Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): No democrat or pluralist could do other than welcome legislation or institutions that safeguard the civil and human rights of the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I have been a member of the Northern Ireland Bar for longer than I care to remember and I have attempted to ensure that the civil and human rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland were preserved. I am conscious, in a patriotic way that is now somewhat out of fashion, that the principles of human rights, of justice and of liberty are more keenly defended and advocated within the United Kingdom than in any other part of Europe. I sometimes feel a little sensitive about the ideas of human rights being dictated to us by members of the European Union whose record on civil rights is, to say the least, short and, in some cases, not particularly distinguished.

Mr. John M. Taylor: I always listen to the hon. and learned Gentleman with great interest. Can he give an instance of a European Union country that has endeavoured to read us a lecture on human rights? I was following his argument, but he needs to tell me more.

Mr. McCartney: I suppose that the leading protagonists are the two major countries: Germany and France. For much of the 20th century, Germany did not have a distinguished record on human rights, and the French Government under Marshal Petain, which rounded up 42,000 French Jews, did not distinguish itself in that regard either. I could go further and cite Austria and other countries, such as Spain under the Caudillo. General Franco did not distinguish himself as a supporter of human rights—

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): The hon. and learned Gentleman was somewhat inaccurate in saying that our record on human rights is longer than that of others, although he is right to say that we have an extremely good record in the 20th century. He will recall that ``The Rights of Man'' was written by an Englishman who was unwelcome and under sentence of imprisonment if he came back to this country. He wrote that the French revolution might have educated the English landowners in the rights of man.

Mr. McCartney: I am not sure that I go along with what the hon. Gentleman says. There were others, including Edmund Burke and John Wilkes, who remained in the United Kingdom—England as it then was—and gave distinguished service in the preservation of libertarian rights.

It is a matter of personal and professional pride that during the period in which I practised at the Bar, I was retained by members of the nationalist community and its elected representatives, the Catholic Church, Catholic solicitors and individual Catholic clients. I can claim to know a little about the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. Members of the community whose political views I did not share respected my balance and fairness. They put their faith in me as a fair person to represent their interests.

Against that background, I move on to speak about the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland. For any institution, or commission, to propagate the views that it was brought into being to promote, it must have the support of the entire community. One of the disadvantages of the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland is the widespread view, which I share, that it is unbalanced, unrepresentative and has not devoted itself to the human rights of the entire community. Since it was instituted, and in its entire modus operandi, it has done nothing to obtain the support of the majority community.

Other speakers have touched on some important matters, so I shall mention them only briefly. The Human Rights Commission has operated on the basis of making a distinction between human rights and human rights that are infringed or impinged upon by the state or its servants. What about the human rights that are violated and trampled daily by paramilitary organisations of all hues?

I view with the same degree of abhorrence and detestation Orange, green, nationalist and Unionist paramilitary organisations. They are a plague on our entire society. None has any moral or political superiority over any other. Yet the Chief Commissioner for Human Rights, Professor Brice Dickson, has said that the commission is not ostensibly concerned with such breaches of human rights. It always struck me as odd that the right to equality in employment, the right to free speech and even the right to silence should be given pre-eminence over the most fundamental right of all—the right to life.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the Human Rights Commission is only one among a range of instruments to bring about a new beginning? It is not intended to supersede the actions of Governments or intergovernmental institutions. Are not issues relating to employment, religion and race highly relevant to creating a new more inclusive society?

Mr. McCartney: As the American declaration of independence says, such truths are self-evident. I do not quarrel with them, but that is not my point. The protection of human rights by the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland must be acceptable to the entire community, but it is not. That is not just my view, or the view of Unionist politicians and their supporters, it is the view of many academics. Recently, an independent academic heavily criticised the Human Rights Commission for its failure to address the activities of paramilitaries.

Earlier, in an intervention on the Minister, I raised points about discrimination, about unfairness, about human rights. What about the human rights of the mother or father of Lance Bombadier Restorick, serving in Northern Ireland, coolly and deliberately murdered by a sniper—Mr. Caraher, who had killed 11 others by exactly the same method? We have the application of the principles of law and justice. He was tried and, on incontrovertible evidence, was convicted, sentenced to five or six life sentences for murder and to hundreds of years in prison for other sentences. He was released after 18 months. When he was being sentenced, he laughed in the court because he knew that he would be released. What about the alleged loyalist who picked up a 16-year-old Catholic teenager, James Morgan, beat him to death with a hammer, tossed him into a pit where diseased animals were disposed; who was apprehended, convicted and released after 18 months because of some claim that he was associated with some loyalist paramilitary organisation?

That is discrimination of the most fundamental kind. It is an abandonment of the fundamental principles of democracy. It is a violation of the rule of law. It laughs in the face of the administration of justice but it is justified as a risk for peace. Do the means always justify the end? If we are to have a system of human rights in Northern Ireland, it must be dedicated to human rights in an absolute sense. It must not be prostituted to the objectives of political expediency. It must not be selective. It must be like justice, blind to the description, to the religion or to the political allegiances of those to whom it is addressed, and that is not the case.

What would be the outcry in the UK if the Soho bomber, sentenced to I do not know how many terms, was released? But we know that he will never get out. What about Myra Hindley? What about the Krays? We see running about all over Northern Ireland dozens of serial, convicted murderers who have been released, but we hear nothing about the human rights of the victims. They are doubly victims. They are also victims of a policy of political expediency that sees human rights only when it serves their political objective but does not see truly human rights when they should be applied to every citizen of the UK.

