Thursday, 25 June 2015

Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement Debate
Vol. 2 No. 47

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The Joint Committee met at 10:00


Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis Deputy Dessie Ellis,* Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins Senator Maurice Cummins.
Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris Deputy Martin Ferris,  
Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick,  
Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Deputy Michael P. Kitt,  
Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan,  
Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle Deputy Thomas Pringle,  
Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Deputy Brendan Smith,  

* In the absence of Deputy Seán Crowe.

In attendance: Senator Mark Daly, and Pat Doherty, MP

Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan DEPUTY FRANK FEIGHAN IN THE CHAIR.

  The joint committee met in private session until 10.35 a.m.

Outstanding Legacy Issues in Northern Ireland: Discussion

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan On behalf of the committee am I am delighted to welcome Mr. Michael Culbert, director of Coiste na nIarchimí, Mr. Tom Roberts, director, and Mr. Robert Campbell, project co-ordinator, from the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre, EPIC, to discuss the outstanding legacy issues in Northern Ireland affecting the reintegration of political prisoners. Both organisations seek to address the problems surrounding the integration of political prisoners back into the community. Coiste na nIarchimí is an Irish republican ex-prisoner support group established in 1998. It operates as an umbrella organisation encompassing groups and individuals and its work includes, inter alia, conflict resolution and legacy issues, advocacy, support services and education. I understand EPIC has been operational since 1995 but its roots go back much further. Its original objective was to reintegrate politically motivated prisoners, particularly those from an Ulster Volunteer Force Red Hand Commando background. EPIC's work has extended to a wide range of activities that makes a significance contribution to peace building in Northern Ireland.

  I invite Mr. Michael Culbert to make his opening statement followed by Mr. Tom Roberts, after which members may ask questions.

Mr. Michael Culbert: Is onóir mór domhsa a bheith anseo chun labhairt leis an Coiste seo. I am pleased to be invited to make representations on behalf of the former IRA prisoners who were imprisoned during the conflict between Ireland and Britain. Accurate figures are very difficult to obtain because the British Government indicates to us that it does not know and we had to carry out our own research. We reckon that somewhere in the region of 20,000 men and women were imprisoned worldwide due to IRA-related activities.

I have sent to the committee an outline of the issues which relate to the political ex-prisoner community in general. I would say that the political ex-prisoner community is "discriminitable", if that is a proper word, in both jurisdictions North and South. We are one of the few groups I am aware of that can be legally discriminated against. That is a problem. All we want is equality of citizenship on the island.

The war is over. The IRA has gone. The political prisoners were released but 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement we remain second-class citizens on the island of Ireland. We can be legally discriminated against and legally denied all goods and services - that means any goods and services within the North and we have no recourse. We consider this unjust and we lobby consistently against this attempted retrospective criminalisation of us, our actions and motivations.

I am here to urge the committee to do what it can to bring to an end this process of bringing our pasts to the fore while so much of the British state's responsibilities are being ignored in Dublin and in Westminster. I urge the committee to adopt or at least acknowledge the role of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, DDR, framework. I do not know if the committee is aware of the process - disarmament to form groups, re-engagement in the communities and the reinsertion of the groupings into society - which is adopted throughout the world at the end of conflicts. I urge the committee to try to bring all the combatants in from the cold. We were not and are not the stereotypes which the media portrayed us as.

We have terminated the armed conflict which we once considered essential. We are fully supportive of the peace process and work tirelessly at the coalface to prevent violence, be that from sectarianism or disaffected republicans. Those who would criticise or demonise us for our past do not enter those current fields of conflict. We do and in doing so we work closely with various agencies, including the police.  We have been consistently forthright in our condemnation of those who wish to terminate the political and peace process. Many within my community have been criticised for selling out on the armed conflict. We can cope with that but we are being constantly deprived of our resources to continue with our work, be it the gap in European Union funding which was of great assistance to the work we did throughout the island for a decade or the more recent refusal by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to fund a core group to keep our services going throughout the country. We have done and will continue to do our work on a voluntary basis.

I seek the committee's help to reinstate me and thousands of others as equal citizens in this country. Please assist us. In addition, if members can find any way in any measure to assist us with any funding to continue our work, we will be grateful.

