NIHRC: Has it delivered? Can it deliver?

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was formally established in 1999 under the terms of the Belfast Agreement. Since then it has recieved over £6m of public funding. However, with over six years of work and millions of investment what do Sluggerites think it has achieved? The balance of both Commissions has been criticised and the first became disfunctional over the Ardoyne Road/Holy Cross dispute. They took advise to mean “write” the Bill of Rights but its work ran completely into the sand or as it describes it:

“The Commision has found it difficult to achieve a political consensus on what should constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and is currently deliberating on the nature and content of its advice to government.”

Now in the St Andrews Agreement Government plans to increase its powers over the citizenry. Is it not an approriate time to ask:
1. What tangible on the ground impact has NIHRC made?
2. If the NIHRC hadn’t existed, what, if anything, would be different today?
3. Could the £6m invested differently have done more to promote a human rights culture than the NIHRC?

  • bo shank

    Well said FD, it is entirely appropriate to ask these questions. I think they have achieved little other than create work for work’s sake and feed themselves. I can see no tangible benefit to the body whatsoever.

  • Animus

    I agree that it is entirely appropriate to ask these questions. The work on the Bill of Rights has been plagued by difficulty, not least from the NIO’s reluctance to give sufficient resources.

    As for tangible results, I believe the Commission has delivered in a number of areas, particularly in terms of highlighting rights abuses, such as those experienced by asylum seekers being imprisoned alongside criminals.

    Asking people for tangible benefits though, is going to result in people saying “I don’t know” or “No”. Why not start a thread asking what Labour has done for us over the past 9 years and you’re likely to get a volley of negative responses. What has the NIO done for us since 1998?

    I do think that, for all its problems, the Commission has raised awareness of human rights. I think in terms of their education work with schools, they have encouraged children and young people to think about rights. Just because the previous commentator is not aware of their work, doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid or important.

    What do you think the work of the Commission has achieved Fair Deal?

  • fair_deal

    Animus

    In broad terms I have a concern that human rights is trying to turn everyone’s wishlist into a right. Human rights are to be a check and balance upon the democratic process not replace it.

    1. There is a human rights ‘world’ that talks far too much to itself. This sphere is not representative of society in general and the Unionist community in particular. Also acceptance into the sphere requires the co-option of their world view. The NIHRC is a product of that ‘world’ and with all its resultant problems.
    2. They present Human Rights in its broadest definition as something there is a consensus upon when it is much more open to debate.
    3. They also don’t seem to understand a basic of marketing that different audiences/publics may require a different means of selling the same product. Adopting the cop-out of “these are for everybody you know”.
    4. The BoR process problems had nothing to do with a lack of money. They got caught up in trying to interpret the Agreement.
    5. In the BoR process they also never made any serious alliance-building with government or beyond the nationalist parties so it wasn’t surprising it all fell apart at the end.

  • Animus

    I agree that alliance-building has been problematic, but that was primarily because the nationalist parties already had buy-in. The unionist parties tend to be antagonistic without even letting the NIHRC set out its stall.

    I don’t know of anyone who thinks rights are a wishlist. No one. I think human rights are a basic standard which should be guaranteed, although no right is absolute.

    As part of my work, I have met with many unionist politicians who are for rights in principle, but not in practice. Brice Dickson was under fire for not being a proper Prod by many people, including many unionists. This is the kind of backwards attitude which stifles real debate on what a rights culture should be about. Most unionists refused to sit at a roundtable set up at the Assembly to talk about rights either, that was hardly the fault of the Commission. Keeping willfully ignorant out of bloody-mindedness has not progressed the debate.

    As long as rights are seen as nationalist vs unionist, there are going to be problems. But sectarianism is not the fault of the Commission. Many of the issues about rights are not about politics, but are applicable to everyone.

    The Agreement was badly worded, blame that on the politicians, not the Commission.

    As far as I know, the Commission have never defined human rights narrowly.

    As far as the Bill of Rights is concerned, what shape would you have suggested for the advice to the SoS? If it were to get buy-in from Northern Ireland at large, they should have sent the results of the first series of working group reports and consultations and be done with it. They have squandered the goodwill of people who were interested and who have subsequently lost interest. I don’t know how they are going to drum up interest after all this time, but good luck to them.

