the Human Rights Commission for carrying out its remit as laid down in the agreement.
Yesterday, the media treated us to the unsavoury situation of two parties, the DUP and the UUP, scratching around for signatures for a motion to exclude democratically elected representatives in order to bring down the Assembly. The UUP has the audacity to censure the Human Rights Commission. One can see that it may feel the need to defend its junior Minister, Dermot Nesbitt, after his outrageous outburst at the launch of the consultation document ‘Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’.
The attack on the commission and the outright rejection of the consultation document was not lost on the audience, which greeted his outburst with a stunned silence. Nor was it lost on them that the Minister was using the occasion to advance his narrow-minded, bigoted, party political position on a bill of rights before it had even got off the ground. I would suggest that he resign, but he is going to anyway.
This is not the first time that Unionism has dismissed efforts to enact a bill of rights here. When the late Sheelagh Murnaghan tried to do so in the 1960s, her efforts were stonewalled by the same Unionist mindset that is on display here. In retrospect, those Unionists might reflect that, had they placed a bill of rights on the political agenda then, this society might have been spared 30 years of conflict. There are many things in the draft document that Sinn Féin will challenge, but, overall, the draft pursues a liberal Unionist agenda. It is clear from the motion that the Unionists, not content with the British Government’s efforts to neutralise the commission through lack of powers and resources, want to put the commission and the agreement out of business. I oppose the motion.
I oppose the motion and support the amendment. There are several reasons for my opposition, but chief among them is my belief that the motion is pointless and out of time. My Colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party have expressed concern and reservation that the Human Rights Commission has exceeded its authority. They fear that the consultation document is too broad and that it covers rights that are not particular to Northern Ireland. The Human Rights Commission clearly sets out its remit and its approach to fulfilling that.
In the document, the commission quotes extensively from the Good Friday Agreement. It then goes on to explain various interpretations of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances drawing, as appropriate, on international instruments and experience. It further states that the interpretation of the Bill should be based on human dignity, equality and freedom, without any threat to rights adequately protected by law.
After reading the consultation document, I can only commend the commission for its frankness. The Human Rights Commission does not claim to have the final answer for what is meant in paragraph 4 of the Good Friday Agreement about exclusive Northern Ireland rights. Instead, it explicitly asks for the opinions and reasoning of all people in Northern Ireland. The first three questions that it poses are an attempt to have us, the people of Northern Ireland, help define its remit.
It is only right that Members of the Assembly would have concerns and disagree with what the commission has set forth in its entirety. However, it is no surprise that those are the types of opinions that the commission wishes to hear. Members should be more effective in lobbying the Human Rights Commission about the ways in which it believes that it has exceeded its remit and by holding this debate today. Fortunately, they can do both. The ad hoc human rights consortium that supports a fully inclusive debate on a bill of rights is an example of effective lobbying. The consortium consists of representatives from over 50 voluntary and community groups.
‘Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’ is merely a consultative document that can be changed, and more then likely it will be changed, perhaps as a result of this debate. However, I am, on the whole, pleased with its contents. Historically, the Alliance Party has supported a bill of rights, and I am pleased that it supports the concept of proportional representation, which ensures everyone’s right to participate in government. For a long time, we have advocated that such a bill incorporate international standards, which the document does.
Initially, my party was wary that the commission would interpret its remit too narrowly and focus exclusively on group rights. I am pleased that that has not happened. I agree with the reasoning to support the inclusion of a section on children’s rights and of strongly worded statements on women’s rights. I am sure that the proponents of the motion will argue that neither children nor women are unique to Northern Ireland, but I counter that with the point that, although they are not unique, they have suffered under our unique circumstances. For too long their rights, not to mention the rights of ethnic minorities, have been at the bottom of every agenda.
We need a strong bill of rights to address those past wrongs and to protect the needs of all communities. I oppose the motion for those reasons. The document is for consultation; it is not set in stone. The commission is seeking our advice, as well as the advice of many others in the Province. It acknowledges its remit and explains how and why it has interpreted it. In the document, the commission says that the final delivery of an effective bill of rights is the concern of everyone interested in the search for long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland — the two Governments, the political parties, civil society and all the people of Northern Ireland.
Finally, many of the rights may seem universal and may have a particular bearing here. Now is the time to try to improve those rights for all in Northern Ireland, and not only those in the two perceived communities. I support the amendment.