Mr. Tom Roberts: I am the director of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre. I will not repeat what Mr. Culbert has said because in spite of our political and ideological differences, in one respect, on the issue of discrimination against former prisoners, we are singing from the same hymn sheet. EPIC was established to facilitate the reintegration of political prisoners from an Ulster Volunteer Force background. Our work has evolved and I believe we have played a considerable part in consolidating the peace process. Unlike politicians, we came together voluntarily with republicans to champion areas of common concern.

  EPIC remains committed to reconciliation and conflict transformation both within and between communities. We uphold the principles of conflict transformation through social justice, community engagement, restorative justice and the reintegration of former prisoners and their families. In so doing we have brokered and developed relationships with loyalist-Unionist and republican-Nationalist communities, worked towards removing the structures and conditions of conflict, promoted shared histories and worked to prevent a future generation engaging in violent discord. This work has been ongoing despite the external impediments to which Mr. Culbert has alluded, such as criminalisation, a failure of government to deliver a shared future and hostility towards former prisoners. A subjective and hostile media and a failure to acknowledge the role that loyalists have played in brokering and sustaining peace also hinder us.

  Paragraph 5 of the prisoners section in the Good Friday Agreement reads:

The Governments continue to recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or re-skilling, and further education.

However, 17 years on from the Good Friday Agreement when that commitment was given, neither the British nor the Irish Governments during direct rule and the devolved Northern Ireland Executive have properly addressed the barriers, legislative and otherwise, that prevent former prisoners resuming full citizenship. We have to question seriously the point of groups like ours re-training former prisoners when the current discriminatory practices prevent the utilisation of these skills. We have ex-prisoners serving the public in the political administration of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Ex-prisoners serve on district councils, North and South, the Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster and Dáil Éireann. Furthermore, an ex-prisoner currently jointly holds the most senior position in the Northern Ireland Executive, yet other ex-prisoners are deemed, under current legislation, unsuitable for a range of relatively mundane occupations. In effect, the situation has become absurd.

  Like Mr. Culbert, I have come before the committee to raise awareness on the discrimination of former political prisoners. I am not sure whether members are aware of the range of issues we face. We have primarily raised the question of employment. In regard to institutionalised discrimination, ex-prisoners are not entitled to enter criminal injuries claims or criminal damage claims, a right that is afforded to all other citizens. If one's property is damaged and if one is injured by violent attack, one is not entitled to compensation. International travel, as well as other issues that present difficulties for us, will emerge in the question and answer session. I hope to enlist some support from the committee in addressing these issues.

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris I thank Mr. Culbert and Mr. Roberts for their presentations. I welcome Mr. Roberts. It is an indictment of both Governments that following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and the subsequent St. Andrews, Stormont House and Hillsborough agreements, the outstanding issues have not been resolved. Following on from the quote, "The Governments continue to recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support", Annex B of the St. Andrews Agreement states the Government will work with business, trade unions and ex-prisoners groups to produce guidance for employers which will reduce barriers to employment and enhance reintegration of former prisoners. That work remains outstanding not only in the Six Counties but in the Twenty-six Counties. Many ex-prisoners have major difficulty and face regular refusals for visas to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in spite of the fact they have sons or daughters or other family members there. If their family member living there experienced a difficulty, through illness or otherwise, they would be unable to travel to see them. That is an issue that has never been addressed or resolved by both Governments.

Many female prisoners who spent their child-bearing years in prison are unable to adopt children when released. I have dealt with Angelo Fusco, an ex-prisoner in both jurisdictions who could not get insurance for his house once he declared he had been an ex-prisoner. That is another form of discrimination in an area that is wide open to everybody else. What makes it more upsetting for those of us who were participants in the conflict is that both Governments recognised clearly, in the lead-up to and in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that the reason for conflict was political, yet the Governments have done nothing to address these outstanding issues of discrimination.

