Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Öpik: I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's flow. The picture he paints is pretty grim, but does he accept that some of the work of the Committee on the Administration of Justice directly addressed the frictions that cause paramilitary activity. As such, the CAJ has tried to address the cause of the violations that he is describing. The CAJ would probably be very sympathetic to his view that ultimate human rights violation—the taking of somebody's life by paramilitary—

Mr. Beggs: It is important that the perception of the majority community of the way in which such bodies have operated to date is clearly on the record, so that there will be a more equal and more ``human rights'' approach to those matters in the future.

People who have been tortured in breach of article 3 of the convention are also second-class victims unless the state was involved. Those many members of the business community who go bust because of the abuses of extortion and racketeering are also second-class victims. The human rights community and the Human Rights Commission have a duty to those people.

That duty is all the greater when seen in the light of the South African example. In South Africa, unlike in Northern Ireland, the amnesty for prisoners was conditional on co-operating with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and on creating accountability and transparency by highlighting all breaches of human rights, whether committed by the state or otherwise. There are, as Brice Dickson termed it, a ``range of issues'' surrounding the Kingsmills massacre and the events of Bloody Friday. Just as it may be necessary to scrutinise further the state's involvement in Bloody Sunday, it may also be necessary to scrutinise the republican leadership's involvement in Bloody Friday and other such atrocities.

The human rights community's attitude to the issue of police recruitment has been horrifying. The Ulster Unionist party clearly wants a police service that reflects the community that it polices, but our focus is and has been on the means of promoting and securing such a service. We do not and cannot justify discrimination in employment, so we cannot support the discriminatory method of recruitment introduced under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. However, the commission easily justified the policy; it

    ``concluded that the kind of positive discrimination recommended by Patten was the only viable option at this time.''

That discrimination was not deemed the only viable option to address the gender imbalance or the under-representation of other groups in society; other groups must do with affirmative action measures. Those familiar with the debate will realise that, as the Government do not want to corrupt the merit principle, only success in affirmative action will permit 50:50 discrimination to operate effectively; and if affirmative action were working, there would be no need for statutory discrimination. However, those rather obvious points were lost on the human rights community in Northern Ireland and the Human Rights Commission.

In respect of parades, the human rights community has taken a perverse attitude to article 11 of the European convention on human rights, even though the Human Rights Commission frustrated the Secretary of State's desire to bring the Human Rights Act into force early in Northern Ireland. It was reported in The Observer on 3 September 2000 that the Human Rights Commission feared that an early introduction would:

    ``bolster loyalist rights to campaign during the marching season.''

Officially, Brice Dickson gave a different spin to the commission's objections, saying:

    ``We felt it was premature because the police, the judges and the Parades Commission were not up to speed on the legislation when the Secretary of State wanted to introduce it.''

Human rights are for everyone in society and the Human Rights Commission should represent all the victims of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. The current self-appointed human rights community in Northern Ireland and the Human Rights Commission are not representing all victims of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. In future, Northern Ireland spokespersons and guardians of human rights must return to the core principles of the European convention on human rights. Human rights must no longer be exploited by certain elements within our society for their own political or sectarian gain. The agenda of the human rights debate has to be refocused on the real victims of human rights abuse in Northern Ireland—the ordinary people, who are battered, shot, intimidated, extorted and terrorised on our streets every day.

Perhaps the Ministers present today will ensure that the current Secretary of State is not trapped into visiting my community, where a selected audience of Roman Catholic and republican families who have been subjected to sectarian attack are given an opportunity to air their views, with no consideration given to nor any arrangement made to meet the many Protestant families who had been intimidated either by those perceived to be loyalists or republicans, even though their suffering was no less than that of the Roman Catholic families to whom the previous Secretary of State specifically gave attention. I hope that there will be an opportunity for the present Secretary of State to visit my constituency and get a full picture of the perceived Orange-on-Orange, Orange-on-green, green-on Orange and green-on-green violence and intimidation. The tragedies and suffering of the families in my constituency have not been as the media have portrayed them; it is not one-sided or simplistic. Those families should not be used by any one elected representative to gain cheap headlines. Their suffering is real.

I welcome the intervention to date by the Chief Constable, members of the armed forces and I trust that those who abuse the rights of others will be apprehended, prosecuted and given stiff sentences, to serve as a warning to others to think before they get involved in this kind of activity.

3.37 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): My brief speech will focus primarily on two or three questions that I have for the Minister. First, let me say to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) that whatever he and his hon. Friends think about the Bloody Sunday tribunal, the setting up of such an inquiry stopped in its tracks a very valuable recruiting aid that had been employed by the recruiting officers of the IRA ever since that terrible day.

I am extremely interested in the work of both the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission, but I do have a couple of questions to ask..

Mr. Beggs: I have gone out of my way to indicate that the concerns that there may have been abuse of human rights in respect of the victims of Bloody Sunday should have been no greater or less than that of the victims of Bloody Friday, or any of the other massacres that have taken place elsewhere. Surely, the hon. Gentleman recognises that the absence of public inquiries into the Kingsmills massacre and the many other massacres that have taken place on the Unionist side has not lent itself to recruitment to loyalist paramilitary organisations. The argument that the absence of a public inquiry into Bloody Sunday helped recruitment to the IRA is spurious.

