On private discussions made public and a NI Bill of Rights

No need, it seems, for the public to wait on another leaked exclusive through the BBC, as Noel McAdam in the Belfast Telegraph points us to the publication of the official Hansard reports of Hain’s Committee which has decided, belatedly, that the public should be able to read[3rd July] what is being discussed [The BBC’s Mark Devenport will be pleased to get a mention(see 4.00pm) – Ed]. During an earlier discussion on whether or not to publish, on 28th June, and amid accusations of who leaked the earlier report, from the start we also get a hint of the parties’ positions on the publication of those minutes.Here’s part of the Hansard Report from the 28th June..

Mr Kennedy: Chairman, there is a prior issue. Members will be aware that on the BBC’s ‘Newsline 6.30’ last night, the political correspondent Mark Devenport was able to refer to, and produce a copy of, the Hansard report of one of these meetings. I do not think that it would be productive to launch an inquiry into how, and from whom, he received it. However, it is unsatisfactory to the members of this Committee and, indeed, to Members of the Assembly who are not present at these meetings but who are undoubtedly interested in them.

Given that the press have been made aware of the reports, we should consider circulating the full text of the Hansard reports to each Member of the Assembly. Clearly the press are in a more advantageous position to assess these matters than the Members of the Assembly.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I agree.

Mr M McGuinness: I agree with Danny. Sinn Féin was anxious from the beginning that this Committee would try to create circumstances that would see parties engage with one another in a meaningful way around the business of preparing for Government. The vast majority of our people, represented by all the parties here, would like to see that.

The fact is that someone went out of this room and gave away a copy of the Hansard report, against the express wishes of the Committee. We all received a note that said:

“Please note that the Committee has agreed that the attached Report should not be made available to anyone outside of the Committee”.

It begs the question as to whether anybody in this room is prepared to admit that they were responsible for breaking that agreement and giving the report to the media.

People are entitled to as much information as possible. I would prefer that we were in a situation where we were able to give as much information as possible about the agreements that are shaping up among us to show that real progress is being made in the important work of preparing for Government. However, if we find ourselves in the situation where these reports will be distributed, then it will undoubtedly work against the prospect of any real engagement taking place in the future. That leaves us in serious difficulty. We must be clear exactly what the ground rules are and whether or not everybody is prepared to sign up to those ground rules.[added emphasis]

Was the Democratic Unionist Party responsible for giving the Hansard report to the BBC’s political correspondent, Mark Devenport?

Mr Paisley Jnr: As Danny has raised the issue, I agree that the Hansard reports should be made available, as should the minutes. There should be nothing to hide in these sessions. The DUP’s consistent position has been that these meetings should be in public. The press should be involved and the public should be allowed in. We have no difficulty with that.

However, I am not here to answer questions. I note that Martin McGuinness has run away for three days from answering questions. Now that he is back, he thinks that he is here to ask questions, but the DUP is not here to be interrogated by anyone — and will not be.

The Chairman (Mr Molloy): If the Committee decides that Hansard should be made available to the public, should it be the uncorrected version or the corrected version? Members have the right to correct Hansard within 24 hours. It is important that if matters go public, it should be the corrected version.

The main reason for that particular meeting of the committee, though, was the questioning of the UUP, and it’s from this that the NI Bill of Rights, highlighted by Noel McAdam, emerges.. as well as what that party thought of the previous attempts to bring forward such a document.. and what the UUP see as the only right specific to Northern Ireland.

Mr McFarland: … The issue outstanding from the review about a Bill of Rights needs examination because, at the moment, we have a large number of groups across Northern Ireland who are fired up to believe that they are going to get socio-economic rights included in such a document. That includes the right to particular medical treatment, even should it cost £10,000 a day. People believe that.

10.45 am

The agreement was quite clear about the bill of rights: it should contain rights that are specific to Northern Ireland. So what is it that is specific to Northern Ireland? Leaving out socio-economic rights — where the money goes is a matter for the politicians; it is not a matter of human rights — the only right that the UUPAG can think of is the right to parade. That is the only one unique to Northern Ireland. There may be disagreement about whether parading is a right, and we can discuss that, but it is the only one that jumps out as being peculiar to Northern Ireland.[added emphasis]

And later in the discussion..

12.15 pm

Mr McFarland: No. As I understood it, we were trying to identify areas in the agreement where changes or difficulties have arisen, or may arise. The agreement clearly stated that there should be a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, but that it should include rights specific to Northern Ireland. All human rights already enshrined in law are not specific to Northern Ireland. Therefore, the task was to identify which rights are specific to Northern Ireland. The only one that the UUP came up with was the issue of parading.

Recently, the Human Rights Commission, under its previous chief commissioner, was busy trying to empire-build and encouraged a lot of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to get involved in identifying areas that should be included in a bill of rights; health is one such area. There is an ongoing debate about whether socio-economic rights should be included in a bill of rights. For example, if I take ill and my treatment costs £10,000 a day, do I have a right, regardless of cost, to have that treatment? Traditionally, in relation to all socio-economic rights, politicians decided how much money went to each Department and the Minister operated within that budget. If the Minister for Health then decides that it is a priority that I get my £10,000 per day, or whatever it may be, for treatment, that is what I get.

However, it is a political choice for the Minister and the Department as to where the money goes. The moment that those become human rights, and, regardless of cost, the Government are obliged to pay for them, first, politics goes out the window. Secondly, no country in the world could operate like that because there is not enough money to pay for that stuff.

My point is that there is an issue relating to that bill of rights that the human rights world is trying to push forward. Not only that, but the Human Rights Commission went way beyond its remit by suggesting an examination of a bill of rights for the island of Ireland, and it was considering that. As you are probably aware, about two years ago it suddenly produced an all-Ireland bill of rights for consultation. The question of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland is an outstanding issue within the agreement for Northern Ireland. It is probably a fairly low priority but one that we might need to examine.