Dr Birnie began by assuring us of his belief in human rights. He felt the need to repeat that, so he finished off by assuring us of his commitment to human rights. What came in between was a right-wing rant — right wing in its attitude to economics and economic opportunity, and right wing generally. It will be interesting to see whether the Ulster Unionist Party is the broad church that we are told that it is — Genghis Khan elements early, and perhaps a few Joe Stalin elements later. However, it seems that we may not see that. I have seen this before. It may not have been to do with human rights; it may have been to do with socialism or with how economics might be dealt with differently in society. The death knell for that was sectarianism and a refusal to believe that if you were Unionist or Protestant that was anything to do with you. It was a Catholic and Republican matter; it was not a matter for ordinary citizens.
"Reds under the bed" — and I am not accusing Dr Birnie of saying that — have been alive and well in society for a very long time. I can remember people who are now Members of this House branding people as "reds under the bed" because they advocated something that was different from the style and nature of what they had lived under for so long.
Dr Birnie went through the booklet produced by the commission and made arguments. Rather than deal with those, let me tell him something of which he may or may not be aware. I have had the luxury — dubious as it may be — of sitting in Committee Rooms here, and I have heard members of the Human Rights Commission being interrogated with abject hostility by representatives of the Unionist community on all kinds of issues. To pick up the document and show your hostility to it does not tell the whole truth. There are Members present who have been on those Committees and who know that. There was abject bitterness and hostility because somehow those people were seen to be defending terrorists and sticking their noses in where they did not belong.
Perhaps we should take ownership of an element that would assist our institutions to function more practically. In the words of Edwin Poots, the Unionist community has had no ownership of this. Why has it had no ownership? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid to defend a human being’s right? Are Protestants and Unionists not human beings? What is there to be frightened about? That is a sign of the insecurity that permeates our society, an insecurity that is not in the first instance proffered to us by our enemy. It is proffered to us often in the first instance by our leadership: be afraid of this; be afraid of that; be afraid of the dark. It will be difficult to see a human rights system here that works properly, because I do not imagine that a sterling job can be done by the commission, given the pathetic amount of money that it has been allocated.
It seems that all Prods are clairvoyant — and there is never any good news. They are afraid of the dark and rather than switch on the light — take ownership of something and be part of it, so that it would be the way that they wanted it to be — they run away from it. That is what is happening today. The refusal to allow or encourage the Unionist community to take ownership of the Human Rights Commission makes it difficult for all of us to sell the concept of human rights.
A Member from one of the parties — he is not in the Chamber now — once said that there should be no such thing as human rights legislation in Northern Ireland. Perhaps, he reflects more accurately the feelings of Members on those Benches. We shall hear some strange stuff in the next half-hour about how people think that they are so decent as regards human rights.
I am also concerned about some earlier comments. Mr Edwin Poots’s remarks about giving blood reminded me what giving blood was all about. Members who gave blood here last year will know that people give it because they know that, some day, someone will need it — not because they expect to get it back automatically. Perhaps that also applies to human rights. To have proper regard for human rights means that we should enshrine in law something from which we may not necessarily benefit, but which other people — Unionist or Nationalist — need. That is a better way to talk about giving blood than the disgraceful comments made by the Member for Lagan Valley about the rights of gays and lesbians.
I will not give way. The Member had an opportunity to clarify his point after he made it. It is shameful that a Member should make such a comment.
The speech made by the mover of the motion made me despair. He calls himself an economist, while arguing that Northern Ireland is doing so well that we no longer have to concern ourselves with our deprivation and poverty rates, because they are coming into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Reports produced by agencies such as the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) repeatedly state that, given the proportion of children in the Northern Ireland population, our poverty rates far exceed those elsewhere. Did we not hear Sir Reg Empey refer to that yesterday when he introduced the draft Programme for Government? We must take account of the fact that we have fallen so far behind. It is good for us to enshrine rights that deal with economic and social deprivation.
Dr Birnie may have received the same faxes as I did from Save the Children, from the Multicultural Resource Centre, from Barnardo’s, from Women in Politics and from Amnesty International. All those organisations expressed concern about the idea that we should have anything to fear from the wide-ranging consultation carried out by the Human Rights Commission, and they restated their support for the commission. Despite a lack of resources, the Human Rights Commission had to encourage other organisations to set up their own discussions on human rights. It welcomed that opportunity. For some reason, Dr Birnie said that it was not good for the Human Rights Commission to be involved in campaigning and debating and that its role was purely consultative. Does it not enrich our civic life to have a commission involved in campaigning for and debating a bill of rights?
