Human Rights Commission Bill, 1999: Second Stage.
Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. D. Wallace): The origins of the Human Rights Commission Bill, 1999, can be traced back to a number of separate but ultimately convergent strands. The first such strand is the 1996 report of the Constitution Review Group, established by the Government on 27 April 1995, pages 435 to 439 of which are devoted to a broad discussion on the subject of whether it is desirable that provision be made in the Constitution for the establishment of a human rights body or commission, the principal task of which would be to keep a watching brief on the development of human rights against the background of the need for a possible revision of the fundamental rights Articles, 40 to 44, in the Constitution in light of modern human rights norms.
The Constitution Review Group noted that human rights commissions of a general kind existed in a number of a European and western democracies. Since the publication of its report many such commissions have come into existence. As it happens the Northern Ireland commission, established in March 1999, is the first such institution in this part of the world. Its work and that of the commission to be established under the provisions of the Bill will be keenly watched in the devolved areas of the United Kingdom, mainly in Wales and Scotland, and elsewhere in Europe. Human rights commissions have also been established in Canada, Mexico, South Africa, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. It will be clear from these examples that, while this type of human rights supervisory institution is regarded as necessary in the emerging democracies, particularly where there has been a history of civil and political unrest, they are also a feature of well established and pluralist democracies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In its final analysis a majority of the Constitution Review Group considered that a human rights commission should be established in the State to maintain an overview of the extent to which human rights are protected at constitutional and legal level, to assess the adequacy of this protection, to make recommendations to Government for the better protection of these rights as appropriate, to take constitutional actions on behalf of individual citizens or the public at large in appropriate circumstances and to have the right to intervene as anamicus curiae in some constitutional actions involving human rights. It was also the preferred view of the group that the commission should have a legislative rather than a constitutional status, at least in the short term.
The second strand derives from the level of interest shown in the development of human rights institutions, in particular by the United Nations, which has adopted a number of important texts and recommendations in this area. The principal document relates to the status of national human rights institutions adopted in Paris in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly, better known as the Paris Principles, which may be regarded as a blueprint or framework for states to follow in the establishment of such a body. They leave a great deal of discretion to states with regard to the competencies and powers of human rights commissions but lay down certain fundamental requirements, namely, that they should have as broad a mandate as possible in promoting and protecting human rights, including the power to make recommendations to Government and the power to investigate and report on violations of human rights. They also emphasise that such commissions should be independent of Government, pluralist and representative of society as a whole and have secure and adequate funding so as not to be subject to any Government or financial control which would be such as to affect that independence. In essence, the principles affirm that national institutions such as human rights commissions should be vested with competence to promote and protect human rights and given as broad a mandate as possible set out clearly in either a constitutional or legislative text.
According to the principles a national institution shall,inter alia, have the following responsibilities: (i) to submit recommendations, proposals and reports on any matter relating to human rights, including legislative and administrative provisions and any violation of human rights, to the Government, Parliament and any other competent body; (ii) to promote conformity of national laws and practices with international human rights standards; (iii) to encourage ratification and implementation of international standards; (iv) to contribute to the reporting procedure under international instruments; (v) to assist in formulating and executing human rights teaching and research programmes and to increase public awareness of human rights through information and education, and (vi) to co-operate with the United Nations, regional institutions and national institutions of other countries.
Also in 1993 the World Conference on Human Rights adopted the Vienna Declaration and programme of action which,inter alia, encouraged the establishment and strengthening of national human rights institutions having particular regard to the Paris Principles. For its part, the Council of Europe has adopted several relevant recommendations in this area, of which the most recent is R(97)14 of 30 September 1997 dealing with the establishment of such bodies.
The third strand or element is the developments which led to the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998 in the context of the culmination of the work of the Irish and British Governments and the parties involved in the Northern Ireland talks. Under the Agreement both Governments agreed to establish human rights commissions in their respective jurisdictions. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was established on 1 March 1999 under the relevant provisions of the Northern Ireland Act, 1998. The Bill seeks to establish a commission in the State as provided for in the Agreement which will have a mandate and remit equivalent with that of its Northern Ireland counterpart.
Although agreement was reached on this matter in 1998, it may be worth placing the human rights aspects generally in context by going back to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Many of the themes dealt with in that Agreement were to recur throughout the development of the peace process in Northern Ireland. In the human rights area in particular the Intergovernmental Conference established under the Agreement was intended to provide a forum for both Governments to co-operate, among other things, on accommodating the "rights and identities of the two traditions in Northern Ireland", specifically promoting respect for human rights and preventing discrimination. Some of the matters which had to be addressed included the cultural heritage of the two traditions, electoral arrangements, flags and emblems, economic and social discrimination and consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It is clear that while action in this area was mainly concerned with Northern Ireland, the Agreement also stated that the Irish Government was not excluded in respect of the possible application of any of the measures in question in its jurisdiction, notably in relation to communal rights. The next step was the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 in which reference was made to "full respect for the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland", not just Northern Ireland. The Framework Document adopted by the two Governments in 1995 again referred to the all-Ireland dimension. In 1996 the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation commissioned and published a consultancy study of the protection of human rights in the context of peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
These are the various strands which, when interwoven, led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and its joint approach to human rights issues. It is against that wider background that the Taoiseach's comments in December 1998 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights can be viewed. He stated that the commission to be established in the jurisdiction will be a model for others to follow and that it will lead, rather than follow, the best standards of international best practice in this area.
The Bill is the product of much thought and reflection. From the beginning the Government has endeavoured to present a Bill which reflects a consensus on the part of all interested groups as to what the role and functions of the commission should be.
The general scheme of the Bill was laid before the Dáil and Seanad and considered in detail by the Joint Committee on the Constitution and the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights. The report of the latter committee was published on 17 June 1999 and is a valuable source of information and reference on the subject matter of the Bill. The general scheme of the Bill was also considered by many of the non-governmental organisations working in the area of human rights which made valuable contributions and submissions on its contents to the Department and the joint committees to which I have referred. Among those groups were the free legal advice centres, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, Combat Poverty Agency, Pavee Point Travellers Centre, National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism and Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas. We have also taken account of the views of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and discussed the proposals with the special adviser for national human rights institutions in that office and distinguished members of the Australian and New Zealand human rights commissions.
Our proposals were also discussed with our British and Northern Ireland counterparts in the context of the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act, 1998. It is with great sadness that the Minister recalls that one of the chief British officials dealing with the matter and who offered valuable advice and assistance in this and other related matters, Mr. Tony Beeton, was one of the victims of the Paddington rail tragedy last year.
The Bill received detailed attention during its passage through the other House on both Committee and Report Stages and was amended in several important respects. I shall outline the position in this regard later in my speech.
Given the Government's commitment to equivalence with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, I would like to refer briefly to the legislative provisions outlined in the Northern Ireland Act, 1998, which relate to it. The Northern Ireland commission, which came into existence on 1 March this year, has ten members including a chief commissioner, all of whom have been appointed initially for a term of three years, and it is expressed to be representative of the community in Northern Ireland. It is independent of Government and has a vastly extended role beyond that exercised by the former Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights, the body which preceded it.
I wish to go through some of the main provisions in the Government's Bill. Section 1 is the usual interpretative provision and really does not call for any further comment, except that it was amended on Report Stage in the Dáil to include in the second paragraph of the section a reference to a resolution of either House of the Oireachtas. The purpose behind this change was not to limit the scope of the definition simply to enactments.
