Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)|
28 JANUARY 2008
Q100 Chairman: Scotland has a completely
different attitude to jury trial, for example.
Professor Sidoti: Yes, I know.
Q101 Chairman: So that is an example
of how it could be different. Sorry; we are debating amongst ourselves
now, but if we take healthcare, for example, healthcare is devolved
to the different administrations and if you are talking about
social and economic rights some part of the United Kingdom might
decide that they wanted to have healthcare as part of the social
and economic rights and other parts might not.
Professor Dickson: As is the case
in Canada, where there is a federal charter, but also most of
the provinces of Canada have their own Bills of Rights governing
issues that are devolved to them.
Q102 Lord Dubs: You may have dealt
with most of my first question but is there anything else about
the process in Northern Ireland that you want to mention? You
have talked about a lot of it already.
Professor Dickson: I perhaps would
emphasise the need to have regard to the international standards
on human rights. Certainly the Human Rights Commission found in
its work that having regard to those international obligations
which the UK Government has already signed up to was immensely
helpful, and indeed in the drafts that we produced of the Bill
of Rights we ended up incorporating by reference documents like
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the European Framework
Convention for National Minorities because we thought they summed
up very well what needed to be done on the ground in Northern
Ireland and incorporating by reference is a shorthand and easy
way of protecting rights without over-lengthening your document.
Q103 Lord Dubs: If you looked at
it overall in Northern Ireland what would you say are the advantages
and disadvantages of the process that you have gone through?
Professor Dickson: The disadvantages
are that it is quite time-consuming and quite expensive, although
the Human Rights Commission has never received the funding it
really needed for this type of work. You risk creating divisions
between people because these issues are extremely controversial.
On the other hand, the advantages to my mind outweigh the disadvantages
in that you get everything out into the open. You make it clear
to people that any fears they might have about the protection
of rights are misplaced and that nobody has anything to be scared
of with a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights can only help society.
It cannot disadvantage society.
Q104 Lord Dubs: Is that your view,
Professor Sidoti: Yes, it is my
view. I would add though one other part, and that is the importance
of having these kinds of fundamental issues debated not only in
the community but also amongst some of the political leadership
and, in the case of the Forum, across political and civil society.
It is difficult at times to find forums where these issues can
be debated and they are fundamental issues. Much of politics,
much of the work of community organisations as well, is tied up
with day-to-day pressures, whatever is the crisis of the day that
dominates the media, whatever are the demands of people who are
seeking social welfare assistance. The opportunity to stand back
and discuss seriously what are the fundamental natures of our
relationships and where we as a society want to go are very limited
and I think that the Bill of Rights debate has given rise to those
opportunities in ways that would not otherwise have occurred.
Q105 Lord Dubs: You have had ten
years of this. It seems to me a killingly long time for you. Do
you think you should have had a time limit at the outset or something
else to stop this ten years, or is this inevitable?
Professor Sidoti: Maybe I should
jump in first this time, and I do so because I think that Brice's
Commission had great difficulties. In large part the length of
time that has been taken in Northern Ireland from my perspective
as an outsider is that, because the Bill of Rights debate was
so intimately connected with the broader political process there,
when that process ground into the sand in about 2003/2004 so did
the Bill of Rights discussion with it. The ten years that things
have taken in Northern Ireland are very much a result of the broader
political problems of Northern Ireland, and now we do have a deadline.
I was appointed from the beginning of April last year. We are
due to report by 31 March this year, so those kinds of time limits
have now been imposed, but I think the long period that was taken
is very much a product of the broader political situation there.
At the same time proper consultation, getting people to be able
to understand first and then seriously discuss such complex and
important issues, does need some time, but not necessarily a decade.
Professor Dickson: That is right.
The Commission, when it first launched its campaign for a Bill
of Rights in March 2000, thought that it would take between 18
months and two years. The Commission did succeed in producing
its draft Bill of Rights within the 18 months deadline in September
2001, but that provoked such controversy amongst the politicians
and others in Northern Ireland that the whole process got elongated.
It has taken much longer than I myself had hoped. At the end of
the day there is only a certain limited number of options in this
whole field and decisions need to be taken by those who have the
political responsibility for taking them.
Q106 Lord Dubs: One of you said earlier
that there was inadequate funding for the whole process. I think
it was you, Professor Dickson.
Professor Dickson: That was clearly
the case with the Human Rights Commission, which had to beg the
Government to give it more money, which was forthcoming to the
tune, I think, of about £350,000 in 2001/2002. I would estimate
that probably less than one million pounds has been spent on the
Bill of Rights in the last ten years in Northern Ireland.
Q107 Lord Dubs: I think you both
have said that the process was very political in Northern Ireland.
Do you think it is inevitable that the process was as politicised
as it was or would your advice to us be that there are different
ways of doing it, or was that unique to Northern Ireland?
