Category: Archive

Editorial Human rights agenda

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It is remarkable to think that the issue of human rights in Northern Ireland has only now been put firmly on the agenda by the British government after more than 30 years from the first civil rights march. But it has taken the government that long to establish a human rights commission for Northern Ireland, which has been set up under the auspices of the Good Friday peace agreement. It is a positive step, if overdue, and should be welcomed by all sides of the dispute.

The commission came into being this week. It consists of one full-time commissioner, Professor Brice Dickson, and nine part-time commissioners. They are Christine Bell, director of the Center for International and Comparative Human Rights at Queen’s University in Belfast; Margaret-Anne Dinsmore, a barrister; Tom Donnelly, Northern Ireland area manager for Proton Cars; Methodist minister Rev. Harold Good; a professor of Law at Queen’s, Tom Hadden; Angela Hegarty, law lecturer at the University of Ulster; the director of Children’s Law Center, Patricia Kelly; Inez McCormack, a trade union activist, and the regional manager of Trocaire, Francis McGuinness.

While the selection has come under criticism from some, it is most heartening in that it gives fair representation to women. The presence of Hadden and Dickson is particularly to be applauded. Dickson, among other things, has edited the Committee on the Administration of Justice’s civil rights handbook, and Hadden has been a long-time and prominent campaigner on human rights issues in Ireland.

Human rights were at the core of the Northern Ireland crisis when it erupted. And it is only logical that they should be at the core of any settlement. Of course, they never were — until now.

Previous attempts to establish a body that would oversee such rights were always turned back. The British government, which rules by act of parliament and without a written constitution, was always reluctant to set up any body that might impinge upon parliamentary sovereignty. But for years, indeed since the inception of the civil rights movement, human rights activists stressed the need to develop in Northern Ireland, because of the special circumstances pertaining there, a human rights culture. Without that, they argued, respect for the rights of the minority would never take root. The woeful history of the last 30 years is proof of that. Instead of a culture of human rights, the draconian legislation that was established with the creation of the state allowed the development of the opposite: a culture in which the government felt able to abrogate human rights whenever it deemed it necessary.

That situation must never be allowed to develop again.

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A human rights body is especially welcome now to defend against those revisionists on the Unionist side who are arguing that the whole civil rights movement was a fraud and a deception. It is no wonder that the Rev. Ian Paisley has come out and attacked the new body as "totally unbalanced" to the disadvantage of the Unionists. This is from the man whose bully-boys tried to drive the original civil rights demonstrators off the streets and who has done everything in his power to thwart progress in Northern Ireland. The new body is just one more indication of the extent of his failure. For that alone it should be welcomed as a sign that a new era is dawning in Ireland.

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