Section 2 is an important provision as it sets out the jurisdiction, so to speak, of the commission. In accordance with the Paris Principles and the UN guidelines, virtually all its work will be founded on the human rights in the Constitution or in the various international human rights instruments to which the State is a party. That list is quite extensive and for the information of Senators I have appended it to copies of my speech. The information in the list reflects the position in 1996 and since then we have ratified the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities. We should be in a position soon to ratify both the UN Convention on Torture and the Convention on Racial Discrimination. Consideration is also being given by the Government to the taking on board of the 1996 Revised Social Charter. Furthermore, arising out of the Government's decision on 18 April last in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, it is the intention to legislate for incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law by October next. There is one exception to this broad remit and it is contained in section 11 of the Bill which I will deal with in a moment.
Sections 3 and 4 are the establishment provisions. Section 5 deals with the membership of the commission. Section 5(2) is a new provision inserted on Report Stage of the Bill in the Dáil which underscores the evenness of gender representations in the ranks of commission membership. The commission will consist of a president and eight other members who will all have a background or expertise in human rights issues. To underscore this fact the members, who will be appointed by the Government, will be selected on the basis of possessing such relevant experience, qualifications, training or expertise as, in the opinion of the Government, is appropriate having particular regard to the functions of the commission. Members will hold office for a period not exceeding five years and will be eligible for re-appointment for a further term not exceeding five years. The section also sets out the provisions to be followed in the event that a person who holds judicial office in the superior courts is appointed to be president of the commission. The Bill differs from the general scheme in this respect, in that a judicial appointment for the presidency of the commission is now an option to be considered by the Government, not a requirement. Sections 5(4) and 5(5) are technical and consequential provisions in the event that the Government decides to appoint a judge as president of the commission. They are included merely because they are necessary in that event; they are not binding in any way as the Government has an open mind on the issue.
The qualifying criteria applicable to the members of the commission are widely drawn so as to embrace the whole range of persons who may have experience in the area covered by the human rights commission. In this regard the Paris Principles emphasise the importance of pluralism in the composition of human rights commissions. They suggest that representatives from non-governmental organisations, trade unions, professional organisations and trends in social and religious thought as well as, possibly, parliamentary or Government officials could be appointed to such bodies. In the case of the latter two categories their appointment would be in an advisory or observational capacity only. It is clear that the overriding consideration is that appointees should have strong human rights credentials and be persons of integrity, experience, imagination and commitment. The composition of the commission will be crucial to its credibility and ultimately its success. The Government will take great pains to ensure that it gets this right.
As further evidence of this, section 5(12) provides that the Government, in making any appointments under this section, must have regard to the need to ensure that membership of the commission reflects the nature of Irish society. It is similar to a provision in the Northern Ireland Act, 1998, in so far as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is concerned.
Section 6 provides that where the number of ordinary judges of the High Court or the Supreme Court fails to be determined for the purpose of any enactment which makes provision with respect to the number of such judges, the operation of section 5(5) of the Act – which provides that where a person who holds judicial office is appointed as president of the commission, the number of ordinary judges may be exceeded by one – shall be taken account of in making that determination. This is a technical provision and it is applicable only in the event that the Government decides to appoint a judge of the superior courts to be president of the commission or any other body in the future. The Bill allows the Government to appoint the president of the commission from as wide a pool of candidates as possible.
With regard to section 7, an earlier part of section 7 dealing with the exclusion from membership of the commission of Members of the Oireachtas and European Parliament was removed by amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil. Section 7 now provides that a member of the commission can be disqualified from holding office if he or she is adjudged bankrupt or convicted on indictment and sentenced to imprisonment. The Government may dismiss a member of the commission if he or she has, without reasonable excuse, failed to discharge his or her function for a continuous period of three months, has been convicted of a criminal offence, is unfit to carry out his or her function or for any other stated reason. These are the usual provisions which are applicable in the case of membership of bodies appointed under statute.
Section 8 deals with the functions of the human rights commission and, as such, it is the core provision in the Bill. I propose to give the commission as wide a remit as possible in keeping with the Government's commitment to equivalence with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, as stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement. My proposals are fully in keeping with the Government's obligations under the Agreement. I am satisfied that they meet and possible exceed the criteria for national human rights institutions as set out in the Paris Principles.
The main functions of the commission will be to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in the State relating to the protection of human rights; if requested by a Minister of Government, to examine any legislat ive proposals and report its views on the implications for human rights – this provision was inserted by a Report Stage amendment to take account of the debate on the point on Committee Stage; to consult with national and international bodies as it sees fit; to make recommendations to Government, either of its own volition or on being requested, on measures to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights in the State; to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights and for those purposes to undertake or sponsor research and educational activities; to conduct such inquiries as it considers necessary or expedient; to prepare and publish reports on any research or inquiries conducted by it; to appear asamicus curiae on application to the High Court or the Supreme Court in proceedings before those courts that involve or concern human rights; to establish and participate in the joint North-South committee of representatives drawn from the commissions in both jurisdictions; to provide legal and other assistance, and to institute proceedings for the purpose of obtaining relief of a declaratory or other nature in respect of any matter concerning the human rights of any person of class or persons.
For the purpose of conducting inquiries the Government is proposing to give the commission specific powers to obtain information and documents relevant to the matter being inquired into. This step is indicative of the Government's commitment to give the commission a powerful and independent pro-active role in relation to the defence of human rights. While the Northern Ireland Act does give the Northern Ireland commission powers of investigation, it does not yet have the ancillary power to compel witnesses to attend before it or produce books, documents or other evidence. However, the Minister is sure that this matter will receive further attention in the context of the two year review of the commission's work. In this respect, the requirement of equivalence for both commissions, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, will be exceeded in this jurisdiction. However, as the Minister has indicated, he is of the view that the Agreement represents the minimum that is required and I shall set out these inquiry powers when I come to section 9.
The Government is proposing that the commission be given the role ofamicus curiae in human rights litigation in constitutional cases in the superior courts. This is a novel provision in Irish law. Amicus curiae literally means a friend of the court and the provision will allow the commission to appear before a court in proceedings where the court may find the commission's knowledge and expertise useful. The Minister proposes to allow the commission to apply to the High Court or the Supreme Court for liberty to appear before the court. Such appearances, however, will always be at the discretion of the court.
In this regard, the Minister's thinking has been influenced by the comments of the Constitution Review Group in its 1996 report, page 439, that consideration might be given to conferring such a role upon the commission. He has also noted that while the legislation setting up the Northern Ireland commission does not specifically provide that it can intervene in human rights cases before the courts as anamicus curiae, the commission itself has interpreted its powers as meaning that it can prepare such cases and it has been involved in quite a few such cases.
Section 9 provides that the commission may conduct an inquiry of its own volition if it considers it necessary or expedient to do so for the purpose of the performance of any of its functions under section 8 or, subject to certain conditions, at the request of any person. The section also confers on the commission a specific power to require the production of documents/information backed up, if necessary, by a Circuit Court order, with necessary safeguards for legal professional privilege and incrimination. Provision is being made that the inquiry may be conducted in public or in private as the commission, at its discretion, considers appropriate.
The section also provides that the commission can decide not to conduct an inquiry, or discontinue an inquiry which has commenced, where the matter concerned is trivial or vexatious or manifestly unfounded, where the person making the request has an insufficient interest in the matter or the matter concerned could more appropriately be dealt with by the institution of legal proceedings or the making of an application to a tribunal or other person in whom are vested powers to award redress or grant relief in respect of the matter.
