Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Dedicated Mechanism

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 8th March 2021.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:00 pm, 8th March 2021

2. Mr Blair asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the initial work of the Equality Commission and Human Rights Commission regarding the dedicated mechanism. (AQO 1687/17-22)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission are working jointly to discharge their functions as the dedicated mechanism. As TEO sponsors the Equality Commission, I can provide some general information about the steps that it has taken to recruit staff to its dedicated mechanism unit. A director and a number of permanent staff have been appointed, and work is under way to fill the remaining vacancies. Both commissions have engaged with a range of stakeholders to raise awareness of the role and remit of the dedicated mechanism and article 2 commitments. This has included engagement with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), TEO, the Independent Monitoring Authority and the Executive Office Assembly Committee.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the First Minister for her answer. Further to that, will the First Minister clarify whether the joint commission has or will be given the access required to departmental information to determine the current and possible future challenges and issues that may arise across Departments because of EU exit?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

As I said, we sponsor the Equality Commission. The NIO looks after the Human Rights Commission, so it is in charge of the governance in and around that. The protocol, including the dedicated mechanism, is the commitment of the UK Government. Consequently, they are responsible for looking after the funding of the commission. I imagine that there will be no difficulties with either commission, given that they are independent organisations engaging right across government, getting any information needed to deal with the matters that the Member raised.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Article 2 of the protocol reflects the commitment made to uphold the Belfast Agreement. Given that the agreement's principle of consent is being turned on its head, is the First Minister aware of any indication that the Human Rights Commission or the Equality Commission is considering the impact upon the human rights of members of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Member is correct that article 2 of the protocol says:

"The United Kingdom shall continue to facilitate the related work of the institutions and bodies set up pursuant to the 1998 Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland".

It will be very interesting to see whether either commission has been looking at the diminution of rights under the implementation of the protocol and, in particular, the change in the principle of consent. In December, under a statutory instrument, that change was effected by the Secretary of State in the House of Commons: he changed the consent from cross-community to a simple majority. I will await with interest to find out whether either organisation has any comment on those matters.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Will the First Minister provide an update on the funding for the dedicated mechanism and outline the financial position for 2020-21?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Equality Commission has agreed funding with the UK Government to discharge the new role of the dedicated mechanism. The initial funding agreement is for three years, running until 2022-23. The Northern Ireland Office has advised that, in common with all UK Government and Northern Ireland Departments and arm's-length bodies, future funding for the dedicated mechanism beyond 2023 will be subject to the normal spending review processes. Funding has been agreed between the Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Office totalling £1,898,000 for three years until March 2023.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Does the First Minister agree that equality of opportunity for goods and services has been undermined as a direct outworking of the Northern Ireland protocol?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I absolutely agree with that. We are in a situation where consumer choice is being threatened in the operation of the protocol. We were told at a meeting of the business engagement forum on Friday that, were it not for the actions taken by our Government, supply lines would have been severely curtailed, because people would have been taking action to get ready for the end of the grace period. There are severe difficulties in relation to the operation of the protocol and, as the Member says, to equality of opportunity.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Given that, under the protocol, huge swathes of the law, as it effects our economy, will now be made by a foreign power, with obvious detriment to local political and equality rights, would the First Minister expect those who go by the name of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission to show an interest in and to report on such matters?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

As I indicated to my friend the Member for South Belfast, I would have thought that both commissions would be interested in that, given that article 2 is there, supposedly, to protect the Belfast Agreement. The operation of the protocol and the way in which the architecture has been set up has changed the Belfast Agreement. Therefore, there should be a real and meaningful look at the protocol and its operation by the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.