Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): In relation to the revocation of a licence, will the Minister clarify whether it is necessary to have sufficient evidence—evidence that could be presented in court to secure a conviction—or it is sufficient to have such intelligence as the Chief Constable feels appropriate to identify the person? The Minister will appreciate that evidence that would substantiate a conviction and intelligence that would satisfy him that a breach of the licence had occurred are two clearly different things.

Mr. Howarth: As a distinguished lawyer, the hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that any case could be the subject of judicial review; that that was precisely the way in which the law acted in the Adair case. It follows that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and the Chief Constable will have to take any evidence into consideration in anticipation that it could become a matter of public knowledge. In every circumstance, whether there is intelligence or direct evidence before them, they will have to make difficult judgments. Those are difficult situations, and I am loth to be drawn into a lengthier debate, because we are dealing with tricky aspects of justice.

I believe that a safe, just and tolerant society is important for all people in Northern Ireland. We still have some way to go before we can sit back and say that everything is all right, but in politics we should never allow complacency to set in. We have made a real start by putting in place appropriate structures to create such a society. Institutional change is certainly important in cementing a culture in which human rights and equality are respected.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I put this to the Minister in anything but a sarcastic way: would he not agree that, if there is a deficiency in human rights in Northern Ireland, it is certainly not because of a shortage of institutions?

Mr. Howarth: I think that the hon. Gentleman's intervention was laced with a touch of sarcasm, although I do not know where it was directed. The situation in Northern Ireland was and is such that it is important to have properly resourced, properly led institutions that can ensure equality and human rights and act as an independent watchdog. At the end of the day, it is not a question of reassuring the Committee, the hon. Gentleman or myself. What is truly important is that no man and woman in Northern Ireland feels discriminated against in terms of employment, gender or anything else—in sum, that individual human rights are in no way removed.

I often make the point that in years to come people in England, Scotland or Wales may look at what is happening in Northern Ireland in those two areas and say that we should perhaps adopt it as a model.

Mr. Robert McCartney rose—

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) rose—

Mr. Howarth: I shall give way in a moment, although I shall have to stop giving way so much or people who want to make speeches will be unable to do so.

There is indeed international interest in both the Northern Ireland institutions. Who would not want to ensure that equality and human rights are properly implemented, or that specific organisations in Northern Ireland are dedicated to that task?

Mr. McCartney: Does not the Minister accept that the people of Northern Ireland feel that they have been seriously discriminated against in that in no other part of the United Kingdom would someone who has been convicted of murdering 12 people be released after 18 months? Would that have happened to the late Reginald Kray, the Brixton bomber or Myra Hindley?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. and learned Gentleman has strong feelings about that and, quite properly, never misses the opportunity to put that point of view. The issue flows directly from the Good Friday agreement, which he and some of his hon. Friends do not accept. That agreement was a package and part of it involved a prisoner release scheme. I and those who support the agreement fervently hope that it will enable us to put violence, terrorism and the gangster culture that predominates in some areas behind us. The hon. and learned Gentleman is entitled to his opinion, but it is not appropriate to extend it to the context of the two institutions.

Mr. Öpik: The Minister said, rightly, that it is important that all individuals in Northern Ireland have the same rights. I am sure that we agree about that. However, the Government's justification for not extending the Race Relations Act 1976 to Northern Ireland was that that the problem of racism and associated racial discrimination was not sufficiently serious there. Given that the number of racially motivated attacks or incidents went up from 26 in 1996 to 245 in 2000, does the Minister think that there is still not sufficient justification for extending that Act?

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that all members of the Committee will agree that any racially motivated attack of any description is despicable and unacceptable. However, such attacks are out of character in Northern Ireland. There may be divisions in Northern Ireland—no one pretends otherwise—but such activity is alien and repugnant to the majority of right-thinking people there. On the specific point raised, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is reviewing whether anti-hate legislation may be appropriate and, as always, he will take careful note of what the hon. Gentleman says.