A relevant consideration at this point is a possible complaint relating to discrimination or an issue of equality. The provisions of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, are now in operation and the provisions of the Equal Status Act should be brought into effect soon. The Equality Agency and the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations have extensive powers to deal with cases of this type so it makes no sense for the human rights commission to conduct parallel inquiries in the same area. Similarly, where a disputed matter involves an area covered by the Ombudsman, the Information Commissioner, the Data Protection Commissioner or the Garda Síochána Complaints Board, the intention is that the human rights commission will refer the applicant to the appropriate statutory agency. However, that is not to say the commission will not have any role with regard to matters dealt with by other statutory agencies. It may, for instance, wish to satisfy itself about procedures or administrative practices or it may adopt a systemic approach in such matters. It could also get involved if it considered that an issue properly the concern of one of those bodies had not been addressed or properly determined. However, the commission will not be a court of appeal over the decisions of these bodies.
Section 9(18) of this section was amended on Report Stage in the Dáil to provide that the application by the commission to the Circuit Court can be made where the respondent carries on his or her business rather than having him or her travel to Dublin to deal with the matter raised by the commission, as originally proposed.
Section 10 provides that a person can apply to the commission for legal or other assistance in relation to proceedings involving law or practice relating to the protection of human rights. The assistance could be in the form of the provision of legal advice, legal representation or such other assistance as the commission deems appropriate. The commission can decide to provide assistance on the grounds that the matter raises a question of principle, that it would be unreasonable to expect the person to deal with the matter concerned without assistance because of its complexity or for any other reason, or that there are special circumstances which make it appropriate for the commission to grant such assistance. The commission may decide not to grant assistance in circumstances where such assistance could be obtained under existing legal aid schemes or powers to award redress or grant relief in relation to the matter to which the proceedings relate stand vested in any tribunal or other person and the matter could, in the opinion of the commission, be more effectively or conveniently dealt with by that tribunal or other person.
Section 11 provides that the commission may institute proceedings in any court of competent jurisdiction for the purpose of obtaining relief of a declaratory or other nature in respect of any matter concerning the human rights of any person or class of persons. For the purposes of this section, human rights is defined as:
the rights, liberties and freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to, persons by the Constitution, and the rights, liberties or freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to, persons by any agreement, treaty or convention to which the State is a party and which has been given the force of law in the State or by a provision of any such agreement, treaty or convention which has been given such force.
For the purposes of this section it has been necessary for constitutional reasons to formulate a definition of human rights which is somewhat more restrictive than the definition set out in section 2 of the Bill. This is simply because declaratory relief can only be sought in relation to provisions which have force of law in the State. In this respect, it is not sufficient for Ireland to be merely a party to an international instrument, it must also have incorporated the relevant provisions into domestic law in accordance with constitutional requirements to comply with the provisions of Articles 15 and 29.5 of the Constitution. When we incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law the convention will then be covered by the definition in section 11 and, accordingly, the provisions of the convention may then be relied on in cases before the Irish courts.
Sections 12 and 13 provide that there will be a chief executive of the commission who will manage and control the staff, administration and business of the commission. The chief executive will be responsible to the commission for the performance of his or her functions and the implementation of the commission's policies. The Minister regards this type of appointment as absolutely essential for the proper and efficient operation and day-to-day management of the commission.
Section 14 provides that the chief executive will, whenever required to do so by the Committee of Public Accounts, give evidence on the commission's financial and other transactions. Section 15 provides that the chief executive will also attend before any other committee of the Oireachtas to give account for the general administration of the commission. The chief executive will not, however, be required to give account before a committee for any matter which is, has been or may at a future time be the subject of proceedings before a court or tribunal.
Section 16 provides for the keeping of accounts by the commission. Section 17 provides for the appointment of staff and section 18 provides for the remuneration of such staff. Section 19 provides for the performance of the commission's functions by any member of staff duly authorised. Section 20 provides for the superannuation of staff and section 21 provides for a seal of the commission. Section 22 provides for the payment of a grant to the commission. As a matter of administrative convenience and in order to comply with Government accounting instructions and procedures, it is proposed to channel the grant payable to the commission through the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Section 23 provides for the commission to publish an annual report.
Section 24 is very important and provides for a review of the effectiveness of the commission within two years of establishment. There is a similar provision in the case of the Northern Ireland commission. It should be noted that the initiative in this regard is vested in the commission and not in the Government. The purpose behind the provision is to allow any adjustment to be made in the provisions governing the commission's remit and functions in light of a reasonable period of operation having elapsed.
Section 25 provides for the expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the Act, as sanctioned by the Minister for Finance, to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 26 provides that the Act may be cited as the Human Rights Commission Act, 1999.
This Bill, when enacted, will form an important part of the constitutional and legal landscape in the State in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms. It will ensure that the human rights commission will be responsible for the promotion, protection and development of human rights in the State. In an all-Ireland context, the commission will have a crucial role to play, through the work of the joint committee which is to be established in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, in leading to the drawing up of a charter, open to signature by all democratic political parties, reflecting and endorsing agreed measures of protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland.
However, the development of human rights and the fostering of a human rights culture will not be achieved solely through the enactment of protective laws and the creation of mechanisms to implement those laws. The twin tasks of promoting awareness and educating about human rights are also vital. I am reminded of what Eleanor Roosevelt said in this regard when she posed the question, "When, after all, do human rights begin?". Her answer was, "In small places close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity and equal dignity without discrimination." The Government can think of no more appropriate mission statement for the human rights commission to be established under the provisions of this Bill.
I am delighted that after such a prolonged delay this significant legislation has come before the Seanad. It was instructive to note the comment of Mr. John Taylor, the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, a week ago when he was under pressure from the media to explain his party's ground shifting and footwork, blowing hot and cold in response to the IRA statement on arms decommissioning. He defended his position by saying there was much bad faith around. To illustrate the bad faith, he pointed out that the Irish Government had failed to ratify the human rights commission which was part of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a valid point. He also drew our attention to the fact that the British Government enacted the legislation for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission more than a year ago.
I welcome the Bill. I sit on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which, aside from the United Nations, conducts the most far reaching and comprehensive human rights agenda in the world. In the 50 years of the existence of the Council of Europe it has been to the forefront, not just in the European context but worldwide, in promoting the civil and other rights of every human being, defining human rights, promoting human rights law and ensuring that member states adopt these laws and give example to other nations to develop and promote good human rights laws and practices.
It is regrettable that this country is almost alone among the 41 members of the Council of Europe in not ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. Britain is about to do so. Norway and Ireland are the only other countries which have not. It is doubly regrettable that the Government has shown no enthusiasm to ratify the convention despite Ireland currently holding the presidency of the Council of Europe. The new members of the Council of Europe, namely, the nations of central and eastern Europe which were formerly members of the communist bloc and new states such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which were formerly members of the Soviet Union, have ratified the convention into domestic law.
The Minister says the incorporation process raises complex and constitutional legal issues which are a major problem. In the Dáil he pointed out that one of the outcomes of the most recent meeting between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister was an undertaking to incorporate the convention into domestic law in both countries by the end of this year. There is no doubt about the British intent in this regard. The legislation has been passed by the British Parliament but royal assent has been delayed because there is not yet sufficient staff to deal with it. What preparatory work has been done in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on drafting a Bill to ratify the convention? The honest answer is probably nothing.
