Joint Committee On Human Rights Fourteenth Report

2. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in context

The Agreement

8. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was created under the Northern Ireland Act as a central part of the Agreement. The Agreement reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations arose from a process involving the British and Irish Governments; ratified by both Houses of Parliament and endorsed by concurrent referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The parties expressed the view that the Agreement offers "a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning".[4] The role of the Human Rights Commission is to underpin and strengthen the new and devolved institutions, providing an anchor in a post-conflict settlement for the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms. While conditions for the protection of human rights have improved dramatically since the Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The role of the Commission is critical for its future well-being.

9. The Agreement provides that—

A new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, with membership from Northern Ireland reflecting the community balance, will be established by Westminster legislation, independent of Government, with an extended and enhanced role beyond that currently exercised by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, to include keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of laws and practices, making recommendations to the Government as necessary; providing information and promoting awareness of human rights; considering draft legislation referred to them by the new assembly; and, in appropriate cases bringing court proceedings or providing assistance to individuals doing so.[5]

10. Difficulty in building consensus has been compounded by the lack of political progress. The highly polarised politics of Northern Ireland have meant that the Commission has experienced difficulties in engaging with the political parties, some of which have expressed intense scepticism and even outright hostility towards the NIHRC from the outset. Though, for some, their antipathy might extend to any human rights commission, the gulf between the Commission and some political viewpoints is also related to the controversies over the appointment process, discussed below. Clearly, the Commission's considerable potential to enhance democracy in Northern Ireland has been hampered by the difficulties of engagement with the political parties.

Co-ordination with Government

11. The NIHRC has a critical institutional relationship with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), to which it reports and which appoints the members of the Commission. The Commission's mandate also requires it, to varying extents, to inform, scrutinise, and advise on the work of the complex of devolved and central administrations and legislatures with a role in Northern Ireland. The Commission also interacts with the work of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, also created as part of the Agreement, with the Northern Ireland Legal Aid Department (in terms of its casework) and with other agencies operating in Northern Ireland such as the Police Ombudsman. In addition, in accordance with the Agreement, the Commission works in co-operation with the Irish Human Rights Commission, in particular through the joint committee of the two bodies.

12. Effective working practices between the NIHRC and the NIO are crucial in ensuring both the accountability of the Commission, and its independence from government. However, the Commission has complained of a lack of attention given to its advice by the NIO, as well as other government departments, both in Whitehall and in Belfast. It has, for example, drawn attention to the failure to consult or inform it in relation to the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Bill of 2001, and the failure to take into account the advice which it nevertheless did provide on the Bill. The Chief Commissioner stated in his evidence to us that: "the Home Office and other Whitehall based government departments tend to forget that we exist" and noted that there were difficulties in encouraging these departments to consult the Commission at an early stage in relation to legislation that has consequences for Northern Ireland.[6]

13. A memorandum of understanding between the NIO and the NIHRC has been in preparation for some time, but has not yet been finalised. Both the Commission and the NIO were of the view that the memorandum would be of great assistance in facilitating a smooth working relationship between them. The then Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, Des Browne MP, told us that it would build on the experience gained by both organisations in working together, and would—

… give a transparency to the relationship which will allow people to know with some certainty where they stand, and what their expectations can be.[7]

The Commission anticipated that the memorandum would allow for "a healthier exchange of views" about policy and legislative initiatives.[8]

14. The Commission expressed its disappointment at the lack of progress in finalising the memorandum of understanding, a concern which was acknowledged by the Minister in his evidence to us. However the Minister pointed out that the suspension of the devolved institutions made immediate conclusion of a memorandum of understanding difficult, since this was linked to a decision on the section 69 review of the Commission's powers, which in turn could not make progress during the suspension.[9] While we appreciate these difficulties, it seems to us unnecessary that the prolonged suspension of the devolved institutions should prevent a memorandum of understanding between the Commission and the Northern Ireland Office being put in place at least on an interim basis, pending the final outcome of the review of the Commission's powers under section 69 of the 1998 Act.

15. In his evidence to us, the Minister, recognised that the Northern Ireland Office had a role to play in providing a channel of communication between the NIHRC and other London-based government departments. We are concerned by the evidence that suggests that Whitehall departments have not yet come to grips with the existence of an independent human rights institution in the UK with which they should be obliged to consult. We recommend that the memorandum of understanding between the NIHRC and the NIO should embody arrangements for co-operation and information exchange as part of the routine requirements of all UK government departments.

4   Northern Ireland Office, The Belfast Agreement, An agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland, Cm 3883, April 1998, para 1 Back

5   ibid., para 5 Back

6   Q 14 Back

7   Q 65 Back

8   Q 13 Back

9   ibidBack

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Prepared 15 July 2003