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Resignations show weakness of Human Rights Commission

JM Thorn

23rd September 2002

One of the many claims made for the Good Friday Agreement is that it promotes human rights.  On an institutional level the motor for this was to be the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (HRC).  At its launch in 1998 it was hailed as “one of the strongest human rights institutions in Europe".  However, subsequent events have shown this to be a hollow claim.  This came into focus recently with the resignation of two of its commissioners - Inez McCormack, the head of the health union Unison, and Professor Christine Bell.

In their letters of resignation, the former commissioners made a number of criticisms of the HRC.  The main criticism was on the relationship between it and the government.  “The agreement envisaged a body which would be independent and strong, said Bell.  “But our budget was less than half that of the Equality Commission and far less than the police ombudsman’s.  On top of that, we have to apply to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to get money for each of our projects, so we end up having to negotiate and agree our terms of reference for investigations within the government.  That isn’t independence.”  McCormack claimed that the attitude of the NIO towards human rights was “dismissive”.   It is clear that the British government had no intention of creating a body that could promote human rights and hold the state up to scrutiny.  Rather than being independent, the HRC is subservient to the political demands of the British state.

However, the weakness of the HRC is not solely down to its relationship with the state, it also has internal problems.  These were exposed over the loyalist blockade of Holy Cross Primary, when pupils had to run a gauntlet of physical and verbal abuse to get to school.  Although this represented a blatant denial of human rights, the HRC could not agree a response.   Its chief commissioner, Professor Brice Dickson, put out statements condemning violence, but he framed what was going on at Holy Cross in terms of a clash of rights.  In this schema, the right of the pupils to travel to school unimpeded was countered by the ‘right’ of loyalists to set up a blockade.   Some commissioners, among them Inez McCormack, did insist that the rights of the children where paramount, and demonstrated this by walking with the children and their parents.  “A human rights commission has to protect the most vulnerable.  It was our job to take the children’s side, regardless of what ‘side’ in NI terms they came from”, she said.   However, Brice Dickson defended his position saying,  “I didn’t walk with the parents, but I talked to everyone”.

The implications of this approach were revealed when a committee of the HRC decided to fund a case to be taken by a Holy Cross parent against the RUC over its policing of the loyalist protest.  In response to this, Dickson wrote to the chief constable of the RUC, Ronnie Flanagan, informing him that he and three other commissioners were of the view that the police had not broken the Human Rights Act as claimed.  Flanagan then wrote a reply demanding that the commission drop the case, and threatening to use Dickson’s letter if the case reached court.  In effect, Dickson had sabotaged the case that his own commission was supposed to be supporting.

The concept of human rights that is now promoted by the HRC is perverse.  This is because it is result of trying to graft human rights onto the Good Friday Agreement.  The problem is that the two are not compatible.  The Agreement is about institutionalising sectarian division not promoting human rights.  In this framework human rights are not seen as sacrosanct but as sectarian privileges that can be traded off between the ‘two communities’.  The result is that human rights are sacrificed in an attempt to create a spurious balance.  The right to go to school is sacrificed to the ‘right’ of loyalist to ‘protest’, or the right to be free from sectarian harassment is sacrificed to the Orange Order’s ‘right to march’.

The resignations from the HRC are a sign of the continued degeneration of the Agreement, as the political ground shifts further to the right.  Its liberal supporters, such as Bell and McCormack are finding it increasingly difficult to defend.  As the minor gestures towards human rights and equality are abandoned in a bid to keep unionists in the Executive, the claim that there is a progressive element to the Agreement becomes even more untenable.



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