The Minister has every reason to delay making the convention part of domestic legislation. The convention is strong on the right to liberty and security, that there be no punishment without law, the prevention of restrictions on political activity by aliens and the procedural safeguards relating to the expulsion of aliens. The Minister is due to introduce fresh amendments to the recently passed and controversial immigration legislation which will give him a new range of draconian powers to expel and deport migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The last thing he will want is an unfortunate Romanian refugee or asylum seeker seeking to defend and vindicate his refugee or asylum rights in an Irish court by using the convention and its protocols as part of Irish law to vindicate those rights and possibly win his case. However, that fight is for another day.
Nevertheless, I warn the Minister that if he comes to the Seanad seeking new powers above those he has already to throw out asylum seekers, refugees and migrants or, in the phrase of Deputy Healy-Rae, "to show them the road", he will be opposed vigorously by these benches. Any draconian measure he proposes will be tested mercilessly against the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention on the Rights of Refugees and Asylum Seekers. While we may not win the votes in the House, we will win the arguments.
The Bill is excellent. It is much improved as a result of the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. The committee examined the legislation in detail and heard submissions from various interests and NGOs in the human rights area. The concerns raised in these submissions are reasonably well reflected in the Bill. I compli ment the Members of the Dáil who also contributed to improving the Bill before it came to the Seanad.
Section 8 is the core section of the Bill. It deals with the functions of the commission, which are
(a) to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in the State relating to the protection of human rights,
(b) if requested by a Minister of the Government, to examine any legislative proposal and report its views on any implications of such proposal for human rights,
(c) to consult with national and international bodies or agencies having a knowledge or expertise in the field of human rights as it sees fit,
(d) either of its own volition or on being requested to do so by the Government, to make such recommendations to the Government as it deems appropriate in relation to the measures which the Commission considers should be taken to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights in the State,
(e) to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights in the State and, for those purposes, to undertake, sponsor or commission, or provide financial or other assistance for, research and educational activities,
(f) to conduct enquiries under and in accordance with section 9, [section 9 is an important section which gives broad powers to the commission to conduct inquiries,]
(g) to prepare and publish, in such manner as it thinks fit, reports on any research undertaken, sponsored, commissioned or assisted by it under paragraph (e) or in relation to enquiries referred to in paragraph (f).Another function of the commission is to appear at the discretion of the court before the High Court or the Supreme Court as amicus curiae, or friend of the court.
The commission is to take whatever action is necessary to establish and participate in the appropriate cross-Border body to be established under the Good Friday Agreement and to provide the type of legal assistance referred to in section 10 of the Bill. That is a liberal section in that it provides for legal assistance for people appearing before the commission or for people who have a human rights case to prosecute in the courts. These matters are liberally provided for in terms of free legal aid. The final function of the commission indicated is to institute legal proceedings under section 11, a broad and comprehensive section.
I support strongly the comprehensive and essential functions of the commission. Progressive policies in the implementation of human rights best practice must be based on healthy interac tion and, sometimes, tension between Government and civil society. There is now a new and unique element in the essential dynamic that produces good human rights observance and practice, a human rights commission.
Having an independent human rights commission interacting with Government and civil society is a most progressive step forward and we should be proud of it. We are among a small group of the world's nations who have pushed the human rights agenda so far forward within our boundaries. As was mentioned, only a handful of countries worldwide have independent human rights commissions operating within their boundaries which are part of their legal systems, so we ought to be proud of that. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and one or two others have gone as far as establishing commissions such as that which we are establishing under this legislation.
Our commission will have much to do. We cannot deny that racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance exist in this society. We need only look at the way fears can easily be drummed up in communities where temporary accommodation is being sought for refugees and asylum applicants as an example of the huge mountain we have to climb in terms of education, balanced information dissemination on the modern phenomena of rapid migration of people, the need to respect difference in people from other places and to accept the world is made up of many cultures. At the end of the day, all of us will get only a flicker of time on this planet. We should use our short time in the knowledge that we are all different in our own way but are all equal in what we inherit from this earth. The commission will, no doubt, see addressing the not inconsiderable level of intolerance and racism which exists in Ireland as an essential part of its existence.
The negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement saw the need for a separate independent human rights commission on both sides of the Border because the past 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland have shown us the depth of suspicion and, indeed, intolerance many people north of the Border have shown towards people south of the Border and vice versa and the lack of understanding of a cultural difference and the sheer intolerance of admittedly a minority in the Republic towards the Unionist position in Northern Ireland.
There is the terrible legacy of human rights abuses arising from the conflict in Northern Ireland – the barbarity of the paramilitary and sectarian murders on all sides and, almost as bad, the notorious abuses of civil and human rights carried out by government agencies like the army and police and, indeed, other arms of officialdom, principally in Northern Ireland, which drew the condemnation of the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights and NGOs like Amnesty International at various times during the conflict.
We, on this side of the Border, were not without blame. The conflict led to many human rights abuses in the Republic. We often showed an ambivalent attitude towards terrorism and many often expressed the view that terrorism was the way forward in Northern Ireland. Indeed, that ambivalence and sneaking regard for people using the bomb and bullet existed within the walls of Leinster House. Barely 20 years ago a Member of the other House, when speaking in that Chamber, offered the opinion that what Northern Ireland needed was guns, more guns and bags of guns. To my knowledge, that Member was not censured by the other House for his outburst simply because there was not a majority there to do so. Of course, it was unthinkable that his party at that time would have censured him or even remonstrated with him because in that year the party was about to fall under the leadership of a new green leader, Charles J. Haughey.
Nowadays we have echoes of a similar attitude but on a different issue in this House. The immigration, refugee and asylum issue has, in many ways, replaced Northern Ireland in touching public emotions in recent years. Again, public representatives are only too glad to make emotional, uninformed and thinly veiled racist comments on the issue which drums up fear among the community and which is nearly always baseless. It gives great comfort and encouragement to that small hard-core of racist activities in this country.
It is particularly reprehensible that within days of the recent outburst by a Member of the other House about showing the road to what he considers unwelcome visitors, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced that he is about to bring in a raft of new powers which are a contravention of the spirit, if not the letter, of the international human rights protection agreements we have signed and to which we are party. The measures he proposes to bring in will, effectively, show the road to unwelcome Romanians, Albanians, Kosovans, Bulgarians or Latvians who came to this country for the same reason hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women crossed the Atlantic or the Irish Sea over the last century or less seeking a better life in another country because their own country had failed them in regard to basic social and economic rights, which are human rights. For example, it failed to provide them with wages, pay them a sufficient amount to support a minimum standard of living, to provide equal pay for equal work and to provide equal opportunity in the workplace for advancement.
I remember the condemnation and the table thumping inside and outside this House less than 20 years ago about the denial of human rights in communist controlled countries in central and eastern Europe. The chief condemnation levelled against these regimes in central Europe was that they maintained closed borders and did not allow their people to travel abroad to make a new life. People were, effectively, prisoners in their own country.
