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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 25 Nov 1999

Vol. 511 No. 5

Human Rights Commission Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In a few days we mark the 51st anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The basic principle of that document is set out in the first sentence of Article 1 which states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." That principle is the cornerstone of the Labour Party's philosophy and that of social democracy and socialism everywhere in the world. Tragically, the lessons of two world wars which preceded the universal declaration have not been learned and the denial of rights is widespread in many parts of our globe. War, hunger, poverty and oppression continue to threaten the lives of millions of our fellow human beings. Scenes that we had hoped were consigned to the horrors of the past – concentration camps and rape as a weapon of war – have reoccurred in the closing years of the 20th century.

As the economies in this part of the world grow richer, it becomes easier to look inwards, to ensconce ourselves behind fortress Europe, to concentrate on promoting our own economic growth and forget the plight of so many of our fellow citizens of the world. That is why the Labour Party believes that our commitment to the rights recognised by the universal declaration must be recognised in deeds and not just in words. Human rights on the international plane and in the domestic sphere have always been at the top of the Labour Party's agenda. We view the protection of rights not as a convenient slogan but, in the words of the Vienna declaration on human rights, as the first obligation of Government.

When we were in Government, Deputy Spring spearheaded the drafting and ratification of a number of key international human rights instruments, most notably the protocol setting up the new full-time European Court of Human Rights, which came into force earlier this month. It is remarkable that since this Government took office, it has not ratified any human rights treaties, nor has it initiated any major human rights legislation, apart from reviving the Labour Party's Employment Equality Bill and Equal Status Bill, and the War Crimes Bill and Geneva Convention Bill which were also initiated by Labour in Government.

The Government's only firm proposals regarding human rights legislation arise, as the Minister has stated, from the Good Friday Agreement, specifically under the heading "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity". It is worth reciting that section in full:

The Irish Government will also take steps to further strengthen the protection of human rights in its jurisdiction. The Government will, taking account of the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and the Report of the Constitution Review Group, bring forward measures to strengthen and underpin the constitutional protection of human rights. These proposals will draw on the European Convention on Human Rights and other international legal instruments in the field of human rights and the question of the incorporation of the ECHR will be further examined in this context. The measures brought forward would ensure at least an equivalent protection of human rights as will pertain in Northern Ireland. In addition, the Irish Government will: establish a Human Rights Commission with a mandate and remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland and.introduce equal status legislation.

The British Government was able to move rapidly on its solemn commitment to establish a Human Rights Commission. The legislation was put through Westminster at the end of last year and it appointed a head of that commission in March. The British Government also acted to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law throughout the United Kingdom, leaving Ireland as the only member of the European Union to have failed to do so.

Meanwhile, there was no action on this side of the Irish Sea until recently. My party was able to publish its proposals for a human rights Bill on 1 December 1998. We did so in a constructive spirit, as part of our contribution to the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration on human rights and in order to play a small part in the attempt to ensure that the next 50 years will see the high aspirations of the declaration come to pass for all people, given that everybody is born free and equal in dignity and rights. It took the Government more than 15 months to produce a Bill, which was published last July. It is now unlikely that the human rights commission will be up and running until well into next year. I welcome the timely arrival in the House of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs. This lackadaisical approach is also evidenced by the Government's policy on Irish aid, its approach to the International Monetary Fund and the policy of the World Bank on structural adjustment programmes. Most of all it is evidenced by the chaotic shambles – to borrow a phrase – on immigration policy. It suggests that human rights do not rank very highly on the priority list of the Government.

I strongly agree with the views expressed by Deputy Flanagan that the disastrous decision to amalgamate the Department of Justice with the Department of Equality and Law Reform is partly to blame for the deprioritisation of what is known in the confines of the Department as "soft legislation". It is critically important that meeting our rights and obligations under the Good Friday Agreement has priority and it is unacceptable that we lag one year behind the UK in meeting our requirements which in legislative terms are much lighter than those required from the British authorities.

