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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 6 Jul 2001

Vol. 167 No. 13

Human Rights Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2001: Second Stage.

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

I thank the Seanad for agreeing to deal with this matter so expeditiously.

The passage of this relatively simple and straightforward Bill will allow me to make the necessary establishment day order under section 3 of the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, immediately following its signing into law by the President. This will mean that the Human Rights Commission, which has been operating for the past few months on an interim basis, will be fully constituted and can proceed immediately to fulfil its wide operational mandate and remit as set out in the legislation.

The need for the amendment arises from the fact that the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, provides for a nine member commission. However, following the initial appointments, the Government decided, in the interests of providing for a wider sphere of representation of interests on the commission, to increase the number to 15 by appointing six further human rights commissioners. The Government, in taking this step, acknowledged the reservations expressed by many of the interested groups and organisations in the human rights area in the matter. The Bill provides the necessary statutory cover for these additional six appointments to the commission. While the commission, as already stated, has been meeting as an interim body in recent months to deal mainly with general financial, accommodation and staffing matters, it is apparent that this state of affairs should not be allowed to continue for much longer. To develop its work programmes and strategies and fulfil its role under the Good Friday Agreement, particularly with regard to the establishment of the joint committee of representatives with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, it needs to have full statutory authority.

It was the Government's original intention that the provision in this separate Bill could have been enacted fairly expeditiously as part of the European Convention on Human Rights Bill, 2001, which is now awaiting Committee Stage in the other House. Following the wishes of the two Governments as expressed in last year's Hillsborough Agreement to implement fully all the outstanding matters under the Good Friday Agreement by June of this year, we had hoped to have the convention Bill enacted during the current session of the Oireachtas. However, that expectation proved to be somewhat optimistic. To meet the deadline to which I refer, the timescale for the consultative process with the various groups in the human rights area who wished to submit comments and observations on the substantive provisions of the convention Bill would have had to be abridged very significantly.

The convention Bill is an important measure. It is also complex in that it seeks to balance the interplay between rights under the Constitution and rights under the convention in a way which fully takes account of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty as enshrined in the Constitution, as well as the related matter of the State's dualist approach to the giving of effect in our laws to the commitments entered into by our accession and ratification of international treaties. In the area of human rights and fundamental freedoms, this is a matter which has to be absolutely correct and, while the consultation process will delay progress on the Bill, the Government fully accepts that the views of interested organisations in this important area should be heard and considered. So as not to delay the establishment of the Human Rights Commission any longer, however, the Government wishes to proceed with the Bill now before the Seanad. I have always said that if this situation should come to pass, the Government would deal with it by means of a separate Bill, and we are delivering on that commitment.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill. Although it is short, the Bill is extremely important. It is 53 years since Ireland signed up to the United Nations universal declaration of human rights. We have done nothing dramatic since then in terms of formalising our position in respect of the declaration or establishing a human rights commission.

The basic proposal in the Bill to give statutory standing to the Human Rights Commission in the Republic is important and long overdue. A number of difficulties arose in respect of this area and there has been an extended debate on them. The Minister is, in a sense, a later convert with regard to the need for the European Convention on Human Rights. He held different views on this matter previously but has been prudent enough to adopt a new approach.

The Minister is not incorporating the full European Convention on Human Rights. In the last two years, there have been serious discussions on this issue among the member states. I attended some of them and was amazed at the narrow conservative attitudes emerging from certain states towards aspects of the convention. It is important that this matter is dealt with separately because the revamped convention on human rights is a distinct issue which the Houses of the Oireachtas should consider separately.

I am delighted that the Minister is establishing the human rights commission. I congratulate Mr. Justice Donal Barrington on becoming its president and wish him and its other members every success in their endeavours. Recent reports, like that of Amnesty International, examined human rights violations here. The commission will be able to consider such reports and ensure the end of human rights violations.

This body is an important guardian of an individual's rights and it is preferable that it be based here, rather than individuals appealing to Brussels or Strasbourg. We know of the difficulties which arose over the Treaty of Nice and the feeling of citizens that there is a disconnection between Europe and the member states, of which there is proof. Establishing a commission here is a move in the right direction and will make European matters more relevant in the long term.