An enormous amount of emotion was generated about that issue in this country and, I suppose, all over what we called the West in those days, but then everything changed. The so-called Iron Curtain fell and the Berlin Wall was pulled down. People from former communist countries were free to travel and seek a better life abroad because the transition from the command economy to a free market system in places like Romania, Bulgaria and Albania destroyed tens of thousands of traditional jobs. These countries, which are members of the European family, were too poor to provide social support or a social safety net. The jobless people and those who were made redundant naturally moved and migrated. We know all about that. The unfortunate people in such circumstances are inclined, like the Irish were when they went to America, to migrate to a zone of the world where they feel they can live and work in a culture compatible or reasonably compatible with their own.
People from central and eastern Europe, including minorities like Roma people, who are forced to migrate rightly feel they are part of what we call western civilisation and the greater European culture. They are right to feel that because that is exactly what they are. Yet when a relatively small number of them arrive on our shores, the Government does everything, despite all the table thumping about human rights and the denial of the right to travel 20 years ago or less, to make them uncomfortable and unwelcome.
The Taoiseach chose to attack these people from Australia by expressing his liking for the Australian style of detention centres for refugees and asylum seekers. There is no such thing as these detention centres in Australia. It was a nice side of the mouth comment by the Taoiseach at which he is very good. He is sending those who get their information from the worst elements of the tabloid press on the refugee issue the message that he clearly understands their feelings on the issue. The Minister then threatens to lock them up in old disused Army barracks – the type of building which would, no doubt, not pass a fitness test to house livestock. The last try on was detaining them off shore in every kind of tub, boat or ship which could be pressed into service. Then there was the inflammatory mouthing of a couple of TDs.
The Senator has gone over the top. I have given him good leeway. I ask the Senator to conclude.
I will conclude. We must always be vigilant about human rights. At no time has there been more progress on the promotion of human rights and establishing legal frameworks to protect them, but at no time have there been greater abuses of human rights. Countries all over the world which have signed these ten conventions of the United Nations—
I must interrupt the Senator. He has gone long over time and I cannot allow him any more. He has got a lot of overtime.
I thank you for your indulgence. I would like to mention a statement made by a Lutheran pastor to the Nuremberg trials. He said the Nazis first came for the communists, but he did not speak up because he was not a communist; then they came for the Jews, but he did not speak up because he was not a Jew; then they came for the trade unionists, but he did not speak up because he was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Catholics, but he did not speak up because he was not a Catholic; and then they came for him, but by that time there was no one left to speak for anyone.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, who is ably deputising for the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue. I listened with great interest to Senator Connor's contribution. I would not want the message to go out from the House that we are lackadaisical on the issue of human rights. As I have stated in the House before, I am satisfied the position of this State in regard to human rights is second to none in Europe and one of the best in the world, despite our not ratifying the convention. I am satisfied this country has an excellent record in that regard.
We should put all the pieces of the jigsaw together, in terms of all the excellent work that has been done over the past 20 years by various Governments and leaders. First, we had the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, spearheaded by Dr. Garret FitzGerald, which was, in essence, a foundation stone of the current Agreement. Subsequently, we had the Downing Street Declaration in 1993. That evolved into the Framework Document in 1995. Next, we had the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in 1996, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
I want to put on record the tremendous work done by various leaders and Ministers, including Ministers for Justice and Foreign Affairs, often in very frustrating circumstances where it appeared they were beating their heads against a wall. These include Garret FitzGerald, Charles Haughey, Deputy Albert Reynolds and Deputy John Bruton. The Taoiseach went to the North on the day he buried his mother to take part in very painstaking and difficult negotiations. He was ably assisted by people like Deputy Andrews, who is a colossus on the international scene in terms of his commitment to the peace process, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, who was very helpful in the negotiations, and others.
While Senator Connor often takes a critical view of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, he has done tremendous work throughout the negotiations and continues to do so. Almost 40% of all legislation introduced in either House in 1999 came from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That Department and the Mini ster have done tremendous work on important reforming legislation, such as the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Bill. This Bill, which proposes to set up a commission, is a further development which will put this country to the forefront of human rights issues.
It often goes unnoticed that we are one of very few countries in Europe with a written constitution. Britain and most of the eastern European countries referred to by Senator Connor do not have written constitutions. Our Constitution has included, since its enactment in 1937, a fundamental, inbuilt recognition of human rights. There are written guarantees of human rights in the Constitution in addition to all the other work that has been done. It is easy to be critical, but we have made great strides.
The requirement for this Human Rights Commission Bill arises from the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland has been to the forefront in this regard and it put this in place a year ago. The Bill proposes to set up a commission, which I believe will do tremendous work in the area of human rights. Senator Connor is right that there were huge breaches of human rights in the North for two or three decades, possibly on both sides. We must never fail to acknowledge that the guns in the North have been silent for the past two years or so. The weekend will be very sensitive, in terms of the furtherance of the peace negotiations and I wish all involved, including David Trimble, luck and success in their efforts to further the cause of peace in this country.
I lived abroad for a while and I was in England during the 1974 Birmingham bombings. I realised at that time the hatred towards the Irish, although 98% of the Irish living there were innocent. It was a very difficult time to be living in a country when appallingly savage bombings were happening. I was a young student at the time. The atmosphere was one of resentment, which was understandable. The tremendous relationship building efforts of this Government and others over the years have moved us from the 1974 situation and the Canary Wharf bombing to a point at which, thankfully, the guns are silent and bombs are no longer exploding.
I must put on record the tremendous work done by the Taoiseach. The greatest tribute that will be paid to him when his epitaph is written will concern his commitment and dedication to the peace process. It has been unrelenting, week in and week out, and is the bane of his life. I know the economy is going well, but a monument will be put up to the Taoiseach if this agreement results in a permanent peace, to which we are getting very close. I wish all concerned the best of luck.
Senator Connor spoke about the rather draconian laws being proposed by the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, for refugees and asylum seekers. I come from a very rural part of Ireland and there are almost 200 of them in my electoral area. We envisage no difficulties and they have been accommodated and looked after well. However, on the other side of the coin, a group of people from one country, it does not matter which – I am not being racist – went to Donegal two days ago where they got top quality accommodation but they were not happy with it. They do not want to go to Donegal or Mayo but want to come from Nigeria, or wherever else, and go to Dublin 4. Not only are they coming in through the back door, they are now, more or less, insisting on choosing where they will be housed.
I do not wish to be derogatory. However, my little electoral area, which has a voting population of about 9,000, has 200 refugees or asylum seekers, while there are almost 250 people on the housing list in my home town of Bantry. There is probably some resentment in that regard. A woman who has a two year old child came to see me recently and has been on the waiting list for four years. She said it was amazing that there was a nice, three star hotel down the road looking after these people. I told her it was only a temporary situation and that we would have to accept and put up with it.
It is unfair and unjust to say the Minister has neglected this issue since he came into office. He was faced with a growing problem. When the previous Government was in office, about 1,000 people had arrived. There are now almost 1,000 people arriving per month. If this is allowed to continue, it will lead to serious problems in the future not only in the economy but in the process of accepting refugees and asylum seekers. One interesting comment made to me is that we always looked on the Traveller community as the ethnic minority in Ireland and it appears that in two or three years, if not sooner, that ethnic minority will no longer be the class discriminated against. The Minister should be complimented on the amount of money and facilities which he has provided for looking after the refugees and asylum seekers in a humane manner.
I would hate to see the signal going out from Irish do-gooders that we are inviting people to come here, that this is a growing economy, they are welcome to come here, they will get the best of accommodation, etc. While we must respect international law in this regard, it would be wrong to signal to certain countries that if people come to Ireland they can get everything they want.