In the context of the Bill it is important to re-examine our commitment to the restructuring of Third World debt. The attitude of forcing through legislation uniformly opposed by those at the front edge of Third World debt amelioration and the delivery of Third World aid indicates where the Government's heart lies. Taken with the delay in processing the equal status legislation, it provides more evidence of the fundamental mistake of the Government in abandoning the Department of Equality and Law Reform. It is important that we examine the issue of Government and parliamentary reform so that the Parliament can have its say. Not only are we lagging behind in legislative terms as a consequence of abandoning that Department, but those in the community whose equality was under threat or whose basic rights needed vindication benefited immeasurably from having such an able advocate as Mervyn Taylor at the Cabinet table. There is nobody in the Cabinet to do that now as the job of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is too broad to have that narrow and clear focus. I wonder whether the requirement under the previous administration that all legislation which came to Cabinet be checked for its impact on equality, particularly on women, is still enforced. I know how rigorously it was enforced by the former Minister for Equality and Law Reform. Observations of the Department of Finance and, importantly, the Department of Equality and Law Reform, invariably appeared on every memorandum brought before Government. It would be a very telling tale to know whether that requirement still holds good and whether the current Minister who has a much broader remit than equality and law reform is as diligent in the vindication of equality issues as his predecessor when these matters are discussed at Cabinet.

The Bill is important and I welcome it. It is important that the Government demonstrates a complete commitment to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects. Legislation is still outstanding for which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, not surprisingly, is responsible. His Department stated that from the date of the publication of the Good Friday Agreement amendments are required to the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts. We have inquired several times about the precise nature of these requirements and when amendments will be available, but amending legislation has yet to be published. Everybody in the House wishes the peace process well and we are I hope, within days of an agreement and the institutions which will flow from it going live, but a Bill has not been published and we do not have any notion regarding what it will contain.

Last July I welcomed the publication of this Bill while strongly criticising the undue delay in bringing it forward. We support the intention to give effect to the Agreement and its commitments. We do so in order to contribute as constructively as we can. It is an immensely important Bill and it is important, therefore, that we devote sufficient time to it to ensure we get it right. The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights received the heads of the Bill, and I acknowledge this as an excellent mechanism for dealing with legislation. It allowed us receive submissions from a wide variety of groups which put forward their views before legislation was enacted. This model should be replicated for all important legislation. It gives the rightful status to the legislative committees and is a very good mechanism for ensuring legislation is improved upon. A number of organisations interested in human rights issues made submissions, many of which have been taken on board by the Government, while, unfortunately, some others have been ignored.

I wish to briefly compare the provisions of the Bill published last year by the Labour Party with the Bill now before the House. In essence the Labour Party sought to do three things, namely, the make the European Convention on Human Rights part of our law, like almost all of the other 39 countries on the Council of Europe. It is interesting that for the sixth time since the war we hold the presidency of the Council of Europe. It is important that we try to find a mechanism to incorporate into domestic law the important provisions of the convention, as the other countries, many of which have constitutions, have done. It would mean that Irish citizens would not need to go to Strasbourg to have their rights under the convention upheld. It is not good enough for the Minister to tell the House that for administrative reasons or the judgment made in 1996 that the European convention has legal sway in international but not domestic law, and that it is possible for an Irish citizen to seek redress in the European Court of Justice but not in domestic courts. It is important that citizens be able to rely on the convention in the courts to vindicate their rights.

We also proposed to implement a number of other key UN and Council of Europe conventions in the legislation we drafted and tabled last year. Another of the key provisions of the Labour Bill was to oblige the Government to ratify the United Nations race discrimination and torture conventions as well as a number of other instruments. At a time when Ireland seeks membership of the United Nations Security Council, it is necessary, if we are to have any credibility in this area, that we ratify all key human rights conventions. I say that in the hope that, in the response of the Minister or of the Minister of State representing him, there will be an acknowledgement that this needs to be done.

The third objective of the Labour Party Bill was to establish an independent human rights commission with powers to take cases of breaches of rights to court. While such a human rights commission was promised in the Good Friday Agreement, it has been part of our policy since before the previous general election and was incorporated in our manifesto which we put to the people at the time.

The Government's Bill proposes to move on only one of the three main proposals. There will not be a statutory requirement on the Government to move on the outstanding backlog of international agreements which the State has been unable to ratify, nor will the commission have the function under this Bill, which is specifically conferred on it by the Labour Party Bill of "encouraging ratification of human rights instruments or accession to those instruments, and their implementation". That is a salient and telling point. We have been tardy in doing that until now and it reveals a mindset in those who are charged with this area of policy.

Neither is there any movement on the question of the incorporation of the European convention into domestic law, although the Minister hinted that the Government is examining some way of doing that. There was an element of concession in the Minister's suggestion. He said:

. . . it is difficult to justify a situation where we alone, out of 41 contracting states of the Council of Europe, have not incorporated the convention into our law in some shape or form.