These are good days for Northern Ireland — despite the depressing and distressing scenes that one sees on the streets. In the future, Members will be able to tell their children — if not their grandchildren — that they were involved when the country was drawing up a bill of rights. How many people in history have had that wonderful opportunity? However, Members are denying that opportunity to the communities and are saying that the Human Rights Commission should not have bothered campaigning and debating something as important as the rights of a country’s people.
Dr Birnie also said that the commission stirs up extraordinary expectations. We have had an extraordinary past, and it is little wonder that people have raised themselves to have a vision of a different future. They will not be disappointed. If people have been involved in the discussions and take ownership of those discussions, they know that it will be a win-win situation. They know that they will have to give something when the bill of rights is decided.
Did those Members who criticised so loudly make submissions during the previous consultation, and do they intend to do so following the current round?
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was doomed from the moment the basic human rights of Unionists were denied in the selection and appointment of its members. Excellently qualified candidates with no Unionist political associations, senior solicitors in mixed partnerships and university lecturers of consummate intelligence were set aside for others of questionable competence.
For Ulster Unionists to complain that the Human Rights Commission has failed to discharge its remit under the agreement is another example of pro-agreement selective amnesia, which affects so many of those who negotiated and signed it. The commission’s mandate and remit clearly states that its duty is to constitute a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. That is similar to the Ulster Unionists’ attitude to Patten: when the outcome does not suit them they deny that they granted the remit that brought about the mischief.
It is pointless to complain about the job that the commission has made of its remit when the basic fault is the existence of the remit. A bill of rights for Northern Ireland means provincial human rights for Northern Ireland that do not apply to our fellow citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The concept of provincial human rights violates two basic principles. First, there is the equality of citizenship. The rights and duties of all citizens in the United Kingdom should be equal. Secondly, human rights are universal. Their very claim to special privilege in law is that they apply to all human beings, and across all provincial and national boundaries. Universality is the fundamental basis of human rights.
The proposals set out in the commission’s draft bill of rights would move Northern Ireland further out of the United Kingdom than it already is, and that outcome should have been foreseen by those in the Ulster Unionist Party who negotiated and signed the Belfast Agreement. The fact that they did not foresee that means that they stand condemned as incompetent negotiators.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and other non-statutory bodies who work in the same field have a case to answer, because their efforts to protect human rights almost exclusively focus on the state, in all its aspects, as the primary source of human rights violations.
Woolly-minded liberals draw no distinction between competing human rights. They draw no distinction between the right to silence and the right to life. Those groups have taken what some might unkindly characterise as the human rights industry and almost completely failed to respond to the growing trend in the real world of citizens’ human rights being violated by non-state bodies. The Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, recently said that human rights will have to take second place to the security of life and the security of the state. The commission has almost entirely ignored the violation of human rights by non-state bodies — paramilitaries and their increasing band of criminal auxiliaries. That state of affairs might be characterised as the privatisation of human rights violations.
It is little short of a scandal that the commission and others have little to say about, and devote a small proportion of their resources to doing something about, the punishment beatings, intimidation, extortion, robberies and organised fraud conducted by paramilitary groups — some of whose frontmen and frontwomen sit in the Assembly and enjoy Executive office.
I listened to a farrago of bitterness and a myopic view of the commission’s report from Mrs Nelis. She represents a party that is inextricably linked to a paramilitary organisation that has committed some of the most inhuman, horrible and outrageous violations of human rights, yet she has the brass neck to come here and lecture other citizens who belong to democratic parties about how they should behave.
The Human Rights Commission should start to address the real issues. Those are the violations of the most fundamental human rights: the right to live; the right to bring up children in peace; and the right to have personal integrity from violent personal injury.
I support the motion put forward by my Colleague Dr Birnie, not because I am opposed to human rights — as suggested by one Sinn Féin Member — and not because Unionism is afraid of human rights. I have had an interest in human rights for many years. I studied the subject at university, and I continue to maintain an interest.
I am a firm believer in human rights. I believe in equal political and civil rights for all citizens in the United Kingdom, throughout the European Union and the world. I want to see those rights protected. However, I am concerned that the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has not been doing that. It has not been fulfilling its remit. Instead, it has tried to create some kind of social engineering document in order to put forward a ’60s-style socialist view of society. The commission wants to try to impose that view on the rest of us and take away the decisions that we are supposed to make about political life from political instruments such as the Assembly.
I support the right of women to choose whether to have an abortion, and I support the right to same-sex marriage. However, those issues should not be contained in a bill of rights. They are political issues. They are issues on which one makes a political decision in the political institutions that we have set up. They are issues for us to argue, not to be laid down in a bill of rights to be discussed and ruled on by courts. That is not the appropriate way with which to deal with those issues. They are not the subjects of fundamental human rights; they are political decisions.
