26th November 2001
McNamee addresses Human Rights Public Meeting
Speaking to the first in a series of Human Rights public meetings organised by Sinn Fein, Human Rights Spokesperson Pat McNamee MLA said:
``The Good Friday Agreement laid the foundations for the creation of a new Ireland. It is a shared vision of the way forward in this part of Ireland, the island of Ireland and our relationships with our neighbouring islands. Part of that shared vision was the creation and promotion of a shared a culture of Equality and Human Rights, in which individuals of both the main communities, and of neither, and importantly those communities themselves, would receive parity of esteem and equality of treatment.
In Strand Three of the GFA in the section entitled `Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity', the Agreement identified the rights that needed to be guaranteed in a new society. In the context of a people emerging from a history of conflict and the emerging peace process the Agreement identified in particular
- The right of free political thought
- The right to freedom and expression of religion
- The right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations
- The right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means
- The right to freely choose ones place of residence
- The right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity
- The right to freedom from sectarian harassment; and
- The right of women to full and equal political participation
The Agreement also provided for the establishment of the Human Rights Commission. Part of the remit of the HRC is to consult and advise on a Bill of Rights for the North and they have produced the consultation document `Making a Bill of rights for Northern Ireland' which we are here to take views on.
The rights that will be contained in the proposed Bill are to be `additional' to the rights contained in the ECHR and are to reflect the `particular circumstances' of the North. The Agreement provides that these additional rights will `reflect the principle of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem.'
The BoR can serve as a guarantor of that vision of parity of esteem and equality of treatment of both and all communities. However it can only do so if we apply the same determination and committed focus that drives the peace process to ensure that we get a BoR that people deserve.
Sinn Fein's' view is that a BoR, the harmonisation of Human Rights Standards throughout Ireland through the establishment of an all-Ireland charter of Rights and the creation of a Constitutional Court are integral components of the peace building process. The GFA provides the basis to address the causes of conflict here and central to that conflict was the abysmal Human Rights record of successive Unionist and British Administrations in the six counties since partition, and the abuse of the legal system that this involved.
Since 1969, and particularly but not exclusively in the 6 Counties this tendency has been reinforced. The legal system was absorbed into the state's repressive arsenal. The destruction of any meaningful inquest system, the introduction of Diplock Courts, the acceptance of the torture and brutalisation of suspects in RUC holding centres and the acceptance of forced ``confessions'' by a clearly partisan judiciary. All of this is the baggage that the BoR will be faced with. The Nationalist and Republican community has had every reason to distrust the Human Rights credentials of the 6 County judiciary.
The Agreement is an instrument to change this and Sinn Fein were to the fore during negotiations in ensuring that Human Rights was at the core of the process and the agreement. Given the reluctance of Unionism and the British Government to fully implement the agreement on other issues it is not surprising that there is opposition to providing a Bill of Rights as envisaged in the Agreement.
Before dealing with the consultation document itself I believe that it is necessary to make this important point. The Bill of Rights must provide parity of esteem for both communities, nationalist and unionist, but is must also protect individual rights and the rights of other minorities, be they ethnic, religious or other minority group.
The Consultation Document: Making a Bill of Rights
I would like to say that there has been much progress made on issues such as Children's Rights, Voting and Candidacy Rights, Democratic Rights, Social and Economic Rights and some progress on Criminal Justice in the draft Bill. Sinn Fein will continue to focus on the issues that we see are lacking or insufficiently addressed in the Bill but that should not mask our acknowledgment of the positive elements of the draft bill.
Before going through some of the other 18 sections under which the consultation document is structured I do think it is important to make a couple of points in relation to the Section entitled `The Commissions Mandate'.
In that Section page14, para 2, it states:
`if the Commission were to recommend a more general Bill this could raise expectations which are unlikely in practice to be met because the UK Government may be unwilling to provide for rights to be guaranteed in Northern Ireland when they are not so guaranteed elsewhere in the UK.: the Irish Government may likewise be reluctant to see rights guaranteed in Northern Ireland which are not yet guaranteed in the rest of Ireland.'
