Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

14. Memorandum from Austen Morgan, Barrister at Law, Temple


  1.  I am a barrister in private practice in London and in Belfast. I was professionally involved in the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement (Cm 4705), and am the author of The Belfast Agreement: a practical legal analysis (London 2000). My practice includes public and private international law, and, like all UK advocates since 2 October 2000, I consider human rights points on a daily basis. I have a professional website:

  2.  I am critical of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission ("NIHRC"), which puts me in a large camp. However, I have sought always to be precise about my objections. The NIHRC would not have been allowed to persist in Great Britain. I am torn between sympathy for the Northern Ireland Office ("NIO"), which has responsibility for accounting for the NIHRC, and exasperation at its failure to curtail damaging gesture politics in Belfast.

  3.  There is a great deal I could say about the NIHRC. However, I trace all the faults to: the ten commissioners appointed by the Secretary of State, with official advice, in early 1999. Essentially, the government handed a new public body to the controversial Committee on the Administration of Justice. The commissioners were meant to be "representative of the community in Northern Ireland"[110]. A minister told parliament what this meant[111] He was ignored subsequently by official and/or ministerial colleagues.

  4.  Despite the resignation of three of the four commissioners who dominated the NIHRC, the NIO has failed to correct this fault. An opportunity was missed in early 2002 to rebuild the NIHRC. The blame for the conduct of the NIHRC lies with the government.


  5.  I can best answer this question by attaching a confidential document I drafted in the first months of the NIHRC. On 30 September 1999, the NIHRC published a draft strategic plan. I provided a legal commentary, dated 13 November 1999.[112] All responses were politically vetted by NIHRC staff[113], indicating that no account would be taken of the points made. At paragraph 466 of the legal commentary, I made 13 recommendations to the NIHRC and the Secretary of State.

  6.  I can best summarise the problem of the NIHRC with a simple table. This shows on the left what the NIHRC has done in 1999-2002. The points on the right were what any colloquium of genuine human rights lawyers would have advised for Northern Ireland—
NIHRC 1999-2002[114] Problems and perspectives ignored
A Commission dominated by the Committee on the Administration of Justice A Commission representative of the community in Northern Ireland
A Chief Commissioner who revealed anti-unionist views at the time of his appointment[115] A Chief Commissioner determined to maintain a centrist stance between the two tribal communities
An employment policy seemingly based on reverse discrimination and alternative working practices Recruitment on merit, especially of officials acquainted with the culture of efficient and accountable public bodies
A Commission which adopted a pan-nationalist interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement A Commission respectful of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as a devolved part of the UK
Revival of the CAJ's project of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, contrary to the terms of the Belfast Agreement Commitment to the UK's Human Rights Act 1998
Collusion with the Irish GovernmentPrincipled criticism of the Irish Government's failure to implement its human rights obligations under the Belfast Agreement
An all-Ireland perspective, despite the mantra of international human rights standards An internationalist perspective from a UK platform[116]
Patronage of the unrepresentative human rights community A public respect for the whole of civil society in Northern Ireland
A global jurisdiction, including reporting on the UK government to international bodies Observance of the powers and duties of the Northern Ireland Act 1998
A predominant concern with human rights violations, especially involving republican terrorist victims A commitment to the right to life of all, recognizing paramilitary abuses account for the overwhelming number of deaths, and a recognition of the horizontal possibilities of the Human Rights Act 1998
Recommendations for ECHR amendments, especially articles 5 and 6, which tip the balance grossly in favour of terrorists We are living after 9/11. Article 5 is about "liberty and security"
Support for the banning of parades by the loyal orders Defining parades and related protests as perhaps Northern Ireland's most pressing human rights issue
Support for the Garvaghy Road residents and opposition to the residents at Holy Cross School An objective analysis of the various rights and responsibilities involved
Legal intervention on behalf of two nationalist QCs Legal assistance on the basis of human rights merit
Attempts to intervene in others' court cases Respect, as part of the executive, for the judiciary
Unsuccessful attempt to enjoin Panorama's documentary on the Omagh bombing See above on paramilitary abuses
Support for reverse discrimination in the police Opposition to all discrimination, and support for protocol no. 12 of the ECHR
Support for the exclusion of teachers from equality legislation Protection for teachers

  7.  The above stances of the NIHRC can be adequately documented. The alternatives put forward will be more familiar to the Committee.


  8.  These are the questions the NIHRC wants the Committee to address. Since I want the NIHRC to do less of what it has been doing, I would not advocate more resources.

  9.  As regards the demand for more power, I attach an article from the Observer of 19 August 2001[117] This I think adopts the appropriate tone, while containing my observations on the fourth branch of government aspirations of the NIHRC.


  10.  I attach an article from the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, vol. 52 nos. 3 & 4, autumn and winter 2001[118] where I discuss the issues involved.

  11.  The NIO is sceptical to say the least, through the peace process imperative prevents ministers from saying what they think. I attach a ministerial letter of 22 November 2001[119] which was uncovered through parliamentary questioning in the upper house.

110   Northern Ireland Act 1998 s.68(3). Back

111   Paul Murphy MP, in House of Commons, Hansard, vol. 317, col. 60, 27 July 1998. Back

112   Not printed. Back

113   NIHRC minutes, 13 December 1999 & 17 January 2000. Back

114   NIHRC minutes, 13 December 1999 & 17 January 2000. Back

115   Professor Brice Dickson, in Lord Lester of Herne Hill & David Pannick, eds., Human Rights Law and Practice, London 1999, p 302. Back

116   The NIHRC of course is opposed to a human rights commission for the UK: Joint Committee on Human Rights, The Case for a Human Rights Commission: interim report, HL Paper 160/HC 1142, 2 September 2002, Ev 169. Back

117   Not printed. Back

118   Not printed. Back

119   Not printed. Back

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