The relationship between the commission here and that in Northern Ireland is important. The Minister must encourage close liaison between them. The level of human rights violation in Northern Ireland, and the continuing issues over the cases of Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane, is unsatisfactory. The commissions should support each other to ensure that justice is seen to be done, and that individuals' human rights are protected at all costs.

Mr. Justice Barrington assumes an important post and he and the commission must be adequately funded. It needs the necessary resources to be effective in taking up individual cases and addressing fundamental breaches of human rights. The Minister, as a member of the Government of a democratic republic where social and natural justice are priorities, must ensure that the proper resources are given to the commission. It must not be hindered or restricted because of inadequate funding.

Our written Constitution provides extensive protection for individuals. Nevertheless, in the past, people had to fight cases in the courts, here and in Europe, to get justice. Often they did not have the resources but were able to proceed only with the support of voluntary organisations and legal professionals. Such cases were major landmarks in establishing basic principles of human rights. This House should commend them for their work through the existing legal system. I hope that, in future, individuals will not have to follow this route because the commission will protect their rights and be amenable to them, instead of people having to go to court here and in Europe, which can be a heavy financial and personal burden.

I look forward to the Minister's returning to the House with the redrafted European Convention on Human Rights, about which he must have an open mind. Having attended European meetings, I am concerned about the fear and inhibition over the provision of what I classify as basic human rights. These should be available to ordinary people without question. I am surprised at the conservatism, caution and fear emanating from various governments and political parties, and shared by some Irish people. A right is a right. Everyone is entitled to basic natural and human justice without that being a major issue. It is a fundamental principle that all open minded, democratic republics should accept as a hallmark of what their society and Government stand for. The Minister must not be cautious over this matter but be big in heart and mind in addressing the issue. Now that he has introduced legislation establishing the commission, he should adopt a bold attitude towards the Convention on Human Rights.

Fine Gael fully supports the Bill and I wish Mr. Justice Barrington and his colleagues every success in their work. I welcome this important, if late, development.

I welcome the Minister to the House. He introduces this Bill at a difficult time for the Good Friday Agreement, which was a major factor in its introduction. We should wish him well and all concerned with that important work over the next few weeks.

Ireland has a proud history in the human rights field. This morning, in Skerries, I met Mary McGee. Senators will recall the McGee case in the 1970s, which was the precursor of a succession of cases brought by Irish people to Europe. Josie Earley was another in the legal aid area and our own colleague, Senator Norris, had a very celebrated case. They were all in a long tradition of Irish people asserting their rights.

The names of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson should also be mentioned as strong defenders of human rights. Senator Taylor-Quinn mentioned them and we look forward to real solutions and information emerging as to the precise nature of their deaths. There is a deep rooted philosophy of care for human rights innate in the vast majority of people on this island and long may that continue.

It is unfortunate that in the last couple of days we have seen the most basic denial of human rights with the murder of the young man in Northern Ireland. The spurious reason offered for the murder was the election of members of a certain party to certain positions in Northern Ireland. It is a sad day when the simple exercise of the democratic process has such an awful con sequence for a totally innocent individual. That is not to say that the taking of life at any time is justified. The attempt to justify such a brutal deed in this manner only serves to exacerbate the situation and rubs salt in the wound to everybody involved in the democratic process, whether those who vote or those involved in the legislatures of either part of the island.

There is a duty on this Legislature to legislate for human rights and we are involved in this very process this morning. There is also a duty on the whole population to implement in their daily lives the spirit of human rights. An unfortunate trend in this country is that with the growth of materialism and the significant improvement in lifestyle and creature comforts there appears to be a growing reliance on the Legislature and on this famous third person plural "they" to do something about it. There is a growing tendency towards abdication of the role of the individual in democracy. One particular example comes to mind.

The provision of wheelchair spaces at supermarkets and public places is something I have been conscious of for a number of years because two close friends are in wheelchairs as a result of tragic accidents. The number of times that one sees perfectly able bodied people taking those places and denying the basic right of access to a fellow citizen never ceases to amaze me. Recently I saw a high profile commercial vehicle with a logo emblazoned on the side occupy one of these places within 400 yards of this House. I was delighted to see the clampers arrive to deal with it. This serves to underline my point that there is a basic lack of consideration in our daily lives for the human rights of our fellow citizens.