If the Minister says it is difficult to justify, it is time he made a pledge to remedy it, to act upon it and to ensure the proposal in our Bill, the incorporation of the European convention into domestic law, is implemented without further delay.

Of the rest of the detailed provisions of the Bill, the most important is that the Commission must be and must be seen to be independent. It is, therefore, important that the appointment of members should not be left at the whim of whatever Government is in power. Unfortunately, that is what is provided for in the Bill as drafted. When the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's RightsColour RGB 171,0,0 took submissions from a variety of groups, this was a point stressed by many. I do not mean to be facetious, but when we see visiting committees of prisons containing people with addresses which are readily identified with political parties and with the Minister sponsoring the Department, we need to be clear as regards this body that the political credentials of people who will form the Human Rights Commission will not be vetted in a way which some of the decisions of Ministers of all hues have tended to have been in the past.

The appointment of the president of the commission will be extremely important. There was a tendency in the presentation we received from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and in the Bill as drafted that, while it is no longer a requirement, the president should be a judge or former judge. That is unnecessary. There are many eminent people who are not judges who would be much more suited to hold the presidency of this reforming new body. I hope the Minister of State brings that to the attention of her Government colleagues before any decision is made. I am concerned about the appointment of certain judges to that post. Being a judge or former judge does not confer on an individual such impartiality and knowledge of the field of human rights that they would make an obvious choice to hold the presidency of this innovative and important commission.

In terms of the membership, I welcome the broadening of the numbers, but I would have preferred that there were a different mechanism for appointment. One of the recommendations of the report of the Joint Committee regarding membership of the human rights commission – item 13 on page two – states that the commission should be nominated by the Government but appointed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. It suggests that it should be on the same basis as the Ombudsman to show clear impartiality. That is something we should revisit on Committee Stage. I hope the Minister is open to considering that proposal.

The issue of human rights and its location is something to which I will refer briefly. The legislation comes from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, although the Minister specifically charged with human rights matters is a Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Labour Party Bill suggested that, because of the importance of the legislation, it should be sited in the Department of the Taoiseach. That would have been a better approach. While I acknowledge the credentials of the Minister of State with responsibility for human rights, it would probably be wrong to consider human rights as an external or foreign issue solely concerned with the rights of minorities abroad rather than looking at ourselves and the inequalities and lack of citizenship and rights which obviously exist within our society.

We have many acute problems. We do not have to go beyond the issue of travellers. The Administration of which I was a member enacted the traveller accommodation Act, yet there is still an appalling situation throughout the country regarding waiting lists for proper accommodation for travellers. The import of the legislation was to require local authorities to provide for travellers and to require county managers to do it if there were a blanket refusal by elected members to take their responsibilities seriously. However, there are many other areas. In the areas of health statistics of the travelling community, access to education and economic status, a large number of people do not enjoy equal citizenship and it is something we must rectify.

Unfortunately, there is a growing problem of racism in our society, racism which is often fuelled by ill thought out comments made by people who should, and in many cases do, know better. I agreed with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs when she characterised the recent utterances of some Fianna Fáil backbenchers as xenophobic and intolerant. It is important that we use language carefully and be aware of the sensitivity in our society, as it changes and becomes more multi-cultural, to intolerant or xenophobic remarks. It is important that the Government and this House give a lead in this regard. Intolerant and xenophobic remarks should be disowned. If we are to make a real pledge to the fulfilment of obligations under a human rights regime, we must begin by ensuring that the Members of this House comply with acceptable norms of behaviour in regard to human rights and the use of language.

I want to refer briefly to a number of issues. Section 5 of the Bill deals with the structure of the commission. I hope the Minister will re-examine the character of the individual who will be president of the commission as that will be very important.

Section 8 describes the functions of the commission. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, in its submission, sought the inclusion of the right to draft legislation among the commission's functions. That is a good idea. I do not see why any external group should not be able to propose draft legislation which we could consider. The Attorney General is well disposed to outside groups, such as the Law Reform Commission, drafting legislation and appending it to its reports rather than simply making recommendations.