In some ways I would like to distance myself from the remarks that Mr Poots made, as I am uncomfortable with them, but, at the same time, he reflected a view that is held in the Unionist community. The Human Rights Commission has singularly failed to promote an awareness of human rights culture and of human rights in the Unionist community. As Mr McCartney said, that happened because the then Secretary of State took no regard of her legal duty to appoint a commission that fully reflected the community, and instead appointed from within the human rights lobby or industry.
That is a great shame and has been the disaster that has underpinned much of what the Human Rights Commission has tried to do since — and this is where I disagree with Mr McCartney. The remit that was given to the commission in the Belfast Agreement was not to draw up a bill of rights, but
"to consult and advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland."
Its job is to advise and consult on supplementary rights. Although the European Convention has not been incorporated, its remedies are available to UK citizens through the Human Rights Act 1998. That was probably one of the major pieces of legislation to go through Westminster since the European Communities Act 1972. It represents a significant change in the way in which the legal system in the United Kingdom will operate. It has an effect on Northern Ireland and has done so since October 2000.
Whenever the Human Rights Commission thinks it is relevant, it will mention the Human Rights Act 1998, but it does not look at the Act. It does not take account of the effect that the 1998 Act has had, and instead runs off to produce a completely separate document.
The Human Rights Commission was supposed to ask what extra rights and protections were necessary to meet Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances. The answer to that question could be that no additional rights to those in the European Convention are needed. The commission could have concluded that the European Convention on Human Rights was sufficient to protect the political and civil rights of Northern Ireland people as part of the United Kingdom, and through the protections offered to them by the 1998 Act. The commission did not do that. It said that it had been given a remit to produce a bill of rights and that that is what it would do. It produced an astounding, incredible document that has no precedent in international law.
My other concern is that, in producing the document, the commission has significantly alienated the Unionist community. Instead of being able to embrace human rights culture and look at human rights as offering protection for the Unionist culture, the Unionist community has been alienated by the commission’s course of action. What is the commission doing about the difficult issues, such as the right to assemble? Human rights are not about protecting the rights that one particularly favours; it is about protecting all rights, which include those on difficult issues with which one may not agree. If someone wishes to produce fascist or racist work he has a right to do that, and that right should be defended. I may not agree with such people but their right to express their opinions has to be protected. That is also true when it comes to the right to peaceful assembly. The commission has simply invented rights to try and oppose what should be protected.
I support the amendment. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which derives its mandate from the Good Friday Agreement, is fundamentally important. Without the commission, the agreement’s vision of a new beginning for Northern Ireland based on human rights for all cannot be realised.
It is all the more regrettable that the commission has not been given the budget and powers commensurate with its importance under the agreement. The SDLP welcomes recent improvements in the commission’s budget but regrets the time that that has taken and the detrimental effect that that has had on the commission’s ability to engage with wider civic society on the bill of rights. Our party also regrets the lack of powers given to the Human Rights Commission.
The commission recently reviewed its powers and effectiveness, and made detailed recommendations to the Secretary of State. However, the review makes for sad reading. It shows that, in the past two years, the Northern Ireland Office and criminal justice agencies have been able to stymie the commission’s investigations through non-co-operation. It also shows how the commission has been powerless in the face of such obstruction, despite assurances at Westminster by the then Secretary of State, MoMowlam, that legislation would provide for full co-operation. Those assurances have not been honoured. That is why the SDLP has called for the commission’s powers to be greatly enhanced. We have made it clear that the commission should enjoy the same extensive powers as those enjoyed by the Irish Human Rights Commission. Nothing less will bring our commission into line with the principles on the status and functioning of national institutions for protection and promotion of human rights known as the Paris Principles. Nothing less will do.
The SDLP has proposed an amendment to the motion to highlight the commission’s lack of powers and to call for those defects to be remedied. The Secretary of State has been considering a review of the commission’s powers, but he has not responded yet. We await his acceptance of the commission’s recommendations.
Despite all of this, the Human Rights Commission has discharged its mandate admirably. That can be clearly seen in the bill of rights.
The Good Friday Agreement states that the commission must consult and advise on the scope of defining rights supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights. The commission is doing that. It has consulted; it has produced draft advice; and it is consulting on that advice. The agreement says that the commission should draw on "international instruments and experience." It has done so by examining countless international instruments. The agreement also says that the commission should
"reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".
It has accomplished that by laying emphasis on economic and social rights. Those rights can form the basis of a common agenda that can heal the divisions in Northern Ireland.