I am also peeved by the comparisons made to the Irish who emigrated to America. I come from a family of eleven, eight of whom, including me, had to emigrate at some stage. When my older sisters went to America in the 1950s they had to provide medical and police records and had to guarantee, prior to their departure, that they had a place to stay. If they did not have a place to stay, they needed an aunt or uncle to guarantee accommodation for six months. They were also fingerprinted. All of a sudden there is the suggestion that we are discriminating against people here, but they are getting good accommodation. There was uproar when it was suggested that they should be fingerprinted. Why should they be treated differently from the Irish who went to America?
It should not go unnoticed that the vast majority of the Irish who went abroad, whether in the 19th or 20th centuries, made a major contribution to those economies. They worked on the railways in America and in Britain, and they were welcome because they were needed as workers. I am not sure that all the people coming here are entitled to work or that they will work if allowed.
We must look at all the angles. As I said, I was approached by people when two or three small hotels in my area were providing accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers and my attitude was that we will welcome them, it is a temporary measure. On local radio I suggested that racism or discrimination should not be hyped up. That would be the proper approach. I hope the situation will resolve itself. According to the law of the land and Ireland's international obligations, it is only right and proper that those genuinely seeking asylum who are fleeing terror in their countries, etc. should be accommodated, but there is a great deal of confusion being caused by economic migrants who come here to better themselves. Genuine cases must be looked after properly and those with a less genuine case must be returned to their native countries. Otherwise the situation will get totally out of hand because it is predicted by some that the numbers involved may double. If that were the case, there would be 2,000 applications per month or up to 25,000 per year and the State could not accommodate that.
It is nice to see some refugees here. Many of them appreciate the shelter they have found here and they respect the hospitality afforded to them. Even though there were two or three isolated areas – I do not want to mention the towns involved – where there was uproar about how asylum seekers and refugees were treated, the vast majority of areas welcomed and accepted them into the community and suffered in silence.
Like Senator Connor, I had many other points to make but, unfortunately, I have run out of time. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, for deputising for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, who over the past two and a half years has recognised the significance of this House by introducing a great deal of legislation here.
I am happy to have managed to get here. I did so almost by the skin of my teeth because, like everybody in political life, I have other political appointments. I had an opportunity to look quickly through the speech of the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, and I am impressed by it and interested in it. My comments will be uncharacteristically brief but I hope they will be informed with a certain clarity also.
The Minister of State indicated that the principal task of the commission being established would be to keep a watching brief on the development of human rights against the back ground of the need for a possible revision of the fundamental rights Articles 40 to 44, inclusive, in the Constitution in light of modern human rights norms. There is also a practical reason for establishing the commission, that is, to bring us into line with the developments in the North of Ireland, etc. They need it there more than we do. I do not wish to cast a slight upon the North of Ireland but in terms of discrimination it has an unhappy record regarding the Catholic population and members of the gay community, who are more substantially discriminated against than members of the same community are here.
We need to keep moving in the human rights direction by practical means such as, for example, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. My understanding is that this has not happened yet. If I am correct in this assumption, we should address that matter straight away. The reason I bring this up is that we assume Irish citizens enjoy the complete protection of the European Convention on Human Rights but, in fact, that does not seem to be the case. In a court case which I took against the State, I remember my counsel attempted to argue along the lines of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and, while the court listened sympathetically and did not rule out the argument, it was not held to be persuasive and it certainly was not a mandatory consideration. The Government's lawyers who were opposing me on that stage made the point that the European Convention on Human Rights was not part of domestic law. Even though the Government, on behalf of the people of Ireland, had signed the legal instruments which helped establish the European Court of Human Rights and gave accord to the European Convention on Human Rights, it was not binding in domestic law. That is a problem which needs to be addressed.
There is a buzz abroad about the question of human rights commissions but these are applied and interpreted in quite a varied way throughout the world. The Minister of State listed the countries which established human rights commissions in advance of Ireland: Canada, Mexico, South Africa, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. That is a mixed bunch and in terms of human rights I would take my chance any day in Ireland as compared to Indonesia, with or without the establishment of a human rights commission in that troubled country. However, in some countries even paying lip-service to human rights is an advance.
I have just returned from a two-day visit to Morocco as a member of the first visiting delegation from the Oireachtas. Morocco had an absolute monarchy until comparatively recently and it is still a monarchy. There is a new young king, King Mohammed VI. His father, King Hassan, established a human rights commission before his recent death, and he established a Minister for human rights and an office to review these matters. I raised some issues on the question of human rights. I have no doubt whatever of their commitment, but there are still some unresolved matters in Morocco. The Minister of State is aware of this because he talks about the adoption by the United Nations of the Paris Principles and elucidates these, but he also makes the point, which is quite critical, that they leave a great deal of discretion to states with regard to the competencies and powers of human rights agencies. There is a considerable margin of appreciation for states in the application of these principles.
That brings me to mention our former President and former Member of this House, Mary Robinson, and the work she has been doing in the whole area of human rights. I would like to put it on the record of this House that without the professional expertise and idealistic commitment of Mary Robinson throughout the years, this country would be much poorer in the whole area of human rights. I sincerely hope that her important function as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will be strongly supported by every party in the Oireachtas and by the Administration in this country.
This is introduced in the context of Northern Ireland. I would make one point of principle about human rights. It is very important to extend human rights not just to people who are like us, not just to people who share the same view and opinions that we do but, as a matter of principle, to extend them even to people who may appear to abuse them, who may appear not to deserve them or who may appear to be very different from us. I watched with interest in the last few days the obituary notices of Cardinal O'Connor in New York. I am astonished by the things that are being said. They would give the impression that this was a great champion of human rights. In a limited way, he was. Certainly Cardinal O'Connor spoke on the issue of human rights for the Catholic Nationalist population in the North of Ireland, but he was not interested in anybody else. This is the man who, simultaneously, was battling against the most fundamental of human rights in New York city when applied to gay people, namely, employment and housing. That is a classic example of somebody who lacks the imagination to be able to extend this kind of human rights concept to people who did not reflect his views. That is where it really counts.
On this matter, I noticed a number of agencies listed as having been consulted. They are the legal advice centres, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, the Combat Poverty Agency, the Pavee Point Travellers Centre, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism and the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas. I hope that a small but very effective group, called the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, Chris Robinson and Kieran Rose, were consulted. I see the Minister nodding. I am very glad that this is the case because I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them. They battled in this area of human rights, which was not at all popular, over many years, and they have had some considerable successes in the area. Again this might appear, even today, to be a rather radical departure. It is being seen as less and less radical. I note with great approval that a local council somewhere in Cork adopted certain provisions recognising the institution of relationships between persons of the same sex for certain practical purposes in terms of housing and so on. Again, this is a question which deals with the welfare of citizens and, under this kind of equality commission, these issues should be looked at and examined carefully without any great fuss.
I note a couple of other things the Minister says. He says we should be in a position soon to ratify both the UN Convention on Torture and the Convention on Racial Discrimination. It is about time. I urge that it be done with the maximum urgency. Any time I have raised this I am told there are technical problems. Let us deal with them if they still exist. Let us get on with the matter because it is a reproach to the Oireachtas that we have not acceded to them. How can we hold our heads high at international fora, how can we lecture the rest of the world, as we sometimes do, if we have not completed our international obligations in this area?