  • Reader

    Animus: As far as the Bill of Rights is concerned, what shape would you have suggested for the advice to the SoS?
    A Bill of Rights has to be balanced and self-contained. Whereas advice can be creative and constructive. For a Quango to try to deliver a complete Bill of Rights to elected politicians is arrogant and dangerous. The process isn’t finished when the Quango is finished – that should just be the start of it.

  • Alan

    FD,

    I’ll assume that you are not suggesting that you don’t have a wishlist. That perhaps you might wish to receive health care if you get ill, to be able to live independently, to have a home, not to be arbitrarily sacked without compensation from the job you held for 20 years, to have the right to enter Fulton’s Fine Furnishings and cast your eyes over the stock, etc, etc.

    Those are the kinds of things that Human Rights are about. Here in NI, we have a ridiculous division between Equality and Human Rights. Elsewhere they are seen for what they are – the same thing. Think of the changes that have resulted from work on equality and Human Rights together and you have a better picture of “what HR ever did for us”. Watch Governments push through progressive legislation when it is time to report to the next UN Committee.

    I agree with you on the audiences business – NIHRC has been insufficiently focussed on selling HR, and obsessed with the BOR. But that has changed since Monica McW came in – read their Strategic plan.

    The BOR stalled because our politics went AWOL – do you blame the NIHRC for that?

    There has been a significant effort put into talking HR with the political parties by the NIHRC and the wider HR community. I have attended many of those meetings myself. What is interesting is the different attitudes to HR between Staffers and Pols – at least the Pols understand people, they have to get elected.

  • joeCanuck

    Fair Deal

    I can’t get into a general discussion since I have little or no knowledge of the workings of the NIHRC, having lived outside NI for a long time (I wonder if the same is true for most people living in N.I.).
    But you seem concerned that 6 million pounds may have been squandered. If my arithmetic is right, that works out to be about a penny per week per person. Doesn’t seem a lot.

  • wild turkey

    Alan

    At least in Norn Ironland there is another connection between human rights and equality.

    As I recall (and may be wrong) but ALLEGEDLY the NIHRC was cited in a report by the Equality Commission for failing to submit its annual section 75 progress report to the Commission as required per the NIHRCs equality scheme.

  • Dec

    But you seem concerned that 6 million pounds may have been squandered. If my arithmetic is right, that works out to be about a penny per week per person. Doesn’t seem a lot.

    Looks quite insignificant compared to the amount paid out to others.

  • willowfield

    Good questions, Fair Deal

    1. What tangible on the ground impact has NIHRC made?

    Very little.

    2. If the NIHRC hadn’t existed, what, if anything, would be different today?

    Nothing, really.

    3. Could the £6m invested differently have done more to promote a human rights culture than the NIHRC?

    I think the £6m should have been invested on things other than promoting a nebulous “human rights culture”.

  • willowfield

    A bill of rights in addition to the European Convention is quite unnecessary.

    What exactly is the Human Rights Commission meant to do?

  • joeCanuck

    Willowfield

    You said “very little”
    That would imply that something has happened.
    Did you expect that developing a new (for N.I.) culture of human rights would happen overnight?
    If someone’s rights are denied, it’s a real action that has hurt them, nothing nebulous about it.

  • joeCanuck

    Willowfield you’re being lazy; you could have looked it up.
    However, as a favour , I’ve done it for you.

    From their website:
    The Commission’s role is to promote awareness of the importance of human rights in Northern Ireland, to review existing law and practice and to advise the UK government on what steps need to be taken to fully protect human rights in Northern Ireland.

    It is specifically charged with drafting a Bill of Rights to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights (which is part of the law in Northern Ireland as a result of the introduction in October 2000 of the UK Human Rights Act 1998).

    In addition, the Commission has the power to conduct investigations, to assist individuals when they are bringing court proceedings, and to bring court proceedings itself.

  • willowfield

    JOE CANUCK

    You said “very little”
    That would imply that something has happened.

    I didn’t want to rule out the possibility that minor tangible “impacts” had happened of which I wasn’t aware.

    Did you expect that developing a new (for N.I.) culture of human rights would happen overnight?

    The question asked: “What tangible on the ground impact has NIHRC made?”. Forgive me for answering it.

    If someone’s rights are denied, it’s a real action that has hurt them, nothing nebulous about it.

    If someone’s rights are denied they have redress through administrative procedures and the courts. No need for a human rights commission that I can see.