If there is one thing that the commission has not done, it is to make sufficiently strong provision for parity of esteem, and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities. The SDLP considers that a fundamental issue, because it is fundamental to the agreement itself. We would have wished for clearer provision for that matter, in order to reflect the agreement better. To base the rights on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is not enough. The agreement, itself an international instrument, goes further by guaranteeing the equal treatment of both communities’ aspirations, as opposed to merely their cultural identities.
The higher protection of rights given by the agreement deserves clearer recognition. However, this is just a consultation paper. It is no surprise that we, or any other party, should comment on it. It does not mean that the Human Rights Commission has not carried out its duties under the agreement.
It is regrettable that Unionist politicians have engaged in a negative debate on the commission. That is based on a complete misunderstanding of the issues. For example, I have heard complaints that some Unionists believe that the principle of consent should be included in the bill of rights —
I support the motion.
Many people will find it odd that the Ulster Unionist Party complained last week about the Patten Report. It said that its members on the board would not be bound by Patten and the police legislation, because it was not what they understood would be in the agreement. At the start of the week, the UUP drew up a motion, which has yet to be put before the House, to exclude Sinn Féin, because it had been conned on the issue of letting terrorists into Government with their guns. Today the party tells us that it has been conned about the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. To get it wrong once is bad, twice is disastrous, but a third time is criminal.
Those people said that they had negotiated a good agreement, and they sold it to the people of Northern Ireland on that basis. Today’s motion, which we shall be supporting, is a sad indictment of the job that was done when the Belfast Agreement was signed.
Those who oppose the motion have not dealt with the essence of the complaints that were made. Instead, they have pointed the finger and implied that anyone who supports the motion is against human rights.
I listened to David Ervine’s remarks. All his attention was directed at the Unionist Benches. I did not stay to listen to the regular rant from Mary Nelis, but I can guess what she said about human rights. The organisation with which she is identified is totally immersed in a culture of denial of human rights. However, the House did not hear one word about that hypocrisy from David Ervine. All his ire was directed at those who support the motion.
Given the commission’s remit and membership, did anyone really expect anything more than a liberal-left, politically correct, Nationalist-driven agenda? As one commentator remarked, the commission was Mo Mowlam’s parting two fingers to the Unionist community. According to a parliamentary answer, six members of the commission were members of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a Nationalist front organisation. What else can be expected from that? We have seen its actions here.
The Human Rights Commission has become the voice of the villain. Its representatives appeared before the Assembly to talk about extra powers for the police to investigate the financial irregularities of criminals. Without even having seen the code of practice — the commission admitted that it had not seen it — they recommended that it needed changing to protect the criminal.
There have been complaints about the commission’s lack of money. However, there was no lack of money when it came to protecting the Omagh bombers. The commission has taken two cases to court. One action sought to protect the identities of the Omagh bombers from being broadcast on ‘Panorama’. The other case went to the High Court to enhance the powers of the commission and allow it to intervene in third-party cases.
What we have seen from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which the document shows, is a desire to extend its powers. For example, if someone complains that a hospital or school closure impinges on his or her human rights, the commission wants the power to take such a case to court and for the judge to overrule decisions made by elected Members of the Assembly. In fact, at a recent meeting to discuss extra powers, the commission wanted powers to enter properties, seize documents, and so on. It wanted to become another Special Branch, only with more powers. It is right not to give the commission extra powers. The one way to put a rein on the commission is to use an economic stranglehold and not give it any more money.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. We must question the reason behind the motion and its timing, given that the consultation process on the bill of rights is ongoing. The consultation process, which was launched in March 2000, has seen 11 different pamphlets distributed. Nine independent advisory groups were set up, 400 educators were trained, and educational videos and manuals were produced. The commission invited independent speakers, who included the president of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. A total of 230 submissions have been received, and 22 public meetings have taken place.
Given all that, why did the Ulster Unionist Party not raise its concerns and contribute to that process?
No, I have only five minutes.
It makes one wonder whether Unionists are using the motion not only to attack the commission, but to renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement and to produce a commission that they can influence.
The Good Friday Agreement envisaged a far-reaching bill of rights that extended protection beyond the two communities to cover all communities, including ethnic minorities. It was to cover rights that would reflect and address the North of Ireland’s particular circumstances. Those rights include socio-economic rights, children’s rights, the rights of the elderly and women’s rights. Furthermore, it was to be a free-standing bill of rights that built on, and went further than, international instruments. It is pertinent to ask just what Unionists are afraid of. Human rights are not about Nationalist or Unionist rights; they are about the rights of every single individual in this society.