Some of this is justified, as the Minister attempted to justify it, with the argument that it is part of a package, of some overall worthy end, and that, in some way, those who are denied their human rights, those who suffer can say, ``We are only an individual or a collection of individuals. We suffer because there is some greater end that would benefit many more.''

That is the philosophy of every totalitarian dictator. It was the philosophy of Stalin and Hitler that the individual did not matter, that there was a great goal, whether it was the great leap forward, the five-year plan or the extermination of the Jews. There was a package and the package was for the greater good of the people who in time would come to realise this, except those who had been despatched, those who had been maimed, those who had been mutilated and those who had been murdered. If that is the policy of the present Government or any British Government, it is anathema to those who believe in democracy or the rule of law.

We are told in Northern Ireland that there is no alternative to this process. We are asked what our alternative is, but the full question is never asked. It is: what is our alternative to a process of appeasement of terrorism, breach of the fundamental principles of democracy and abandonment of the rule of law? There must be an alternative. That alternative lies in the application of the principles of democracy, adherence to the rule of law and the enforcement of human rights, for all purposes, not just for political purposes.


Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I come from a different political perspective from that of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). However, I recognise that some of what he said may need a response. Human rights and the move towards equality are not fresh issues for Northern Ireland that have to be imported from outside in order to get things right for the people of Northern Ireland. They are not incapable of understanding those issues, or of moving in those directions.

When the Labour party changed from the Labour representation committee, it held its first annual conference in 1906 in Belfast, although people from Northern Ireland are no longer allowed to be members of the Labour party. The choice of location reflected the fact that there were forces and movements throughout the United Kingdom that believed in the values of democratic socialism and the ideas that were being propounded at that time. That was reflected as much in the working class areas of Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland as it was in the areas of this country, such as Bradford, from which the Labour party had emerged, and where the old independent Labour party, which was part of that Labour structure, had been established.

We need to remember that there have long been human rights problems in Northern Ireland. The nationalist felt that the Unionist community was dominant in the old Stormont. They felt out of it, and that the rules were often used against them. However, while events occurred that led to the civil rights movement some 30 years ago, it is important to be remember also that some fantastic changes occurred in that time as well. Northern Ireland is deep into history, and goes way back. Sometimes, it is perhaps unfortunate that we even go 30 years back. Old television films are dug out, showing RUC members and B Specials beating up in crowds in Derry and other places. That is treated as if it is taking place now and as though it were just the common arrangement that existed.

There have been some incredible changes, and those changes have not been entirely divorced from the people of Northern Ireland. There has been direct rule from the United Kingdom Parliament, which Northern Ireland Members have shared in. However, there have been changes. One of the great disputes of the civil rights movement was electoral injustice and gerrymandering. That is behind us.

All that is left of electoral problems in Northern Ireland is electoral fraud, a matter that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has taken up and pressed with the Government. The Committee is concerned that there have not been faster moves to deal with those problems. The constant difficulty with Northern Ireland is that, where there is great conflict, people will use the avenues available to them—whether through the paramilitaries, the communities or state institutions.

Democracy is built on more than just votes. There have to be various attitudes, which it might be difficult to develop in Northern Ireland across the board. There have been many other important economic and social developments. The Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts 1976 and 1989 have made improvements, not only with regard to Roman Catholic under-representation in solidly Protestant areas, but also where Protestants are under-represented in Roman Catholic areas. The bodies set up to tackle that problem have made considerable advances. When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee investigated the matter, before we produced our report, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was a member of our Committee. He recognised that the employment legislation had helped to produce significant changes in Northern Ireland. He admitted that he would not have imagined that before he became involved in our investigations.

When hon. Members from Britain go across to Northern Ireland, they are often envious of the housing developments that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has set up. Because a central executive co-ordinated those developments, it could take on board ideas that came from all sorts of political groups. The houses were not built exclusively for one community. That has improved matters considerably. Although we now have the Assembly and the Executive and the big new hope under the peace agreement, this is not the first effort. This is a power-sharing arrangement, however people want to talk about it. Power sharing was tried by different forces that sought to reconcile and come together. They include people like Paddy Devlin and others for whom I have a great deal of time.

It is sometimes forgotten that there is an interest in Northern Ireland in developing various civil liberties and rights. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde mentioned disability. Civil rights for disabled people is an issue across the whole of Northern Ireland. There are many disability groups reflecting the concerns of all the political parties. In 1994-95, I promoted the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I was not the first to do so, but I was lucky in the ballot and I ran with it. I made sure that I got as wide as support as I could for the Bill. My sponsors included the hon. Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, South and the late Sir James Kilfedder. They were representatives of all the four Northern Ireland political parties in the House.

At the same time, because of pressures from my Bill, the Conservative Government introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. They published a White Paper in the morning and debated the Bill in the afternoon. Northern Ireland was not included in that Bill. However, when he introduced it, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who was then a Minister at the Department of Social Security, said that there would be a change and it would apply to Northern Ireland. The fact that four Northern Ireland Members had sponsored my Bill showed that there was strong feeling in Northern Ireland and powerful representations.

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Prepared 8 February 2001