    The Commission’s role is to promote awareness of the importance of human rights in Northern Ireland, to review existing law and practice and to advise the UK government on what steps need to be taken to fully protect human rights in Northern Ireland.

    And, of those aims, what have they achieved? Very little. Existing law was already reviewed prior to the commencement of the Human Rights Act.

    It is specifically charged with drafting a Bill of Rights to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights …

    A bill we don’t need.

    In addition, the Commission has the power to conduct investigations, to assist individuals when they are bringing court proceedings, and to bring court proceedings itself.

    What investigations has it conducted? What proceedings has it brought?

  • Animus

    Willowfield, you really are lazy. Please see my post 2 for clarification. Policy towards asylum seekers has changed in NI due to the work of the Commission.

    It has brought a number of investigations, I’m sure you could seek more information if you were so inclined. Recently they helped a woman get Herceptin in Northern Ireland, if I’m not mistaken. Small steps maybe, but changing culture is a slow process, especially when so many people seem to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to rights.

    The Human Rights Act and the ECHR do not cover all areas. The ECHR is 50 years out of date, for God’s sake.

  • joeCanuck

    willowfield

    You say “If someone’s rights are denied they have redress through administrative procedures and the courts. No need for a human rights commission that I can see.”
    And where does the small guy or woman get the money to take on a large corpoation or government department? Usually the one with the greatest pot of money wins.
    If nothing else, the existance of a body which can carry out investigations or initiate court action will be a deterrent to those who might be tempted to trample on someone’s rights.
    For the life of me, I can’t understand why it is mainly unionists who are opposed; this commission is not a commission designed to ensure that non-unionists get preferential treatment. It’s there for everyone.

  • willowfield

    JOE

    And where does the small guy or woman get the money to take on a large corpoation or government department?

    1. Large (or small) corporations aren’t subject to human rights law.

    2. Never heard of legal aid?

    Usually the one with the greatest pot of money wins.

    The alleged Omagh bomber has one of the top QCs in the UK defending him, courtesy of legal aid.

    If nothing else, the existance of a body which can carry out investigations or initiate court action will be a deterrent to those who might be tempted to trample on someone’s rights.

    To whom are you referring? Who is “trampling” on anyone’s rights? Who is actively deciding not to “trample” on someone’s rights because they fear the Human Rights Commission?

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why it is mainly unionists who are opposed; this commission is not a commission designed to ensure that non-unionists get preferential treatment. It’s there for everyone.

    My objection is that it is unnecessary and therefore a waste of public money. We can’t on the one hand complain that the public sector is too large and on the other have a load of unnecessary and expensive QUANGOs.

  • willowfield

    Aside from the waste of money, though, I also fear that the Commission is seeking to create “group rights”, thus entrenching sectarian division in law. That is something we should all be worried about.

  • joeCanuck

    So Willowfield

    Are you contending that, from the formation of the N.I. government up until Direct Rule was first instituted, there was no systematic abuse of the human rights of a large section of the population by the government and their lackeys?
    Who was it who said he wouldn’t have a catholic about the place?

  • willowfield

    It’s 2006, Joe. It’ll soon be 2007.

    Time you caught up.

    I note your failure to respond to any of my points.

  • joeCanuck

    Oh I see. You responded to my two questions then?

  • joeCanuck

    I can understand your concern about the cost of Quangos.
    But once they have achieved the objective of having a Bill of Rights passed, perhaps they then can quietly disappear.

  • willowfield

    So you refuse to respond to the points made, but expect me to answer two irrelevant questions?

    Somewhat pathetic, but if it means that much to you:

    Are you contending that, from the formation of the N.I. government up until Direct Rule was first instituted, there was no systematic abuse of the human rights of a large section of the population by the government and their lackeys?

    Systematically might be a bit strong, depending on what you mean by “human rights”, but no, of course I don’t contend that there was no abuse of human rights. Why do you ask? Such abuses were rectified over 35 years ago, Joe. Time you caught up.

    Who was it who said he wouldn’t have a catholic about the place?

    Brookeborough. In 1933. Why do you ask? It’s 2006, Joe.

  • willowfield

    We don’t need a bill of rights, Joe.

  • dpef

    The HRC should seek to define the rights aspects of the unwritten British constitution we all live under.

    In a contested society with an unwritten constitution how do we define our societal expectations and responsibilities?

