10. Memorandum from Evangelical Alliance
1. The Evangelical Alliance has been involved
with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission from its creation.
Throughout, we have kept our constituency informed about its proposals,
researched many of the issues raised and lobbied Commissioners
and elected representatives. We are pleased now to submit evidence
to this Inquiry based on our experience.
2. From its inception, the Commission was
not perceived to be representative of the community in Northern
Ireland; a fact which seriously hindered its effectiveness. Its
perceived nationalist majority was re-balanced in December 2001
with new appointments, but not before debate had been reduced
to simplistic "nationalist v unionist" plot and counter-plot.
3. But it is not only in political terms
that the Commission's original make-up was unbalanced. It had
no ethnic minority representation (again, redressed in December
2001) and was weighted heavily in favour of those with legal or
human rights backgrounds. This may be useful in terms of expertise,
but it is not representative, nor is the Commission's exclusively
middle-aged perspective. That only the Chief Commissioner is a
full-time appointment weights influence and public profile disproportionately
towards his particular viewpoint.
4. Crucially, the Commission is not representative
because of its apparent consensus on issues about which the community
at large does not share a single line. It may be that dissent
existed amongst Commissioners, but had no public outletthis
does not uphold the principles of transparency, and caused concern
amongst groups with differences of opinion with the Commission
that they would receive a fair hearing. Northern Ireland is not
unanimous that an expansive, prescriptive Bill of Rights is desirable,
and it should not be suggested that a unified opinion exists.
5. The apparent hostilities between the
Commission and elected representatives in the province have weakened
its effectiveness. The Commission does not present itself as underpinning
the political structures, but rather as undermining them. Set
up by the same Belfast Agreement that established the Assembly,
This is an incongruous position of usurping the elected and representative
political system that Northern Ireland lacked for so long. This
is not a tenable position for the Commission to maintain.
6. We understand that the Commission has
a good public profile and degree of respect abroad, particularly
in those countries with similar ongoing processes. However, within
Northern Ireland it has been to some extent discredited by resignations,
resource demands and its proposals for a Bill of Rights which
were roundly dismissed, most publically at a major conference
on human rights at Queen's University, 8 December 2001. It is
also seen as tainted by its unrepresentative nature.
7. Until it has regained the respect and
trust of the public, it would be wholly inappropriate to extend
the powers of the Commission. Even so, there seems to be little
reason for the Commission not to work within the same framework
as other Non-Departmental Public Bodies.
If the Commission was to co-operate with the
other agencies responsible for overseeing human rights protection
in Northern Ireland, whose specific powers and remits all vary,
then the whole range would be covered without extending the powers
8. We do not believe that the level of resources
available to the Commission has impacted negatively on its work.
Its second largest area of expenditure in 2001-02 was on the Bill
of Rights project that was publicised and launched in that period.
That level of expenditure will not be ongoing, which should provide
some flexibility for other areas.
9. In 2001-02, the Commission did extremely
well in securing extra funding, with two successful bids of £357,000
and £209,000 respectively. The mechanisms obviously exists
for the Commission to negotiate with government for extra funds,
as it does for all other bodies who have access to public expenditure.
When there is such pressure on that public expenditure, there
is no case for the Commission to be given special treatment. Indeed,
one could argue that it is self defeating for the Commission to
request significant extra funds, thus taking money away from schools,
hospitals and policingall of which are on the front line
delivering some of the very rights which the Commission demands.
10. Despite repeated requests, the Commission
failed to provide costings for the proposals in its Making
a Bill of Rights document. This seemed to be for the reason
that human rights were above and beyond mere financial value.
However, good stewardship of scarce public resources is not served
by this attitudean attitude that is not compatible with
the Commission's very clear costings for its own financial requirements.
In 2002-03, the Commission has requested that its core budget
11. During the consultation process, the
Commission could not be faulted on their willingness to engage
with groups seeking to influence their decisions. From the Chief
Commissioner to the intern researchers, they were accessible,
open and happy to forward documents, research resources and the
like. This aspect of their work is to be praised.
12. However, we believe there was a serious
flaw in the process by which consultation responses were evaluated.
On certain issues on which the Commission received a multitude
of responses, like the rights of victims and the rights of women,
the great extent of public interest is used as a reason for inclusion.
However, on other issues that generated great interest, like abortion,
the Commission fails to recommend inclusion of any right, whether
pro-life of pro-choice. There is clearly inconsistency in their
method of evaluation, especially when such rights are included
as election by proportional representation, which was in no way
a stated priority for any significant number of respondents. The
consultation was sold as an opportunity to "make your voice
heard", and while quantity should not guarantee inclusion,
some clear statement of how responses were weighed would bolster
13. Many of the recommendations in the document
are policy decisions, appropriate for political debate and prioritisation,
not for a Bill of Rights. Curriculum content, voting age, method
of election and the transfer procedure properly belong in the
public arena for decision-making by elected representatives; allowing
them to become rights usurps the role of those representatives.
14. There was a great deal of debate over
interpretations of "the particular circumstances of Northern
Ireland". It is odd that in a maximalist document, the Commission
interpreted that clause of the Agreement in a minimalist way.
Some of the crucial areas most particular to the province are
ignored (like paramilitary violence) and others (like freedom
of expression and association) are considered dealt with sufficiently
by the European Convention. If this is the case, then why the
Commission felt the need to supplement the Convention in so many
other, less contentious areas, is called into question.
15. Many of the clauses in the Commission's
proposed Bill of Rights duplicate laws that already exist in Northern
Ireland (for example, the equality provisions), or that the Assembly
(pre-suspension) had prioritised for legislation. This duplication
is unnecessary and unhelpful, adding to our legislative burden
without necessarily answering real needs.
16. Instead of presenting a lengthy document
that seems eager to give every interest group their own particular
right, the Commission would do better to look at the needs of
society in Northern Ireland as a whole. The individualistic language
of rights cannot be presented as the answer to the problems of
the province, because it is inadequate to define and mediate our
complex relationships. The Commission must accept that often rights,
and their defence at all costs, are the problem and not the answer.
Northern Ireland will not be healed by a Bill of Rights, it will
be healed by people taking responsibility for themselves and their
actions, through the political process.
17. Insofar as a Bill of Rights can underpin
that healing process through such rights as we already enjoy through
the European Convention, then well and good. Beyond that, it can
only offer a statement of principles that must be less prescriptive
and more inspirational, acting to guide and inform the priorities
18. We look forward to the presentation
by the Commission in December 2002 of their new proposals for
a way forward. It must be hoped that engagement with their new
proposals is less in the manner of a shopping list, and more astutely
political and philosophical.
21 November 2002