Other Questions. - Northern Ireland Issues.

Brian O'Shea


10 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has considered the implications for the Government's legislative obligations in relation to social and economic rights of British human rights legislation introduced or to be introduced in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14815/02]

The Good Friday Agreement contains extensive provisions in relation to human rights. Under the heading of "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", the parties affirmed their commitment to the "mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community." They also affirmed, inter alia, “the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity”.

Under the Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was invited to consult and advise on the scope for defining in Westminster legislation rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights. These rights should reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and draw as appropriate on international instruments and experience. The additional rights defined should also reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem. Taken together with the ECHR, they should, according to the Agreement, constitute a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has been engaged in a lengthy and extensive consultation on the contents of a bill of rights. Its consultation document, Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, was published in September 2001. This document includes a chapter on social, economic and environmental rights which impacts on a wide range of sectoral areas.

I understand that the Commission hopes to issue its final advice to the Secretary of State early next year. Once the Commission has made its submission to the Secretary of State, it will be for the British Government to decide how to take matters forward.

The bill of rights is intended, under the Agreement, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. We will continue to monitor developments in this area closely.

Would the Minister confirm that the intention was that the same level or rights would be available on all parts of the island? I tabled this question to address the situation which might arise should the British Government accept the suggestion of the commission in Northern Ireland which deals with social and economic rights. That would mean that the Irish Government would have a choice to go down the same route regarding social and economic rights and have equivalent legislation or, should it not do so, to accept a situation in which there will be a different level of rights available in different parts of the island, which, it seems to me, was not the intention of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Government undertook, in terms of its own obligations on human rights under the Agreement, to take further steps to further strengthen and protect human rights in this jurisdiction. These included establishing an independent human rights commission and an examination of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into the Constitution.

As Deputies will be aware, the Human Rights Commission has been established and is up and running for some time. I am advised by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which has lead policy responsibility for this area, that the European Convention on Human Rights Bill, 2001, has been restored to the Dáil Order Paper at Committee Stage.

We have also met our other obligations in this area through ratification of the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities, the implementation of enhanced employment equality legislation, the introduction of equal status legislation and the establishment of the Joint Committee of Representatives of the Human Rights Commissions, North and South.

The Deputy's question refers to obligations, which would be more than that, imposed on the Government dependent upon the outcome of the consultation process between the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Secretary of State's consideration of its final report to him in 2003. Under the Agreement we set out to do certain tasks in our jurisdiction. There are, were and continue to be specific circumstances regarding Northern Ireland which require a particular response. In the context of that divided society, and the failure to have everybody adhere to and give allegiance to basic institutions of state, there is, perhaps, a need for a rights regime which will provide the necessary confidence in all communities, comprising whatever is the outcome of their current deliberations.

As the Deputy will be aware, until such time as the constitutional arrangements change, the jurisdiction remains under the United Kingdom. There are rights regimes and a range of economic, social, employment and other rights in existence in the United Kingdom and different ones in the Republic of Ireland. It is not axiomatic that the outcome of this process is that we end up with the same rights in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland while two different jurisdictions exist. These are matters for consideration by the Government in due course, but I do not see it as necessarily being as paradoxical as the Deputy is suggesting if the outcome of the process should lead to that.

Should the United Kingdom Government introduce a rights framework which included social and economic rights, would the Minister, on behalf of this Government, indicate that Ireland would follow suit? If the answer is "Yes", it is to be welcomed. If the answer is "No", then the point is that, as signatories of the European convention, one jurisdiction would respond one way and another would respond in a lesser way. The basic issue is whether the Minister is open to the extension beyond civil and political rights into the social and economic area in parallel with such a development should it happen in the case of the United Kingdom. This affects not only Northern Ireland but also citizens in the Republic.

I could not commit the Government to the adoption of any position until I saw precisely what was being asked of me. When I see the theory translated into practice and how it might affect our own position, I am prepared to have a look. However, obtaining a blanket commitment from me that the Government would commit itself to immediately and unconditionally replicating something which is not very precise or which may emerge from the consultation process in Northern Ireland is a bridge too far at present.

Apart altogether from the Agreement, would the Minister think that there is a case for the extension of rights in this area anyway?

I am prepared to be convinced. I await the evidence which suggests that is so.