This Bill is extremely important but we have a great deal of work to do to make it better. My fear is that it is as narrow as it can be within the confines of our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. In essence, our response has been very tardy and minimalist. I hope that on Committee Stage we can broaden the Bill's scope. I particularly hope that the Minister's assertion of his near dismay at our unique position in the Council of Europe for not enacting the European convention into domestic law will be resolved and that we will have a much better Bill at the end of the process.

I note that Deputy Howlin has used this debate as an opportunity to trumpet his party's fine record in the area of human rights. Without picking a fight, I want to say that had the Labour Party vindicated the rights of asylum seekers, it would not have been necessary for me, as a member of the Government, to raise this issue in public. Much of the acrimony which is coming from the Labour Party, in particular against me, is born of a guilt on its part for failing to take action to vindicate the rights of asylum seekers. Members of the party feel guilty about this and are, therefore, attacking the messenger. I merely want to put that on record.

It sounds like a confession.

As Minister of State with special responsibility for human rights, I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this most important Bill. The establishment of a human rights commission in this jurisdiction will represent another important step forward towards the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Quite apart from that, it will also demonstrate the Government's firm commitment to the creation of a vibrant and dynamic human rights culture, based on the highest international standards. Human rights involve relationships between individuals, and between individuals and the State. The practical task of protecting human rights is, therefore, primarily a national one for which each State is responsible.

We have all been greatly heartened by developments which have taken place in Northern Ireland of late and which, we hope, will shortly lead the way to the establishment of an inclusive executive and the other institutions under the Agreement, and to the achievement of decommissioning. There can be no doubt that the creation of the institutions will represent a massive step forward towards securing the full implementation of the Agreement in all its aspects.

However, while focusing on these developments, we should not lose sight of the importance of implementing the other parts of the Agreement, especially those relating to human rights and equality, which are at its very core. These are vital to the creation on this island of the new dispensation the Agreement envisages.

During the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement, we did not approach human rights and equality as part of a nationalist agenda. All of us are stakeholders in the new society we are seeking to create and it is worth noting that this was an area where a broad consensus emerged among the parties at the talks, Unionists as well as Nationalists. As a result, the human rights and equality commitments in the Agreement are substantial and demanding, requiring action on the part of the two Governments, in particular, as well as the parties.

The parties affirmed their commitment to rights that many of us take for granted – the right to free political thought and freedom of religion, to pursue democratically national and political aspirations and freedom from sectarian harassment. This represents a clear and powerful message from the parties that the abuses of the past in terms of civil and political rights have no place in the new future to be built together in Ireland.

The British Government committed itself to, and has since provided for, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. It undertook to place a statutory obligation on public authorities in Northern Ireland to carry out their functions with due regard to the need to promote equality and has enacted the necessary legislation. It has also legislated for and established the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland and the new Equality Commission, both of which commenced operations earlier this year.

For our part, we committed ourselves to further strengthening the protection of human rights in this jurisdiction to ensure at least an equivalent level of protection of human rights as will pertain in Northern Ireland. In particular, we undertook to establish a human rights commission "with a mandate and remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland". The Bill before the House not only fulfils that commitment, it goes significantly beyond it. In drawing up the specifications for what will be the first national institution of its kind in Europe, the Government was utterly convinced of the need to get it right.

In approaching the task, the Government was informed by its belief that we should seek to create a body that would serve as a model from which other countries could draw inspiration, an example that people will look to when establishing their own institutions. We also had the benefit of the advice of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, who is taking a close personal interest in the establishment of this institution.

Under this legislation, the commission will have a broad remit. The actual or potential strength of a national institution is directly related to its legal mandate and I would like to comment on some aspects of this mandate. The commission will be independent of Government in the performance of its functions. It will keep the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in the State under constant review. It will be able to consult international bodies with expertise in the area of human rights. It will recommend to Government measures to further strengthen human rights protection. It will promote awareness and understanding of human rights issues and will prepare and publish research. It will be able to offer assistance to individuals pursuing human rights cases in the courts and, where appropriate, to institute such proceedings itself. The commission will be able to conduct inquiries and, more importantly, in order to be in a position to conduct them effectively, it will be able to require the attendance of witnesses and the production of relevant papers. It will also be able to provide advice to the courts on matters relating to human rights. In these last two regards, the commission's mandate goes beyond that of its Northern counterpart. Full realisation of human rights cannot be achieved solely through the development of protective law and the establishment of mechanisms to implement that law. National human rights institutions, along with intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, can play an important role in promoting human rights at domestic level. This role is essentially about informing and educating about human rights. It is crucial that the commission is given the resources to fulfil this function. Promotion and protection of human rights go together – this two-pronged approach cannot be split if the commission is to realise its full potential.