That human right is regardless of accent, language, creed, colour or nationality. We are all aware that this is an emerging difficulty and is something we must work at, be conscious of and be positive about. We cannot leave it to the agencies of enforcement to deal with. They should only be necessary as a last resort. In a fully fledged democracy each individual should be in a position to deal with it on their own behalf. They should also be the guardian of the weak and ensure that there is no inhibition or disruption of the rights of a weaker individual at the hands of a bully. Bullying is something we tend to talk about in the context of schools or the workplace but there is bullying in the streets and it is up to each individual to look out for and assert the right of their neighbour. While it is our duty to legislate there is a duty on each individual member of the population to look out for his or her weaker neighbour.

We in this country have a proud tradition of dealing with human rights. In dealing with its history I should refer to the role of Amnesty International, which has been involved through the years in asserting the rights of the individual. I have been an active supporter of Amnesty International over the years but their recent advertising campaign was a source of considerable regret to me and to people in and outside the House. I raised the matter in the House and with Amnesty itself but its response was not particularly satisfactory. If we rely on institutions of State to protect the human rights of individuals it is vital that those institutions and the people who operate them be respected and, within the bounds of fair comment, that respect should be encouraged at all times.

The recent Amnesty International campaign went beyond the bounds of fair comment. It personalised the campaign in a most unnecessary manner and Amnesty International itself and the cause it espouses will be the loser as a result. The campaign was counter productive. It is ironic when we have an organisation dedicated to respect the individual pursuing an advertising campaign based on the denigration of other individuals. It went beyond the bounds of fair comment and is to be regretted. It was a cheap shot which I hope will not be repeated.

I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill and for the huge tranche of legislation which he has introduced since his appointment four years ago. He is responsible for in excess of 30% of all legislation in the life of this Government. He used this House to initiate much of it and we thank him for that. I wish him well on his well-deserved holiday in August. Contrary to popular opinion, he is not going on holiday today.

I welcome the Bill as anything that expands human rights on this island is to be welcomed. The extension of the Human Rights Commission from nine members to 15 is desirable, although it would have been better if the numbers were right originally. Following representations from various interest groups and organisations, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has acknowledged that the commission should be represented by a wider spectrum of interests. It is important that society is, as far as possible, fully reflected on the commission so that every breach of human rights can be investigated. For the first time, a body has been established by the State on a statutory basis to espouse, promote and examine human rights in Ireland, as catered for in the Good Friday Agreement.

We have been slow in getting the commission up and running. The European Convention on Human Rights Bill, 2001, ground to a halt on Committee Stage earlier this week as many interest groups who wished to make presentations did not have time to do so. As a result, the Minister for Justice has to introduce this short amendment Bill to increase the numbers on the Human Rights Commission. A huge amount of work remains, including the receipt of submissions on Committee Stage during the next Dáil session. Every human rights body and voluntary body working in this area should be allowed to have a say and to have their submissions examined by a committee of the Oireachtas.

The establishment of the Human Rights Commission has been a good effect of the Good Friday Agreement in this jurisdiction. Many people think that human rights infringements on this island only take place in the North, as the world was presented with such a view over many years. The upholding of human rights and the establishment of a commission to ensure that human rights are respected are equally applicable in both jurisdictions. The commissions will have an enormous impact. Much of the work in this area has been done by voluntary organisations like Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and prisoners' rights organisations, with whom I was involved in years gone by. The fact that the State has a statutory obligation to uphold civil rights makes us a mature society and only good can flow from that.

The operation of the Human Rights Commission will depend to a large extent on existing legislation and will be made difficult by our failure to ratify certain international conventions and legislate for certain areas of human rights. This Bill will ensure that the constitutional and statutory provisions that have been made will operate for the benefit of citizens and that human rights are not infringed upon. I presume the commission will produce annual reports and I look forward to reading them to see to what extent the measures and requirements under its remit are being implemented. I welcome the Bill and I look forward to seeing the European Convention on Human Rights Bill, 2001, signed into law in the next session.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on the Bill, which we should facilitate as quickly as possible. It is great to have a two-clause Bill as it restricts the temptation to engage widely in rhetoric. It is important we ensure that the Government honours its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and that we facilitate co-operation with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Although I wish to make some brief remarks on human rights and their treatment, I will save most of my thoughts for the debate on the European Convention on Human Rights Bill, 2001.