Professor Dickson: I think the
process is inevitably going to be political in any society, but
in Northern Ireland, obviously, there was an extra dimension to
the political nature of the controversy, not least because the
Good Friday Agreement seems to suggest that whatever Bill of Rights
is put in place for Northern Ireland (if one is put in place)
there has to be a reciprocal protection of rights in the Republic
of Ireland, and there are particular rights which, let us say,
the Nationalists or the Unionists in Northern Ireland would be
campaigning for, which inevitably provokes opposition from the
other side, so there was that extra level of politicisation of
the process in Northern Ireland.
Q108 Lord Dubs: Professor Sidoti,
has that difficulty now been overcome?
Professor Sidoti: No, it has not,
but I do not think it will ever be overcome. At a more general
level, human rights are of their nature political. They are about
the relationship between the governors and the governed and there
is no more essentially political issue than that. There are particular
political questions in Northern Ireland relating to the relationship
with Westminster and the relationship with the South and so forth.
In every society there will be particular political issues that
have to be addressed but there is no avoiding the discussion of
the political when you are discussing human rights.
Q109 Chairman: Can I just ask you
about these political differences? When you are talking about
political differences in Northern Ireland are you talking about
political differences effectively between the Protestant and Catholic
communities and their representatives or are you talking about
political differences as we would recognise them between the left
and right of politics, for example, on social and economic rights?
Professor Sidoti: Yes, and that
is the nature of it. The politics of any community are enormously
complex. In Northern Ireland it is almost as though past politics
of political parties based around particular communities were
an artificial political factor. When you look at what we would
normally consider to be normal politics in society, where mainly
there are debates on ideological terms, I think, very fortunately,
we are seeing a longed-for normalisation of life in Northern Ireland
where hopefully we can have politics that have parties far more
based on ideology than on confessional or particular views about
the nature of international relationships and identity. At this
stage I think we are in a transitional period and we are seeing
political parties that on the one hand continue to have that concept
of identity-based politics but on the other are moving increasingly
towards differences of politics, differences of approach, differences
of ideological view.
Q110 Chairman: So at the moment,
within the discussion in Northern Ireland, when you talk about
politics it is both the politics of ideology and the politics
of identity that are causing the differences?
Professor Sidoti: At the level
of the political parties certainly so.
Q111 Earl of Onslow: You have very
interestingly told us that there are differences, as I understand
it, on the content of the Bill of Rights which are taken by the
Green and the Orange factions, for want of a better expression.
Could you enlighten us as to what some of those differences are?
Professor Sidoti: I suppose I
have to look back historically at at least the political representatives.
It is very difficult to talk about completely iron-clad community
views when in fact the views across the community do span spectrums.
Q112 Earl of Onslow: I know, but
you said that there have been differences on confessional lines.
What are the differences?
Professor Sidoti: Sure, and what
I said was that the political parties have been organised along
the lines of community identity and that remains the case predominantly,
and the parties that were identified as Unionist in the past tended
to take either a hostile or a narrow view towards a Bill of Rights;
the parties that were identified as Nationalist tended to take
a more expansive view on a Bill of Rights. I think that was largely
because of the history of Northern Ireland that originally saw
civil rights (but now broadened into human rights) as being related
to a particular historic community.
Q113 Earl of Onslow: I understand that
absolutely. What I am still trying to get at is can you say clause
X in the draft Bill was liked by the Nationalists and disliked
by the Unionists or vice versa, and what was the reason? I am
trying to get to what they actually objected to.
Professor Sidoti: When it comes
to the particulars, we have not got clauses at this stage but
I can talk about categories. The Unionist parties tend to be more
hostile towards the inclusion of economic and social rights. The
Nationalist parties tend to be more positive towards the inclusion
of economic and social rights. The Unionist parties have had a
particular concern about such issues as parades, symbols and cultural
identity in that sense; the Nationalist parties have tended to
be far more concerned about increasing tensions or harassment
of particular communities. So on those two issues I think we see
very clear historic divisions between the parties.
Earl of Onslow: That is exactly the information
I wanted. Thank you very much.
Q114 Chairman: Sorry to pursue this
issue further with you but on some of the latter points it is
quite understandable, given the history. If you take social and
economic rights, and you look at where the political support for
any of the parties you talk about comes from, given the fact that,
for example, the Loyalist parties, the Unionist parties, have
significant working-class support, you would think that in a traditional
left/right perspective that would be quite an important feature
for Unionist politics to pick up because they would be the sorts
of issues that their electorate would in "normal politics"
be concerned about.