The Commission appear to be cautioning against asking for too much lest we are disappointed by the two governments, and suggesting that we set our targets lower.
The two governments are signatories to the GFA. The Agreement, as I have quoted above, states that the BoR should reflect the `particular circumstances' of the North. The Agreement also provides that these additional rights will `reflect the principle of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem.'
The Commission seem to suggest that they should take an approach which will produce a BoR which will be acceptable to the British Government. The Commission should not view the drafting of the BoR as a matter of negotiation with the British Government. Such an approach could serve to ensure that the real potential for the creation of a BoR to be thwarted.
Sinn Fein have negotiated the GFA with the both governments and the other parties and both governments have a responsibility to implement the agreement. If the creation of a BoR to reflect the particular circumstances of the north creates a problem for either government, in terms of the rights guaranteed to individuals in the UK or the South, then the respective governments need to get their own houses in order.
The Preamble to the draft Bill does not address the issue of `Self-Determination'. However the explanatory text accompanying the Preamble (Page 18, Para 1) refers to the `people of Northern Ireland' and states that
`The proposed Preamble is worded in such a way as to indicate the wish of the people of Northern Ireland for the Bill to be adopted and adhered to whichever government is responsible for the content of the law in Northern Ireland. It seems to the Commission that the best way in which the wish of the people of Northern Ireland could be determined would be through a resolution of their elected representatives adopted by cross-community vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly.'
There does not exist `a people of Northern Ireland', their exists two communities in this part of Ireland. Further the GFA under Constitutional Issues, Para 1 Section (ii), states:
`the participants recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent. Freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.'
Sinn Fein's view is that it is for the Irish people as a whole, with out interference, British or otherwise, to determine the future status of Ireland. The Preamble should contain this paragraph from the GFA setting out the right of Self-determination as envisaged in the agreement.
The Preamble contains clauses from the Section entitled `Rights Safeguards and Equality of Treatment from the GFA. It is particularly noticeable that it does not contain any reference to `parity of esteem'. Parity of esteem is an essential part and principle of the GFA and it is a serious flaw that it is omitted from the preamble. I will return to this later.
The draft Bill deals comprehensively with Children's rights and the Commission have rightly dealt with this issue in the context that children here have suffered as a result of years of conflict. The draft identifies the child's rights to express their opinion and to have due weight given to their opinions. It deals with the right to stable family environment and the right to protection from violence and abuse and the rights to Education and Health.
Sinn Fein welcome the fact that the draft proposes to raise the age of Criminal Responsibility.
The Commissions approach in the section on Democratic Rights properly identifies this as an area of importance where there have been `particular circumstances' which need to be addressed in the Bill. It sets out the rights of elected representatives to be entitled to full and effective participation in government. In the past nationalists and republicans have been effectively excluded from government. In recent times republicans have been excluded from full participation in the Assembly executive by the illegal refusal of David Trimble to nominate Sinn Fein ministers to NSMC meetings.
It is for the electorate to decide who should represent them and we welcome the right to participation in government.
The Commission also sets out a clause to ensure voting rights for everyone and to remove unjustifiable legal restrictions on people standing for election. There are many people, who had been imprisoned as a result of the conflict here, who are still denied the right to full participation in public life.
Sinn Fein also welcome the proposal to reduce the voting age from 18. We support the principle of proportional representation in government. Of course if we are to have a truly representative government then the issue of electoral boundaries and the setting of those boundaries must be considered as well as a proportional representation system of voting.
In addition people must have the freedom to choose their place of residence if they are to have democratic rights. If they cannot choose where they wish to live then they cannot freely choose who they wish to vote for.
Social, Economic and Environment rights
This section covers some of the most fundamental of rights. The opening clause of the draft states `Since poverty and social exclusion represents a fundamental denial of human dignity the protection of social and economic rights is an integral part of the delivery of effective human rights.'
If we were to begin at the beginning in dealing with Human Rights then this would be the place to start. To ensure that every individual has the essentials to live, enough to eat, a decent standard of living, a home, a right to work, a healthy environment and the right to health care.