The amendment, which my party is supporting, states that the commission has been hindered in discharging its remit due to limits on its powers and resources. That is absolutely correct. It has been stated here — in a different way, of course — that the commission is not representative. Yes, it is not representative. Catholics, women and Nationalists are under-represented, and there are no representatives from the ethnic minorities, from people with disabilities or from the gay and lesbian community — in fact, from all the groups covered by section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The draft bill of rights produced by the commission does not go far enough. It fails, for example, to recognise specifically the rights of political ex-prisoners. The British Government failed to fund the Human Rights Commission adequately at an early stage. The commission has been unable to function effectively because it has been undermined from the start by lack of resources and by the failure of the British Government to give it the necessary powers, such as those of subpoena and discovery.
The commission was further curtailed by Lord Justice Carswell’s finding that it did not have the powers to intervene in cases as a third party, or amicus curiae. The British Government have failed to legislate to give those powers to the Human Rights Commission, powers similar to those held by other non-governmental organisations. Indeed, the commission is not governed by the Paris Principles, the guidelines followed by all human rights organisations throughout the world.
The Secretary of State has still not acted on the commission’s report of February 2001 despite that report’s recommendations on the changes required to improve its effectiveness.
Much more needs to be done in the field of human rights, particularly regarding the representativeness of the Human Rights Commission. However, we must applaud the commission’s work so far, despite its inadequacies and lack of resources.
Most of Mr Poots comments were disgraceful, but those concerning blood donations, in particular, were shameful to the House. It was an attack on people who suffer from AIDS, haemophilia and hepatitis. Unfortunately, that is indicative of the backward thinking among so many people in this society.
Everyone is entitled to human rights, but things have to be fair and equal. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has failed to propose recommendations in line with its remit. The Belfast Agreement charged the commission with advising and consulting with the UK Government on additional human rights, which could be introduced by law to further safeguard the identity and ethos of both communities.
The commission has done its bit in keeping open the constitutional debate by mentioning Northern Ireland’s competing and equally legitimate aspirations. The commission has been set up by the British Government and must provide society with equal human rights for all people in Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom. The consultation document mentions self-determination, but not the principle of consent, which was endorsed under the Belfast Agreement.
The bill of rights aims to promote mutual tolerance and respect among all sections of the community. However, the commission fails to be pragmatic about the reality. A bill of rights will not remove the main threat to human rights that prevails in our society — that posed by Sinn Féin/IRA, which still holds on to arms.
The report also deals with the rights of young people. The House will know that the main threat to them comes from bully boys whose actions are directed by paramilitary organisations. The commission fails to mention that. Our young people need to be adequately protected by law from punishment beatings and from drug pushers.
Regarding the issue of job equality, the best person should get the job. We must safeguard an employer’s right to choose the type of person that he wants to employ. That is not sufficiently recognised by the bill of rights’ recommendations.
The document spent much time stressing past crimes of the state in dealing with terrorist violence. However, a vital omission from the document is that the state has a legitimate monopoly in the use of force. That principle defines a state. Safeguards must be adhered to. However, the state’s hands must not be tied in discharging its legitimate function of ensuring law and order.
The Human Rights Commission has not safeguarded the culture of the majority of the population. It is now politically incorrect for people of my culture to celebrate or express beliefs. That was not addressed. Human rights are weak on that issue.
The Human Rights Commission has proven to be spineless, with a false view of our world. Our world is not ideal, and it is futile to think that the commission can create a perfect society. It has failed to adopt a balanced approach to the establishment of human rights. It has undermined many valuable traditional institutions in our society, which include the sanctity of marriage. Its view is contrary to the distinct nature of Northern Ireland’s society. Therefore the commission has ignored its remit and offered a series of proposals that would offend most people in Northern Ireland.
I realise that the rights of the minority should be protected. However, in its efforts to please the minority, the commission has forgotten about the majority.
Even by the House’s standards, this has been one of the most dispiriting and disappointing debates to date. I hope to enliven it and raise the standard a little bit. I was deeply depressed by the speeches from the Unionist Benches. David Ervine went to the heart of the issue: the Unionist parties, and sadly the Ulster Unionist Party in particular, seem to have no confidence in human rights. They seem to have a negative reaction to human rights. They see it as the preserve of the Nationalist, Republican or Catholic community — something that does not belong to them.
