Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

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?

  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[1].

  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[2].

  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 Ireland—issues 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 public—a 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 ethnic communities?

  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 Chinese people.

  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 extremely important.

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

2   See footnote 1. Back

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