The draft acknowledges that many of the socio-economic indicators show that people in this part of Ireland are more deprived in terms of standards of health, housing, homelessness and employment. The GFA also identifies the importance of social and economic conditions in conflict resolution. Sinn Fein welcomes the draft clauses in this section.
The first clause also states that `All public bodies shall consult and to create mechanisms which facilitate and promote the development of policies and programmes to ensure social and economic inclusion for all citizens.' However the section entitled The Interdependence of Rights states that ` Most social and economic rights also have limits but are expressed as objectives to be realised progressively within the resources available to government'
Creating mechanisms which facilitate and promote the development of policies and programmes are not enough on their own. We have to ensure that a minimum level of social and economic rights is actually delivered and not dependant on resources becoming available.
Equality , Parity of Esteem and non-discrimination
Sections 3 & 4 of the Consultation document deal with Parity of Esteem and Equality, two issues at the core of the GFA. The BoR which will result as a result of the Agreement, need to be assessed in regard to these issues against the terms of the Agreement.
Parity of Esteem is one of the foundation stones of the Agreement, and is expressed as a community right, in the context of the two main communities in the north. It is not something to be afforded to each of the two main communities to each other. The Commission has taken a different, and what I believe to be an incorrect view.
The Agreement however states that ` a general obligation on government and public bodies to respect on the basis of equality of treatment, the identity and ethos of both communities' should be incorporated into the Bill of rights.
On page 25 of the document the Commission states their view that `It is hard to envisage how the Government could guarantee that the two communities feel respected by each other.' The Commission have not included parity of esteem in the draft Bill and this is a serious omission. It is for the Government to ensure that each community is given parity of esteem by the state.
The Commission have decided to deal with parity of esteem on the basis of protecting individual rights without providing for the protection of community rights. The Commission have adopted a similar position in relation to the section on Equality, dealing with Equality on the basis of individual rights as opposed to community rights. This approach affirms existing individual rights but avoids provision for anything which explicitly protects the rights of the nationalist/catholic community, or indeed the unionist/protestant community, which is clearly part of the spirit of the GFA.
The Commission's Working Group examined the African Charter on Human and People's rights which states, `All peoples are equal. They shall enjoy the same respect and shall have the same rights. Nothing shall justify the domination of a people by another.'
The draft Bill includes a section on Positive Action to address existing inequality and notes the extent to which Positive Action is required by the Agreement and by Section 75 of the 1998 Act to address current inequality. The Commission goes on to state that `This will mean that disadvantaged groups, such as females and members of ethnic minorities, can receive priority in placements, but not automatically or unconditionally.'
This is of course to be welcomed. However in failing to recognise the rights of communities this does not provide for positive action to be taken to address the inequalities which exist between both communities. There are many measurable examples of such inequality. For example catholic males are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as protestant males. A BoR must allow for positive action to be taken to address such inequality between the communities.
Irish Language Rights
The Commission states that `rather than provide for `official' or `national' languages and for `second' or `other' languages the consultation document asserts the rights for all language users and makes the extent of those rights dependant on the extent which each language is used and understood in the community'
This equates Irish with ethnic minority languages. While we agree that there must be provision for the rights of ethnic minority's to use their language and to enable them to access basic information and services from public bodies, it is wrong to deal with Irish in the same way.
The Commission recognises that Irish is an indigenous language with a rich literary tradition. It also recognises that Irish has suffered the effects of domination and suppression in past centuries and that is important to the cultural identity of a substantial section of the population.
The rights of Irish speakers must be fully integrated throughout the BoR and there is the need to reflect the internationally recognised case for rigorous action in promoting indigenous languages. We need to see this in the BoR and no less in the Programme for Government and throughout the All Ireland structures.
To conclude, I want to make one final point. The potential that the creation of a Bill of Rights has to help address the legacy of the past and the contribution it can make to the creation of a new Ireland, will not be realised just because we want it to. The challenge that faces us, and it is not a new challenge within this process, is to get the Bill of Rights that we deserve. This means that people have to make their voice today.
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