However, that is not reflected in the community. I refer, in particular, to the Protestant community. Some 215 organisations ranging from Age Concern to the Tullyalley Community Association contributed to the Human Rights Commission’s deliberations. Those organisations reflect a wide spectrum of Northern Ireland society. Ordinary people in the Unionist or Protestant community have a belief in human rights and have confidence in the Human Rights Commission. I cannot understand why a party that is committed to the Good Friday Agreement cannot embrace the concept of human rights and support the body that has been set up to advance human rights in Northern Ireland.
I am told that the Human Rights Commission has gone outside its terms of reference. The terms state, as Mr McCartney — and I notice he never stays to the end of the debate — rightly said, that
"the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and — taken together with the ECHR — to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland."
I cannot see how the commission has gone outside its terms of reference. The Human Rights Commission has faithfully discharged its duty under its terms of reference. It has produced a draft bill of human rights for people’s considerations. It is a consultative document; there is nothing here that the document says must be included in the bill of rights. The Human Rights Commission is providing its own suggestions, as well as those from a wide range of organisations and people in the community.
What is wrong with that? How can that offend anybody in the Chamber, Unionist or Nationalist? The Human Rights Commission has discharged its duties very well on a budget of £750,000, which is chicken feed in comparison to the figures that other public organisations funded by the Northern Ireland Office receive. The Police Ombudsman and other organisations receive much more than that. The commission is strapped for funds, and it needs additional funding. Its funding should be between £1·5 million and £2 million per year. If the commission were given that sort of funding, it could discharge its duties much better. The Human Rights Commission rightly pointed out that it is underfunded and that it does not have sufficient powers. Its powers and its independence do not reflect the Paris Principles, which are internationally recognised as the minimum requirements.
One of the many weird criticisms that Dr Birnie made of the commission was that it had a maximalist approach to human rights. Why would it not take that approach? If it had a minimalist approach to human rights, it would be failing in its duty.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a non-transferable matter, so I must limit my response to the facts. The commission is required to consult with and advise the Secretary of State on the scope for a bill of rights. The consultation document published on 4 September 2001 forms the commission’s initial advice to the Secretary of State. It will provide its final advice to the Secretary of State when the consultation process has ended. The Secretary of State will decide whether the commission has fulfilled its remit. I have listened carefully and noted the range of views expressed.
Several important matters have been raised, and I have no doubt that the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will consider those remarks carefully.
The Executive have yet to consider whether they will make a response to the bill of rights, but if they do, they will consider carefully the views that have been expressed.
With regard to the allegations made about the composition of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that the Secretary of State must
"as far as practicable secure that the commissioners, as a group, are representative of the community in Northern Ireland."
The Secretary of State is responsible for the appointment of the 52 members of the commission; the Executive do not have a role in that.
Some comments have been made about the membership of the Human Rights Commission. Whatever we think about how representative the commission’s membership is, the comments that were made were, at the very least, unfortunate and, at the very worst, potentially dangerous. Will the Deputy Speaker consult Hansard to examine the comments made by Mr Poots when he referred to the "pro-prisoner, pro-terrorist and pro-Nationalist" activities of the Human Rights Commission? The word "pro-terrorist", in particular, puts members of public bodies in the North — in this case, members of the Human Rights Commission — at risk. I request that the Deputy Speaker review that matter.
Someone on the other Benches somewhat generously referred to Mrs Nelis’s comments as a rant. Mrs Nelis said
"that rights and equality are alien words to the mindset of Unionism".
Regardless of my thoughts on the motion, or what is happening in Unionism, to portray Unionists as having a mindset alien to rights and equality does not inform the debate. Rather, it gives an insight into the mind of the person who would say such a thing and suggests to me that that person is pathological in her attitude towards another community in the North. That attitude is manifest in the failure of both Sinn Féin Members who spoke today to accept the invitation from the Unionist Members to comment on abuses of human rights that emanate from the Republican movement and community. Their silence and lack of response on that reveals much about those who criticise the Unionist approach to human rights, a criticism which, in many ways, I share.
Mr McCartney stated that the Human Rights Commission
"has almost entirely ignored the violation of human rights by non- state bodies".
Mr McCartney almost entirely ignored the activities of the Human Rights Commission. As well as its intervention on behalf of the Omagh families, it made submissions to the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Proceeds of Crime Bill 2001 and expressed views on the proposed Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, both of which are attempts to purge our community of the effects of organised crime. It has made comments to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the relocation of victims of paramilitary intimidation. It has contributed to the International Council on Human Rights Policy report on human-rights approaches to armed groups. The portrayal of the Human Rights Commission as a body that entirely ignores non-state abuses is contradicted by many of its activities.