A unique aspect of the commission's work will be the operation of the joint committee, together with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The Agreement tasked the joint committee to consider the possibility of establishing a charter, open to signature by all democratic parties, reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everybody living on the island of Ireland. This is an exciting development. It will involve no less than the creation of the human rights landscape of the Ireland of the future. The Northern Commission, in its draft strategic plan, has already given indications of how it proposes to approach this task. We must lose no time in doing likewise.

In this Bill, the Government has ensured that the commission will be fully equipped with the tools it requires to carry out its task efficiently and effectively. In choosing to take as our point of departure the guidelines laid down by the United Nations, the Paris Principles, we have established rather than followed standards for international best practice in the field, as the Taoiseach in his statement on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights said in December of last year.

It is essential that the most vulnerable members of our society see the commission as approachable, accessible and representative. The commission must be seen as an instrument of the people, not of the Government or the State. In discharging this and all the other responsibilities it will have, the commission will only be as good as its members. In making appointments, the Government shall have regard to the need to ensure that the members of the Commission include both men and women and are broadly representative of the make-up of our society.

The Bill contains the requirement that only those with a real contribution to make, those who are suitably qualified by way of experience, qualification, training or expertise to fulfil the important role they will be asked to undertake, will be appointed as commissioners. We cannot deviate from this extremely important requirement. It is my hope that the selection process will be as open and transparent as possible and that consideration will be given to how we can attract the best people to offer themselves for this high public service. Once appointed, the commissioners must be given the means, in human and financial resources, to carry out their mandate. All our expressions of support will be mere rhetoric if we fail to give the commission the tools to do the job.

Through the Good Friday Agreement we have set about creating a dynamic rights and equality culture on this island. We know that for Nationalists demonstrable progress on these issues will be as vital a sign that a new future built on justice and equality is possible as progress on the institutional aspects of the Agreement. For Unionists, the functioning of fully independent commissions, in both parts of the country, will demonstrate conclusively that human rights are for all.

I hope the creation of a Human Rights Commission in this jurisdiction will make a real impact on the quality of life of all our people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. It is the clearest possible indication of the Government's commitment to human rights and of its genuine willingness to take its international and domestic obligations seriously.

In so doing, we will be participating in the active defence of human rights, which over the past 50 years has become a global secular religion, a credo which should permeate good governance in civilised countries. Whether we as a Government are dealing with young or old people, well established citizens or newly arrived refugees, prisoners, travellers or the homeless, this human rights perspective will inform and shape our policies for the better. I commend the Bill to the House.

Ba maith liom fáilte a chur leis an mBille seo. Is céim eile an mBille chun Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta a chur i bhfheidhm. Is mór an trua go raibh moill comh fada ar a mBille agus, de bharr sin, ar bhunú an chomisiúin.

I welcome this Bill which implements one of the essential elements of the Good Friday Agreement. The protection and promotion of human rights throughout this island is central to the Agreement and is something for which we in Sinn Féin argued very strongly during the course of the negotiations. We argued in the negotiations for an all-Ireland human rights commission which would have a 32 county remit covering both jurisdictions. That would still be our preferred option, but we endorsed the recognition in the Agreement, as concluded, of the need to establish human rights commissions in both the Six Counties and the 26 counties.

It is regrettable that it has taken so long for this Bill to come before the Dáil. The Human Rights Commission in the Six Counties is already established and it is unsatisfactory that there has been such a delay on this side of the Border. Having said that, the Bill and the new commissions offer us the opportunity to create a new focus on human rights in Ireland. There has been relatively little debate on this aspect of the Good Friday Agreement in the Six Counties and even less in this jurisdiction, but it is just as vital a question on this side of the Border.

It is Sinn Féin's view that the success of the Agreement will be measured by the real change it brings about. Political progress is about political change and the Agreement will remain a document, nothing more, if the principles contained therein are not put into effect with practical application to people's daily lives. This is especially so in the area of human rights.

