Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

10. Memorandum from Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland


  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 outlet—this 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 of one.


  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 policing—all 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 attitude—an 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 be doubled.


  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 transparency.

  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 of politicians.

  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

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