Duncan Shipley Dalton said that there was no need to go beyond the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. That view may be valid. However, that was not the mandate given to the Human Rights Commission. Page 16, paragraph 4, of the Good Friday Agreement explicitly says that the commission should consider
"rights supplementary to those of the European Convention on Human rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".
It then adds
"These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem".
That explicitly goes beyond the European Convention on Human Rights. Given that the Good Friday Agreement gives a mandate to move beyond the European Convention on Human Rights, the commission is quite right to do so.
The implementation of human rights in the North is an opportunity, not a threat. We hear from the Unionist Benches that it is considered a threat, not an opportunity. The Unionists should heed what Monica McWilliams said about the growing volume of opinion in the North and heed too those who are articulating the need for human rights — the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, Save the Children, Women into Politics, Amnesty International, the Multi-Cultural Resource Centre (Northern Ireland) and the many organisations that gave submissions during the consultation process on a bill of rights. They are representative of the Northern Ireland community. Many of their members may also be Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists or Republicans, but they all can see that the new civic religion in our society, and in many societies around the world, is the issue of human rights. They are embracing them, and it is time for us to do the same.
I would like to thank all who participated in the debate, especially the junior Minister, who had the difficult task of speaking about something for which he does not have responsibility.
As time is tight, I will not attempt a point-by-point rebuttal, tempting though it would be. However, the second Sinn Féin Member to speak, Dr O’Hagan, implied that my party had failed to make a submission to the commission. If you look at page 154 of the document you will see that we are listed there.
In listening to some of the comments this afternoon, particularly from those Members speaking against the motion or, indeed, in favour of the amendment, I rather think that some such persons were adopting a position similar to that adopted by a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke. In 1993, he urged Members of Parliament to vote for the Maastricht Treaty, but he then went on to admit, quite candidly, that he had never read the document. We have read this document, and in it, and, indeed, in what has been said this afternoon, we have not found evidence that the commission would have lacked, or would now lack, resources if it had stuck to its defined remit as stated in the Belfast Agreement.
We have not heard evidence to counter the crucial point that many social and economic rights, desirable though they may be as objectives, cannot be justiciable. Poverty cannot be abolished by a decision in court. It needs public spending, a sound economic policy and a productive economy — all very important items — but it cannot be solved by a human rights document. That is not, to use Mr Ervine’s allegation, a piece of so-called right-wing rant. It is a sound philosophical argument, supported internationally by many commentators on human rights.
Has the Human Rights Commission gone beyond the agreement? Yes, it has. It is condemned out of its own mouth. On page 14 of the September document, the commission says
"In so far as a narrow interpretation of paragraph 4" — that is of the section in the agreement —
"might be thought to rule out the recommendation of certain rights, the Commission is satisfied that it can properly rely on its general power under section 69(3)(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998".
It therefore argues, to my mind not convincingly, that it cannot simply rely on the agreement — it relies on the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That is clearly a case of going beyond the agreement. I repeat what I said — we are not against rights per se; we simply want full implementation of the agreement in this regard, as in others.
I listened closely to Mr Attwood’s summing-up speech. In closing, he got very euphoric and referred to the rights agenda as "the civic religion". At least we agreed on that, as I referred to it as "a secular religion". Let us put it to the test. If this really is what the people of Northern Ireland want, let it be tested by a referendum. However, I note that there is a suggestion that the bill of rights should not be approved by a referendum, although, to be fair, I have not heard that from the commission. I heard it from other lobby groups. I suspect the reason for it is that they know a majority of people in Northern Ireland would not vote for many of the suggestions within such a document as this.
I support the motion, and, contrary to some rumours that I have been hearing over lunchtime, I hope that we will move rapidly to a vote on it rather than have a so-called stay of execution for perhaps six days. The matter is sufficiently important to be voted on now, on its own merits, without resort to a procedural fig leaf.
Dr Birnie has pre-empted my next comments. I wish to inform Members that a petition of concern has been tabled in respect of this motion. Under Standing Order 27, no vote may therefore be held until at least one day has passed. Standing Order 27 states that
"A Petition of Concern in respect of any matter shall be in the form of a notice signed by at least 30 Members presented to the Speaker. No vote may be held on a matter which is the subject of a Petition of Concern until at least one day after the Petition of Concern has been presented."
I understand that the Business Committee considered this matter at its meeting today. In accordance with its decision, the vote on the matter before Members will be taken during the plenary session on Monday 1 October at the commencement of private Member’s business. Copies of the petition are available in the Business Office for Members who wish to inspect it.