The phase of conflict in Ireland which we are hopefully bringing to a close with the implementation of the Agreement began as the Nationalist people of the Six Counties raised their just demands for civil and human rights denied to them in the sectarian state there since partition. It was the violent reaction of the Orange state to the peaceful campaign for human and civil rights which put the gun yet again into Irish politics. The Unionist government had an appalling human rights record – internment without trial in every decade since partition and repressive legislation, which was the envy of apartheid South Africa. This was followed by direct rule from Westminster which imposed further harsh repression in legislation and on the streets.

Britain's human rights record in the North of Ireland since then has been appalling. It would not be possible in a short contribution such as this to detail the extent of human rights abuses by the British state in the Six Counties, but it includes the killing of more than 400 people by the RUC and the British Army, collusion of state forces with loyalist paramilitaries, torture in interrogation centres, the Diplock court system, the use of lethal plastic bullets, harassment of members of the Nationalist community on the streets and in their homes, the occupation of lands and buildings and the absence of a proper inquest system. The list goes on, but the point which must be stressed is that the forces which have carried out these violations of human rights and the laws which empowered them to act as they have done are, all too sadly, still in place.

The Human Rights Commission in the Six Counties must address all those issues. It must be central to the creation of a new dispensation in civil society rooted in respect for human rights. The same applies in this jurisdiction. Successive Governments in this State have infringed the human rights of citizens through repressive legislation. My party has made a detailed submission to the committee to review the Offences Against the State Acts, 1939 to 1998, and related matters. We have highlighted the anti-human rights nature of that body of legislation and have called for its repeal.

Yesterday I urged the Minister in this House to allow for a more widespread review than that being conducted by the committee and the new human rights commission will have an important role in this regard. Its remit is to maintain an overview of the extent to which human rights are protected at both constitutional and legal levels, to assess the adequacy of this protection and make recommendations to Government for the better protection of these rights. Any independent scrutiny of the Offences Against the State Acts on the basis of these criteria would find these Acts and their operation over decades by the Garda to be repugnant to basic principles of human rights. The new Human Rights Commission must address all aspects of human rights, not only those relating to the conflict. The rights of all citizens, but especially of minorities in our society, must be its concern. It must be a proactive commission, not only protecting but promoting human rights and acting as both a watchdog and an advocate for those who believe that their human rights have been violated.

There are a number of shortcomings in the Bill which I want to highlight. Regarding the membership of the commission, it is regrettable that the Bill does not follow a similar route to the commission in the Six Counties. In the case of the Six Counties' commission, applications for membership were invited from suitably qualified persons, followed by interviews. This is far preferable to the appointment of nine people by the Government, as provided for in the Bill. Given the remit of the commission and the need for it to be independent and seen to be independent, this method of appointment is totally inappropriate. While it is not laid down in the Bill that a judicial figure has to be president of the commission, its provisions clearly create an expectation that this will be the case. This would be a mistake. The commission needs to be independent of the judiciary and needs to bring a fresh approach and a different perspective to the State's handling of human rights. I welcome the provision allowing the commission to conduct inquiries. This is a very important power and one I hope will be used proactively by the commission.

One worrying aspect of the Bill in this regard is that the commission may postpone making a decision on a request for an inquiry if it considers that the subject matter of the request is already being considered by a court or tribunal. The problem is that it does not just contemplate legal proceedings in train, but also legal proceedings which are likely to be instituted in the future. If interpreted in a restrictive way by the commission, this could severely limit the number of requests granted.

There is also a major difficulty with section 2. The definition of human rights for the purpose of legal proceedings by the commission is confined to those rights that can be argued before the courts on the basis that they have been incorporated into the law of the State. Since a whole range of international human rights instruments have not yet been incorporated into domestic legislation, this provision is very restrictive and should be addressed on subsequent Stages.

I welcome this legislation and I urge that the new Human Rights Commission should become one of the forces for progressive change in society at what is, after all, a very exciting time in our history.

This has arisen from the Good Friday Agreement and Deputy Ó Caoláin would like me to include among the lists of human rights violations in Northern Ireland over many years – not just the last 30 – the punishment beatings and intimidation. Let us hope we are moving forward on both sides. With the help of the Human Rights Commission and the Agreement, these atrocities will be a thing of the past. If there is an attempt to inflict them on anyone on this island, this commission will have the power to deal with that and will also provide full accessibility for everyone. The commission embraces and will I hope enlarge fundamental principles of human rights and, as Deputy Ó Caoláin said, we must not be restrictive in any way – matters that may not be part of our legislation should be taken on board by the commission.

Debate adjourned.