I am pleased with the progress that has been made. Change must come not only from the top down from institutions, but from the bottom up. It is not enough for politicians to talk about human rights and equality in a purely abstract sense, tempting though that may be and no matter how sincere we are about it. Without the commitment of the people of Northern Ireland to the programme of change, we will not achieve the goal that we all share of creating a long and lasting peace. It must never be forgotten that everyone in the community has a role to play. We politicians, irrespective of the tradition from which we come or our political party, have a duty to encourage people to engage in human rights and equality issues in a way that adds to whole, and does not take away from it. I am confident that despite the many setbacks—it is no good pretending that we do not have them—we can, and will, succeed in establishing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Committee shares my optimism for the future. Even though we remain concerned about some developments, there is cause for optimism—albeit cautious optimism.

3.21 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I welcome the opportunity to discuss equality and human rights in Northern Ireland. I agree with the Minister that human rights and equality of opportunity are rights that everyone must enjoy and that they must be secured for all the people of Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist party has, for some time, been a vigorous advocate of equality and human rights. Our last election manifesto clearly stated the belief in equality across the spectrum, from women's and children's issues to disability issues. At the general election, we expressly stated our desire for the European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms to be incorporated into United Kingdom law to protect everyone's basic civil and political rights. Unfortunately, although we now have the Human Rights Act 1998, not all have sufficient protection of their basic civil and political rights. We may have a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland and, after some foot-dragging, a Human Rights Commission in the Republic, but we also have a human rights community in Northern Ireland that has created a selective and highly politicised version of human rights that dispenses with the concept of equality.

My lack of faith in the Northern Ireland human rights community in general and in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in particular is founded on three issues: first, the selective attitude to human rights abuses; secondly, the attitude to police recruitment; and, thirdly, the attitude to parades. If time permitted, I would be more than willing and able to elaborate on all those issues. As it does not, I shall elaborate on the selective attitude to human rights abuses with reference to the human rights community's obsession with human rights abuses orchestrated by the state.

All abuses of human rights are abhorrent. Speaking in 1995, a former chairman of the Committee on the Administration of Justice made that point when he said that

    ``there are some aspects of the Committee on the Administration of Justice which I would have to say I am frankly disappointed with. Do they recognise that the greatest abuse of human rights in Northern Ireland in the last 25 years is that carried out by the paramilitary groups?''

The statistics available validate that assertion. The cost of the troubles survey tells us that of the 3,585 people were killed up to 3 December 2000, only, but none the less sadly, 11 per cent. were killed by the security forces; yet 58 per cent. were killed by republican paramilitaries and 28% by loyalist paramilitaries. Those facts are ignored by the human rights community in its approach to abuses of rights.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has set up a victims' rights project, in which it speaks of such as the right to information about the incidents of violence in question, the right to adequate compensation, the right to have someone held to account for the violence inflicted upon them, and the right to be treated equally to other victims of violence. However, in mid-October last year, the commission acted, in my opinion, as puppets for the Real IRA by bringing an action to block the ``Panorama'' expose of the Omagh bombers. It did so in ignorance of article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which deals with the right to freedom of expression, and in disregard of the right to information about violent incident in question, which one of the rights mentioned in the commission's own victims' rights project. The result of that legal action was that the commission lost the case, the programme was aired and the reality of the republican atrocity was held under the spotlight of investigative journalism and freedom of information.

On the 9 May 2000, the Commission joined with republican apologists such as British Irish Rights Watch to call for an inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane, because of the ``range of issues'' that the murder had thrown up. However, no range of issues or alleged collusion has caused the Commission concern about allegations of Garda collusion, but then Garda collusion is not part of the republican bandwagon, and the human rights community appears to consider victims of non-state abuses to be only second-class victims. Victims of paramilitaries are treated as second-class victims: as far as the human rights community is concerned, people who have received punishment without law, breaching article 7 of the convention, are second-class victims, unless that punishment involved the state.

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Prepared 8 February 2001