The Chair: Order. Interventions should be interventions. That one was a bit long.

Dr. Godman: I well understand the feelings of the hon. Member for East Antrim about those matters, but I do not think that my argument relating to the Bloody Sunday tribunal is spurious. I supported the setting up of that inquiry and I am on public record as saying that I wanted a Scots judge to chair the tribunal. The one I mentioned on a number of occasions was Lord Cullen, who carried out the Dunblane and Piper Alpha inquiries. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one point: the concern for the victims of violence felt by him and his hon. Friends is shared by Labour Members. We do not live in Northern Ireland and although our visits to Northern Ireland might be frequent, we remain visitors, but we fully understand the concern felt by Northern Ireland Members when their constituents are badly beaten or worse by murderous thugs. Their constituents have always had our deep sympathy. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would even think of challenging that sentiment.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Perhaps if it had been a Scots judge, expenditure on the Bloody Sunday inquiry would have been a bit more frugal.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): We are talking about equality.

Mr. Donaldson: I am an Ulster Scot. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that expenditure to date on that inquiry is in excess of £33 million? Does he understand the sense of injustice in the Unionist community when we see such a sum spent on one particular incident, yet nothing spent on many other incidents, massacres and atrocities affecting our community?

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that because I am an Edinburgh Scot I am a wee bit careful with my money.

Dr. Godman: I well remember you from Edinburgh, Mr. McWilliam, and I would not dare to cross you. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) makes a serious point. I have a copy of his question—I believe that it was No. 5 on the Order Paper and that the answer was £33,800,000 or something. Of course that is a large sum and the tribunal has a long way to run, but I do not believe that one can put a price on the search for truth and justice. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that he is an Ulster Scot. I do not recall questions of cost arising at any time in connection with the Dunblane massacre inquiry, or the terrible Piper Alpha affair, which in my view should have led to company directors being put in the dock for culpable homicide.

The Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission will play a central role in the peace process. Serious concern has been voiced to me that the Human Rights Commission is underfunded, and I have no doubt that the eminent Mrs. Harbison and her colleagues will say the same about their work in their commission. I thank the Minister for his sympathetic response to my question about funding for the consultation on the Bill of Rights. I think that he said that no application had been made; naturally, I hope that such an application will be made. I agree that it has to be comprehensive and financially watertight; otherwise that fellow from Dunfermline may have something to say. The consultation needs to both inclusive and comprehensive, and that is what prompted my question.

I believe that I am right in saying that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 calls for a review of the power of the Human Rights Commission within a period of two years. If I am right about that—I attended much of the debate on the Northern Ireland Bill, but I am sure that I will be corrected if I steer a negligent course—but who is to carry out the review, and will it be independent of the Northern Ireland Office? During consideration of the Act I said that the powers of the Human Rights Commission appeared to be inadequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) who is on Council of Europe duty today, was one of those who was very keen to see such a review written into legislation. Will the review analyse the commission's powers in comparison with the United Nations principles, known colloquially as the Paris principles?.

Another question relates to the relationship between the commission and the proposed—I should say embryonic—Human Rights Commission in the Irish Republic. Colin Harvey, in the current edition of ``Fortnight'', has this to say:

    ``The Belfast Agreement envisaged Northern and Southern Human Rights Commissions with the aim of improving human rights protection for everyone on this island. There has been a remarkable silence about the all-Ireland dimension to human rights protection which may, or may not, be remedied once the Irish Commission is fully operational. The establishment of this Commission has been severely delayed''—

he is talking about the Irish one—

    ``and it has much catching up to do.''

The Committee might be interested to learn that Colin Harvey is professor of constitutional and human rights law at the university of Leeds. Will the day come when the two commissions will be given the opportunity to work together to create an all island of Ireland view of human rights protection? It seems to me that if they need to work together they should have similar powers, and that is a matter for the two Governments.

There are those in Scotland who would like to see a Scottish human rights commission. Some say it should be set up in Edinburgh, others in Glasgow; I would offer Greenock, but the Minister would expect me to say that. My hon. Friend was dead right to mention Scotland: there is keen interest among Scots lawyers and those interested in human rights in the creation of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) has tabled questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland about the creation of such a commission in Scotland.

Hurrying along to the subject of the Equality Commission, I always believed that it made good sense to bring together within one body the functions carried out by a number of commissions, including the disability council. Bringing those—the equality commissioners may take umbrage at this—disparate functions together with a staff of about 120 must have been difficult. There are bound to be teething problems, but I have every confidence in Mrs. Harbison and Evelyn Collins and the others engaged in the commission's work. These are early days.

I do not want to overload the Minister, but I have a few questions for him. Is he satisfied with the commission's funding ? He is almost bound to say yes, but I would like him to consider it again. I refer in particular to section 75 duties. In addition, which organisations have been designated and which others are being considered for designation? Is he satisfied with the equality schemes? Despite these being early days, what benefits have already accrued? The commission was set up on 1 October 1999 and is in its 16th or 17th month of operation—I am lousy at arithmetic—and it would be handy if the Minister said something about the equality schemes. Last but not least, will he say when there will be submissions on the new policing arrangements for section 75 duties? Am I right in thinking that that is in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000? To conclude, I genuinely believe that both commissions will play an important role in the peace process, but they need to be adequately resourced.

3.50 pm

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