    If some do agree with the unwritten rules and other reject the idea of unwritten rules, surely talking about the issue is the starting point?

  • IJP

    The “waste of money” line does not explain why Unionists are opposed to the idea of a NIHRC and Nationalists aren’t. The sectarian parties in general are all for “more money and resources” for everything provided Britain pays for it.

    I think the reason is more genuinely cultural. NI Protestants in general have grown up in a British culture, where they feel (within reason) they can trust the state to protect their rights and, also, that the political culture of that state is one of “evolution not revolution”.

    NI Catholics, however, have grown up broadly unable to trust the state, and feel they need a specific document which outlines how their rights are to be protected.

    That is why I feel we’ve been starting at the wrong end of the debate. We need to consider what is possible in UK law, and how we are already protected under EU-led convention. It may genuinely be all the answers we need are already contained in those.

  • Jocky

    IJP, final paragraph sums it all up, why o why is N.I. always the special case, the kids gloves treatment. If any Human Rights abuses are occurring then why do N.I. need a HRC to help out with prosecutions? why cant the just do what people in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the rest of the EU do? oh I forgot your all sooo special.

    Does no one worry that this overarching need to adddress problems in a special way helps to perpuate the entranched mindset that everything in NI is special and needs special help to get anyhting done. The process should be normalisition not replacing one type of special treatment with another.

    In terms of equality and rights rights the biggest tool you could use was handed to you on a plate by the EU, if your average jailbird can sue the government for not get free drugs in jail why does NI (with all it’s rampant Human Rights abuses according to some) need a special commission. Slow learners or something?

    A previous poster noted that “perhaps you might wish to receive health care if you get ill, to be able to live independently, to have a home, not to be arbitrarily sacked without compensation from the job you held for 20 years, to have the right to enter Fulton’s Fine Furnishings and cast your eyes over the stock, etc, etc. Those are the kinds of things that Human Rights are about”

    To my mind the first 4 on that list have nothing to do with human rights. It’s a great example of rights creep. The are all very nice to have but no one has a right to them, where do people think these come from, the housing fairy? the NHS fairy? oh I forgot they were dreamt up by someone who is employed by the government, aka the wage fairy. They are not fundamental to the human condition, nice to have but not an inalieanable right.

    The last one, depends on why your not allowed in the shop.

  • fair_deal

    Animus

    “I don’t know of anyone who thinks rights are a wishlist. No one.”

    Then you need to get out more. I suggest you examine the earlier human rights agreements and then the most recent ones. Look at the growth in the range of groups that are covered by such things. For example rural groups are now looking section 75 protection.

    The positive rights field (a necessary expansion beyond negative rights) has become the adoption of wishlists. Take for example this:
    http://www.linguistic-declaration.org/decl-gb.htm
    Compare it with the existing protections for langauge communities. IMO that fits the category of rights becoming wishlists.

    “Brice Dickson was under fire for not being a proper Prod by many people, including many unionists”

    Is Brice Dickson not a Humanist? Do you have any statements to prove this claim? BD’s problem was he was a client of the local human rights community who was much better suited to academia than dealing with a political hot potato.

    “Most unionists refused to sit at a roundtable set up at the Assembly to talk about rights either, that was hardly the fault of the Commission.”

    Nice rewriting of history. The NIHRC decided its job was to write the act and it should be maximalist. They did so with no consultation and the decision was taken by an imbalanced commission. They behave in a high handed, arrogant and unrepresentative manner but is the politicians fault for then not engaging. Hmmmmm.

    “If it were to get buy-in from Northern Ireland at large, they should have sent the results of the first series of working group reports and consultations and be done with it.”

    A good suggestion. Although I would add that they needed to have supplemented the work groups work with an examination of the issues around maximalism and minimalist approaches.

    Alan

    “I’ll assume that you are not suggesting that you don’t have a wishlist.”

    Not particularly, better a minimalist act that can be enforced properly than combined wish-lists that will see us all sitting in courts for the next ten years with judges making ever more resource decisions that much better the purview of politicians.

    I much prefer to rely upon the strength of argument and the democratic and political process to deliver wishlists. If I am the losing side of the argument about the nature of the Act then I will look again.

    IJP

    “We need to consider what is possible in UK law, and how we are already protected under EU-led convention”

    Could you expand what you mean by that I may put up athird thread on the NIHRC