I notice that the Minister refers to the institution of amicus curiae in human rights legislation and that this has never been established in Irish law. This is technically true. Let me indulge myself in what we on the north side call “a little antidote”. A friend of mine who was restoring houses in the inner city, a very talented young Irish-American, got into difficulties with some pretty poisonous neighbours who actually framed him on a charge of criminal damage. He was such a gentle, innocent idiot that it was obvious he was not going to able to challenge them because he did not have sufficient manners to understand the Machiavellian nature of their motivation. He got in touch with me, and he was in tears. I went down to the court. I could see that there was going to be a miscarriage of justice and that it was all going wrong. I had seen Perry Mason on the TV and I stood up and asked the judge whether I could be recognised as an amicus curiae. He did not say yes, nor did he say no, so I put the garda back in the box, cross-examined him, and was able to establish that certain “facts” were incorrect and that the summons, the legal papers, had not been properly delivered. I said that on that basis I would like the judge to dismiss the case against my client – by that stage I had really got into the act and was referring to “my client”. The judge scratched his head and said it was very odd but that I was right and dismissed the case. I did stop at the point of asking to be paid under the free legal aid scheme. However, historically speaking, that was the first case of an amicus curiae in Irish legal practice. I am glad to say that legislation is now catching up with my wonderful, sterling performance. For the record, that was ironic – sometimes people do not have a sense of humour and think I am a complete megalomaniac. I regard myself with as much irony as James Joyce regarded Stephen Dedalus.
Let me end by suggesting that there is a parallel here. The whole idea of amicus curiae is a very useful development. The Seanad did a good day's work two years ago on the Child Care Bill where a parallel concept was instituted. We copied the English who were behaving sensibly at that stage in the aftermath of a case involving a girl, Maria Colville, who was returned to an abusing family, foolishly, by a court, and the abusing family then completed the job and killed the unfortunate girl. It was a very shocking case, and in the light of that the British Parliament introduced what was called the guardian ad litem, which is somebody intended by the court to represent not the interests of the family, not the interests of the State, but the interests of the child alone. That was a major step for human rights, not unlike the concept of amicus curiae.Senator O'Donovan raised the question of economic migrants and of asylum seekers. I weep when I read what is being put out in the newspapers. I regret our begrudging attitude to economic migrants because our own people were economic migrants for so long. I certainly can see the logic of having rules and regulations and so on. Sometimes listening to people – I am not speaking of Senator O'Donovan who is a valued colleague and a good friend – one gets the impression that the mere fact of having been dropped out of the womb on this little island in the Atlantic confers a kind of moral superiority, implies that we deserved it in some way. Here we are. We are Irish. We were born in Ireland, some of us, and is it not wonderful? It is, but we have not deserved it. There is nothing moral attached to it. We are not better than the people who happen to have been born in disaster areas of India, China or Ethiopia. In what sense do we deserve to live in this country? We must learn to share the benefits we are privileged to enjoy in Ireland and which we do not deserve at all.
Finally, reference was made to people who have come to Ireland from the Congo. I appeal to the Minister to use his good offices to resolve a case which is pending and which was reported in yesterday's newspapers. It involves a man from the laughably entitled Democratic Republic of the Congo, who fought for human rights for his people in that tragic part of the world. Due to a bureaucratic error involving his address, it looks as if he is to be denied the full procedure of asylum application. It is quite likely that the man will be murdered by agents of the regime in the Congo if he returns to that country. Where a man's life is actually threatened – and there could not be a clearer threat than this one – we should not be happy to rely on the technicalities of a bureaucratic system. We must be sensitive to these issues, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.
I am at present reading the memoirs of a remarkable man, Victor Klemperer, who was a Jew in Dresden and married to a Christian. One of his most chilling descriptions is of walking through the streets of Dresden in 1942 and 1943 where not only did people spit at him and call him a filthy Jew, because he was wearing a star, but quite a number of people muttered a few words of comfort as they passed. As I read the diary entries, I could have been in Parnell Street in Dublin the day before yesterday.
I wish to share my time with Senator Costello. It is a pleasure to follow Senator Norris but I charitably say that if he were to omit the word "final" from his vocabulary he would save about five minutes.
I was a member of the former Northern Ireland Standing Commission on Human Rights which provided certain insights into the working of these very valuable bodies. I welcome the Bill and the work that has been done on it, particularly because it is part of the Good Friday Agreement. While I agree with Senator Norris that there is less need for a human rights commission here than in the North, this arises not from any difference in human nature when put under pressure but from different circumstances. We are fortunate in living under a written Constitution which has been amplified by quite enlightened decisions of the Supreme Court. However, it is important, for the sake of symmetry, that the same regimes apply North and South in relation to human rights and that human rights are not seen as something to be used to keep people in control and subjection "up there" and as unnecessary "down here".
This is particularly the case in terms of the protection of minorities here, which majorities in Northern Ireland will be looking at with some interest. The events of the past few months, in relation to refugees and employment seekers illustrate the fact that when put under pressure people here can react in ways that are not as generous or as thoughtful as we would like. We need the protection of human rights legislation for these people too. Ireland, of all nations, which has sent its people to countries throughout the world to seek employment should be the last to create difficulties for others who wish to do likewise.
When I read the first few sections of the Bill I began to wonder if it was a Bill for the appointment of judges. There seemed to be an undue emphasis on how vacancies in the different courts were to be filled, as if those vacancies were destined to arise. I hope this does not indicate a turn of mind which sees this as a field for the legal practitioner and particularly for judges. Judges emerge from a culture which requires to be opened up and not all of them have been remarkable champions of human rights for the ordinary person. I hope minds have not been fixed in this regard.
I have been involved in the production of some reports which eventually found their way into legislation. What always disappoints is the extent to which the original vision is lost when a Bill gets into the hands of the draftsmen, and particularly into the hands of a Government Department which has been used to looking at things through certain lenses and does not recognise broadening influences.
While there are some judges whom I would love to see chairing this commission, I hope it is not fore-ordained that the president of this organisation will be a judge. I hope the net is cast as widely as possible and that the Minister will advertise for membership of the commission to ensure broad accessibility and that minority groups who have views on these matters have the opportunity to be represented. When making appointments in the past, I have perceived a tendency to overlook the people who have laboured in the vineyard for many years and to take those who have come into it only recently. There are people in Ireland who have an honourable record of advocacy of human rights and of practical work in defence of human rights. I hope they will be considered and that their names will appear in the final listing.
I hope too that sufficient funds are provided to operate the commission. Its work will involve more than merely holding meetings. It will also involve research, the support of cases and amicus curiae work. This will require adequate funding. I am led to believe that adequate funding is one of the criteria for admitting bodies such as this to the club of international human rights bodies.
I hope the body will not be constricted to advise simply on the international treaties to which the State already adheres. It must have the capacity to look over the parapet and see what is being developed elsewhere. There should be provision for the persuasive use of treaties and conventions which the State has not signed in the Irish courts.
The body must be given a fair wind. It should not be constricted. It should be able to look at things like social and economic rights as well as other classic rights. I appreciate that this is difficult country which brings one into distributional areas and difficulties. However we should regard this as an opportunity to be expansive rather than restrictive. This is not simply a matter of fulfilling our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and the treaties which flow from it but of opening out a new means of protecting difference. As Senator Norris has said, it is important to protect the rights of people with whom we do not agree. I was always taught that to love one's neighbour one did not have to like him. In fact, the less one liked him the more merit there was in loving him.