I am sometimes worried by the flow of rhetoric produced by human rights. It is easy to speak of fundamental rights and to ask what is a right or what is natural law. It is not intended that the Human Rights Commission will pursue justice in the same manner as a Government. I am delighted Mr. Justice Barrington has consented to chair the commission, as I have huge respect for his experience and knowledge in this field. He will keep the commission focused on its terms of reference. It is important that the public is educated to accept a climate of rights, as Senator Glennon said. Those who need to take important test cases to court should be supported by the commission, but we should not require it to do any more than that.

We must not believe that the Human Rights Commission will cure all ills. It cannot deal with the weaknesses in distributive justice, in the political system through which policy decisions are made and resources are allocated and in the criminal justice system. To believe that the commission can do so is to do a disservice to fundamental human rights that need to be dealt with in a proper manner. We need to build an appreciation of equity and of what is fair and just. The attitude to be adopted is summarised by Seamus Heaney in his recent collection of poems, Electric Light: “‘Who is my neighbour?' ‘My neighbour is all mankind'”. We should tackle human rights in that way without expecting the commission to do everything.

Reference has been made to the cases of the lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, both of whom I knew and respected. Their deaths were crimes and are matters for criminal investigation so that criminals can be brought to justice. If that fails, we may need to do other things, but I suggest that we do human rights a disservice by suggesting it can cure all ills. It is important that the capacity of the Human Rights Commission to deal with certain matters is not wider than its grasp. I have great confidence in the members of the commission, including Mr. Justice Barrington, and in Professor Bryce Dickson, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It is important that we allow the commissions on both sides of the Border to get on with their jobs. I commend the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on bringing forward this Bill.

I thank Senators Taylor-Quinn, Costello, Hayes and Glennon for their contributions. I am particularly pleased they welcomed the legislation. It is significant that Senator Hayes, who has a deep involvement in the Northern situation, should have welcomed the fact Professor Bryce Dickson and Mr. Justice Donal Barrington have consented to act as leaders of the respective commissions. I agree this is of immense importance. It is essential that those at the head of the commission should have vast experience and, as Senator Hayes said, both these people are experienced.

This is an important departure in Irish life. It means that for the first time the State will have a human rights commission which will interact with the Northern commission. In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights will be incorporated into Irish law for the first time in the autumn. The reason this legislation was separated from the legislation incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights is, as Senator Costello said, that the select committee dealing with it wishes to hear submissions from various interest groups.

It would have been easy to steamroll the legislation through the Houses and guillotine it but such legislation should not be guillotined. It is of crucial importance that there should be a broad consensus, not just in the Houses but across society in regard to the structures which will be utilised to enforce human rights. In that context, there has been a great degree of unanimity thus far among political representatives, non-governmental organisations and others involved in the human rights field as to how we should proceed.

It is important this is not breached and that inclusivity should be the touchstone of legislation dealing with human rights in the State, whether it is the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, this legislation or the upcoming Bill incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights. I sincerely hope we will be able to maintain that level of consensus. There are varying views as to how the incorporation of the convention should take place. I have set out my stall on behalf of the Government. There are others who believe incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights should be more expansive but I hold a different view.

We are in a position where the State is subject to the Constitution and there are no circumstances under which we can seek or hope to circumvent it through the European Convention on Human Rights. It will be a difficult balance to strike. Various groups will make submissions and it will be difficult in the autumn to maintain the consensus to date. We will try our best to do so because we are dealing with an issue of fundamental human rights and it is important that a degree of unanimity should be maintained.

Nonetheless, it has been so far, so good. The commission, following the enactment of the legislation, will be up and running on a statutory basis, which is of considerable importance in terms of pointing the way forward. I thank Members who contributed constructively to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.