Professor Sidoti: Certainly the
community organisations in Northern Ireland, who are the experts
of that, say they see exactly the same issues of the socio-economic
kind right across the community of Northern Irelandissues
of education, of healthcare, of employment and so forth. Coming,
as I do, not from a Northern Ireland position but from an international
human rights law position, I certainly see human rights as the
business of all human beings and as affecting each individual
in exactly the same way.
Professor Dickson: The evidence
from opinion surveys shows that Protestant working-class people
are just as supportive of economic and social rights as Catholic
Nationalist working-class people would be.
Q115 Chairman: That would follow
from the opinion polling that you mentioned earlier on, so it
would also follow therefore that their political organisations
are behind the game compared to their grass-roots support.
Professor Dickson: I think that
is the case, Chairman, yes.
Q116 John Austin: You said at the
beginning that most moves towards a Bill of Rights have arisen
from situations of conflict or trauma within communities and that
is clearly not the case here. In Northern Ireland one can understand
why there is an engagement among the publica history of
conflict, a history of discrimination of one community against
the other, and that engagement might be much more difficult in
the UK situation, but perhaps you would like to tell us a little
about what have been the best methods of engaging with the public
in Northern Ireland.
Professor Sidoti: I defer to Brice
to talk about the work done by the former Commission and then
perhaps I can make a couple of comments about what is happening
at the moment.
Professor Dickson: The former
Commission went to great lengths to engage with as great a variety
of people as possible. It produced a range of documents in different
languages, in different levels of complexity, about different
issues. It was then circulated widely, it inserted documents in
the newspapers, it put adverts on TV, on buses, on bus shelters,
it sent contributions to magazines that were widely circulated.
It went to great lengths to get out and about to meet all sorts
of groups and organisations and raise the profile of the issues.
We found that there was a tremendous take-up on the part of children
and young people in Northern Ireland. They were extremely enthusiastic
about the Bill of Rights. We produced material that was specific
to them, we included some of them in the working group on children
and young people, and we had a public exhibition of the submissions
they made to the Commission, many of which were of an artistic
nature. All that, I think, created a great head of steam in favour
of the Bill of Rights which in the year 2001 was palpable in Northern
Ireland, and to me that makes it all the more regrettable that
the politicians at that point were not able to find a consensus
position on what should be in the Bill of Rights.
Q117 John Austin: Apart from the
production of leaflets and material in different languages were
there any specific efforts made to contact the black and minority
Professor Dickson: There certainly
were, although in the intervening six or seven years the number
of black and minority ethnic people in Northern Ireland has increased
enormously, to the extent that Polish people now outnumber the
Q118 John Austin: And would not have
been part of the past conflict?
Professor Dickson: No, certainly
not. Yes, efforts were made in that regard and we did have a member
of the Commission who was from the black and minority ethnic communities
and that was obviously very helpful.
Professor Sidoti: So far as the
Forum is concerned, we do not have a consultation role but we
are engaged in a fairly limited outreach programme. We have at
the moment four half-time outreach workers who are making contact
with different aspects of the community. What we are finding though
is that community organisations are coming to us in significant
numbers and seeking our involvement in events that they are organising,
and certainly I see one of my roles as Chair as to attend and
participate in as many of those as possible. However, there has
been still a very healthy community sector engagement in both
awareness raising and information and in encouraging people to
participate. One organisation, the Community Foundation of Northern
Ireland, has had the resources to put into support for a large
number of community groups and has been running programmes in
large parts of Northern Ireland. The Human Rights Consortium,
which brings together 120 community organisations, has had significant
resources for an awareness raising campaign, so the question of
the Bill of Rights is actually quite prominent there, and particularly
over the last month has achieved a great deal of media attention.
Q119 John Austin: How important do
you think the independence of the consultation exercise has been?
Professor Sidoti: Our process
at the moment is not entirely independent in the sense that we
have people who are representative of either political parties
or different sectors. The independence of the consultation process
undertaken by the Human Rights Commission I think was critical.
It had to be seen as a process that did not have an association
with any of the particular parties or particular groupings in
Northern Ireland. Now, as I have mentioned, our role is much more
as a negotiating forum rather than as a consulting body, and so
I think the independence issue per se is not as significant
for us, but again our recommendations go back to the Northern
Ireland Human Rights Commission and the independence at that level
of the final adviser to the Westminster Government I think is
1 I have been advised by a representative of the Ulster
Unionist Party on the Bill of Rights Forum that I did not correctly
state the position of his party on the Bill of Rights. He advised
me that his party was one of the earliest proponents of a Bill
of Rights for Northern Ireland and that it considered that most
of its concerns had been met by the passage of the UK Human Rights
Act. Accordingly, the scope for further protection for human rights
through a Bill of rights specific to Northern Ireland at this
point was limited. He also advised me that his party supported
economic and social rights but did not consider a Bill of Rights
as necessarily the best means to achieve their implementation
and fulfilment. Back
See footnote 1. Back