Let us cherish difference and diversity and provide a means for protecting them. I commend the Minister and the Government on introducing the Bill.
I thank Senator Maurice Hayes for sharing his time with me. I support this legislation which arises from the Good Friday Agreement. It is a pity it was not passed earlier. The comparable British legislation was enacted in March 1999.
I am disappointed the legislation contains a narrow remit. It does not include what I would like in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights and a number of other conventions, protocols and international covenants. These should have been included, especially the torture convention, the racial discrimination convention, the Council of Europe framework convention and the protocol for national minorities. They are needed, especially in view of the extent of discrimination against non-nationals. When does the Minster propose to ratify Protocol 7 of the European Convention, which gives rights to non-nationals and minorities? That is of special relevance at present.
Like Senator Maurice Hayes, I am disappointed that there is so much emphasis on legal practitioners and the appointment of a judge to head the commission. I disagree with that. The head of the commission should be a manager – a creative, dynamic, professional person who will take cases and run with them. These are not the requirements of a judicial function. Someone like the very able Bryce Dickson in Northern Ireland is the kind of person we need. I hope the Government will reassess the terms of reference for the head of the commission to ensure that it becomes an effective, creative and proactive body.
The establishment of a human rights commission is the first step in establishing, implementing and defending human rights for citizens. A great number of other steps must be taken to fulfil our international obligations and to deal with the very pressing problems referred to so eloquently by Senator Norris in connection with what is happening to non-nationals, asylum seekers and refugees in so many parts of our cities, towns and rural areas.
I remind Senators that we have approximately seven minutes remaining. The House has ordered that we suspend the sitting at 1 p.m.
I propose that the House sit for ten minutes beyond 1 p.m. to enable the Minister of State reply to the debate.
I wish to share my time with Senator Henry.
I welcome the Bill and this debate. Human rights are very important, includ ing for our citizens. The rights of children, which are guaranteed in the UN convention, are being denied to young children in this country. In cases before the High Court disturbed children are being sent to prison rather than to homes or places where they can get the proper care and attention they need. That is a denial of their rights. They end up in places of confinement totally unsuited to their needs.
There is also a deprivation of the rights of families. Many thousands of people live in appalling housing conditions which are totally unfit for human habitation. I could bring anybody to see such places in my town. The rights of families should be enforced by the agency involved – the health board – which provides them with welfare to rent these dreadful places. It is a matter that must be looked at.
As legislators we have an obligation to educate the public. It ill behoves any public representative to spread racial disharmony over the radio. We must have an enlightened and positive approach to the issue of refugees. Public representatives, especially, must play a leading role here. For hundreds of years our people have travelled to different countries, to the UK, Australia – willingly and unwillingly – the US and so on. They have been very welcome and have been given the opportunity over the generations to work.
There is a shortage of workers in the economy. At the same time there are thousands of economic refugees in the country, the vast majority of whom want to work and should be allowed do so. It is ridiculous that they cannot take up employment. If they were allowed to work, legally and properly, it would make a significant difference and would have a very positive impact on the country. I am fed up with employers telling me they cannot get people to work in restaurants, hair dressing salons, and so on, yet there is a pool of available people, most of whom want to work. We need to made changes in this regard.
I thank Senator O'Dowd for sharing his time with me. I also thank Senator Maurice Hayes for mentioning the fact that the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland is most anxious that this commission should be established with a view to protecting minorities – I think they mean religious minorities here. One would think they would know that I am well able to look after myself.
I did not realise that there were Orangemen in counties Dublin and Wicklow. I was sorry that when they decided to hold a march it could not have materialised. I regret the fact that we continually look backwards at what the Orange Order was like. It is a sectarian organisation, but we have other sectarian organisations. Many countries have sectarian organisations and they must deal with them.
I am one of those foolish people who one day hopes to see the unity of the country. What do we propose to do with the Orangemen when we get to that stage? We must look a little further and try to work out how we will deal with people with whom we have great difficulty.
A great strength of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was the requirement it placed on us to make a big effort to deal with each other. I compliment the then Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, for establishing it and the splendid person he chose to chair it, Ms Justice McGuinness. It was a very good experience for all involved, not least that we had to break bread together over lunch. Often considerably more progress was made at those lunches than during the more formal deliberations.
We must consider how we are going to deal with people with whom we do not get on. We repeatedly ask people in Northern Ireland to do this, yet we are not so good at it when we are asked to do it. That is why I regret that the Orangemen felt intimidated and will not hold their march. I would have advised them to let matters rest at laying their plaque, but once they said they wanted to march it is a pity it did not happen.
I had the good fortune to be the Irish judge at a recent European competition for a motto for Europe organised for school pupils up to the age of 18 years. The motto chosen was "unity in diversity". It would not be a bad one for us to ponder. We do not all have to be alike. I hope the commission will ensure we are more aware that we are obliged to tolerate those with whom we do not have much agreement. I must have been brought up in the same way as Senator Maurice Hayes, where one got more credit for loving people one did not like.
I thank the Senators who contributed to the debate on this Bill. The Bill is a product of much consideration and the general welcome for it illustrates this point. As to the question of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government has already made it clear that legislation providing for this is to be progressed as rapidly as possible. This decision has been made in the context of the commitment of the Good Friday Agreement to further examine that matter against the background of strengthening and underpinning the constitutional protection of human rights in the State. It is envisaged that the necessary legislation will be enacted by October of this year. The draft scheme of the Bill is at an advanced stage in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform as a result of detailed discussions with the Attorney General.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has nothing to fear in any area under his jurisdiction from this Bill or the European Convention on Human Rights. After all we have had a written Bill of Rights in this jurisdiction since 1937 in the Constitution. This, coupled with the ready access to our courts which cannot strike down legislation, has ensured that we have an excellent record on human rights generally on the international stage and before the Court of Human Rights.
On the point about the production of the Bill, I remind the House that the draft scheme of the Bill was released to two Dáil committees and all interested bodies in December 1998. The final views of one of the committees came on 17 June 1999. The Bill was published in July 1999.
On Senator Norris's point about the Convention on Human Rights, the position is that the convention is law for Ireland on the international plane. We are one of the first states to allow our citizens the right of access to the Court of Human Rights, to plead that right under the convention where it is being infringed. The convention is not law in Ireland because under our dualist system it requires approval of the Oireachtas and a formal constitutional amendment. The position will be changed when the convention is incorporated by the legislation as the Government now proposes to do.
In response again to Senator Norris, the Bill providing for accession to the torture convention has already been through this House and has just passed through the Dáil. It is back before this House because of a Dáil amendment. The racial discrimination convention should be ratified now that the Equal Status Act has been enacted and that the matter is in receipt of attention.
In response to Senator Maurice Hayes, I assure him that the provisions of the Bill to which we refer here are procedural. They are not indicative of an inclination towards the appointment of a judge. I would have thought that this matter was dealt with at length in my speech in so far as the commission's remit is concerned, that it is as wide as possible as set out in the definition of section 2 of the Bill. Funding will be provided also.
Senator Costello raised the matter of Protocol No. 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights and its effect in the State. That matter will be examined in the context of incorporation of the convention into our law. We have already accepted the framework convention for the protection of national minorities on 1 May 1999.
Again, I thank the Senators for their contributions and their welcome.
Question put and agreed to.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 24 May 2000.
Sitting suspended at 1.05 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.