Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Rev. Martin Smyth: The hon. Gentleman was right about the powerful representations. The problem with the Government Bill was that civil servants in Northern Ireland opposed its extension to Northern Ireland and, in fairness, I should say that, when I drew that to attention of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks he quickly changed it.

Mr. Barnes: It was helpful that support came from all parts of the House. I remember the hon. Member for North Antrim producing his own private Member's Bill, which was much lower down the list. It was called the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) (Northern Ireland) Bill. It was identical to my Bill, apart from the fact that ``Northern Ireland'' kept appearing. He managed to get called with a minute to go before 2.30 on a Friday, and had the wit to get up, move it and sit down. The Government nearly missed it and he nearly got Second Reading through without a debate, because there were enough people around to vote for it. Just as the Speaker was about to put the Question, one Conservative Back Bencher, who realised what the game was, got up and said a couple of words before the time ended.

I have often found with Northern Ireland issues that, right across the board, there are common concerns about economic and social issues. I remember us having a debate in a Room such as this over the question of Northern Ireland electricity privatisation, and a combined force of the Northern Ireland Members of Parliament with the Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition overturned the Government, although they turned it around on the Floor of the House with a vote.

Mr. Robert McCartney: The people of Northern Ireland are grateful for the efforts of people such as hon. Gentleman for crystallising, and focusing on, the many points that members of all parties in Northern Ireland have in common, rather than on those that separate them.

Mr. Barnes: Another indication of what was held in common was when I ran the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) (Northern Ireland) Bill. I wrote to every political party in Northern Ireland seeking its support. I already had the support of the four that were in the House. I received letters of support from them all, even quite small parties, with the exception of two: the Conservative party in Northern Ireland, which was obviously not for my Bill but was in favour of the Disability Discrimination Bill; and Sinn Fein—presumably on the grounds that there was some embarrassment in supporting disability legislation when Sinn Fein's paramilitary wing was involved in creating so much disability on its own.

The Belfast agreement has extended the human rights agenda. It is to be defended despite some of the problems that the hon. and learned Member for North Down has put forward. The Unionists have an agreement that states that, constitutionally, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom unless some alternative decision is made by the people of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, that decision would have to be made by referendum, not just by the people of Northern Ireland with a majority in each community, but by the people of the Republic of Ireland who would have to agree to the removal of articles 2 and 3 of their constitution. Both sides can claim that parts of the agreement have some significance in connection with themselves, their interests and their concerns. That is an advance, an assurance that the Unionist communities did not have.

There is also the wider Equality Commission. The only thing that concerned me about that, given my interest in disability legislation, was that the disability issue might get pushed on to the back burner and that an overriding commission might not be able fully to pick up its role. I am not sure what has occurred, and I may need some further feedback of the disability issues. However, the commission was part of the agreement and I accept it on those grounds, just as I accept the arguments about attempting to change the personnel, gender balance and community background of RUC officers.

There has been an attempt to create an artificial centre in Northern Ireland politics. As the divisions were of border and constitution, it seemed that that was the right effort in which to engage. I suppose that it is like a third way, between the two other positions. I am not a great third way advocate. When the third way is about economic and social matters, I detach myself from it entirely.

Perhaps it was appropriate that one Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), because he had a great deal to do with shaping the third way approach. I have always felt that the third way could be a way forward on constitutional and border matters. The attempt to create that centre to trade off between the two sides seemed entirely justified in Northern Ireland circumstances. We want Northern Ireland to develop economic and social agendas and to act on its own behalf.

Northern Ireland Members who entered the House faced the problem of being out-groups in relation to the rest of the United Kingdom. They have often been radical in pressing for extra resources and provisions, because they have not been part of any Executive or Assembly and have not been responsible for the decisions that have been taken. That has now changed, and there will be a tremendous impact on Northern Ireland politics in future.

If the development works, it will be somewhat like developments that have taken place in the Republic, whose main parties have emerged from the dispute over the treaty and are no longer pro or anti-treaty. Mary Robinson said that they must get past the faded flags of the civil war. We must also get past some of the faded symbols that exist in Northern Ireland, important as they are to some people, who cannot move without concessions.

I am sure that the different groupings associated with different political parties will in time reflect more of a distinction on economic and social matters. They have often been united in their sense of being out of things. Now that there is shared power, politicians will have to make up their minds on economic and social matters, where the real and important political divisions lie. The third way of politics might find its way into all that, but I would not be on its side. I hope that there will be some scope for democratic socialism in those circumstances.

The human rights agenda is a significant matter and arises out of the past. The Belfast agreement has added a tremendous hope for the future. However, I accept the question asked by many hon. Members about what some community groups and human rights bodies are doing about the intimidation, beatings, exiles and all other horrors that exist. We have the equivalent of truth commissions and the inquiry into Bloody Sunday, and I accept that at some stage the whole past must be faced as people begin to talk about it. The forces of human rights and democracy will enable each group to have its say, but one group must not dominate another because it has a temporary majority. Democratic politics is about having the vote, human rights and a sense of an Opposition who might be tomorrow's Government and who are not squashed into the ground.

There are high hopes in Northern Ireland. The arguments of no-voters sometimes have some resonance. They do not accept the constitutional development. The hon. and learned Member for North Down spoke excellently about abuses and killings, which society has not fully faced and for which people have virtually been let off. Those are matters of serious concern. Serious human rights concerns are exhibited within them. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members will look in another direction and use their arguments to help rebuild Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland could emerge from the situation as a beacon for the rest of the United Kingdom.

4.25 pm

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Time is passing swiftly and there are others to speak so I shall not detain the Committee long.

It is appropriate that as we discuss human rights and equality in Northern Ireland we reconsider the issue of the Parades Commission and the rights of those who seek to march and process the public highway in Northern Ireland. When the legislation creating that commission passed through the House, those of us who were opposed to it argued that many of its provisions were contrary to human rights legislation. It is timely that we should reconsider the situation now that the Human Rights Act 1998 has come into operation and in the light of the recent House of Lords decision endorsing our view that we have the right publicly to process the public highway. In that decision, Lord Irvine of Lairg said:

    ``I conclude therefore the law to be that the public highway is a public place which the public may enjoy for any reasonable purpose, provided the activity in question does not amount to a public or private nuisance and does not obstruct the highway by unreasonably impeding the primary right of the public to pass and repass: within these qualifications there is a public right of peaceful assembly on the highway. Since the law confers this public right, I deprecate any attempt to artificially restrict its scope.''

That is the law of the country, clearly summarised in a decision by a Law Lord. It states that the law is entirely in compliance with human rights legislation. We can contrast that with the views taken by the Parades Commission in its two recent determinations.

We have always argued that the loyal institutions have the right peacefully to process the public highway and that any unreasonable restriction is contrary to human rights. Since the Human Rights Act came into operation, the Parades Commission has had to address that issue and has sought in its determinations—I believe unsatisfactorily—to review the position. We have heard much talk about competing rights, even though a right is more than a liberty and a toleration and is something that should not easily be set aside. We constantly ask to be told the right that competes with the right peacefully to process the public highway, but have never been given an adequate answer. However, the chairman of the Parades Commission has now said that he thinks that the alternative right is the right under article 8 to respect for private and family life. That cannot be reasonably argued; it is more of an excuse than a reason. If one studies the various cases associated with the right to respect for private and public family life, one sees that that has absolutely nothing to do with a competing right of freedom to march. Article 8 has to do with the right of children—

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Prepared 8 February 2001