Have Mr. Culbert and Mr. Roberts been able to meet the ambassador or senior embassy officials in Dublin to discuss these issues? Has the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or its counterpart in Northern Ireland helped in any way? Could the Government address those outstanding issues by introducing legislation? What is the feeling among ex-prisoners, particularly the special advisers and people who apply for taxi licence plates? Is confidence in the whole peace process being eroded? The peace process would not have succeeded had it not got the support of 20,000 from the republican and loyalist sides who were imprisoned during the conflict.  It would not have happened without the prisoners buying into it and supporting it. Can Mr. Culbert outline how much money has been applied for to ensure the network and the other groups that are working in interface areas to try to bring about reconciliation, including the coiste and EPIC, can continue to develop the peace process? I would also like him to elaborate on whether this is being closed down because of a lack of funding.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan I was part of a group of five Members of the Dáil who visited Maghaberry Prison last Monday. I would say the common feeling among us as we came out of the prison was one of depression. The visit was one of quite a number we have made. While I understand the frustration of ex-prisoners, which has been mentioned, the group in question is looking at the difficulties and injustices for current prisoners. We know the whole licence area is extremely difficult for some ex-prisoners because they can be taken in at a moment's notice. As we have seen in some cases, closed evidence can be used to keep them in jail for a number of years. Almost 20 years on, it is hard to believe there are live issues regarding ex-prisoners. We saw at Maghaberry Prison that issues are being stored up for the future.

As I have said, it was extremely depressing to come out of the prison on Monday. We have had many discussions with various groups. We meet loyalist and republican prisoners, all of whom are in the dissident category. They tell us there is no real attempt to engage with the issues. The same thing applies to the issues the ex-prisoners are talking about. We know that the media, which was mentioned by one of the witnesses, has absolutely no interest in this. As far as both Governments are concerned, this is off the agenda and everything has been done and dusted. It is extremely difficult to make progress with what the witnesses are talking about and what we have been looking at. How much collaboration is there between both of the groups represented at this meeting? Have they tried to present a unified and united front on these issues? It is hard to believe the British authorities cannot provide accurate figures for the number of people who have been in jail. That is almost incredible. I will conclude by asking a specific question about employment. If the witnesses had to draw up a list of three priority areas, where would the employment of ex-prisoners come on that list?

Mr. Pat Doherty: I thank Mr. Culbert, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Campbell for their presentations. The joint committee was established to oversee the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The document submitted by Mr. Campbell makes it clear that paragraph 5 of the prisoners' section of the Good Friday Agreement is being breached across a whole range of issues. I live in County Donegal, so I know about the work of the ex-prisoners there. I was elected in West Tyrone. I know about the solid work being done by ex-prisoners on the ground. I know they continually sustain and support the peace process. It is an extraordinary commitment from people who have been through the conflict and are being discriminated against. They still support the peace process. Two issues are raised with me by ex-prisoners on a regular basis. I would like Mr. Michael Culbert to expand on the first issue, which is the refusal of many companies to give ex-prisoners insurance for their homes, their cars or anything else for which they may be seeking insurance. I understand there may be one or two companies that take on this role. If so, it needs to be publicised more clearly so that this issue can be dealt with. The second issue is the exclusion of ex-prisoners from Peace IV funding. Are there any opportunities to have that revisited or re-examined? Is there any potential for funding from that source to be reinstated?

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I invite the witnesses to respond.

Mr. Tom Roberts: I cannot speak with any great authority about the issues in Maghaberry Prison, which was mentioned by Deputy O'Sullivan. As a former prisoner, I always advocate that a humane regime should exist when one is in prison and, more importantly from my perspective, when one is released from prison. There was a feel-good factor around the time of the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement, but it has long since dissipated. The situation with regard to ex-prisoners has not just remained the same; I believe it has got worse. People who were in jail almost 40 years ago are discovering new issues that are emerging all the time. They were blissfully unaware of them. We have spoken about the ex-prisoners, but family members are discriminated against as well. My wife cannot legitimately hold home insurance because I reside in the house with her and I have what is deemed to be a criminal conviction. Mr. Culbert spoke about the numbers. It is widely regarded that over 30,000 loyalists and republicans went through the prison system during the conflict. If that is extrapolated to include family members, it becomes clear that in a country the size of Northern Ireland, with a population of approximately 1.8 million, a considerable section of the community is being discriminated against. As Deputy Martin Ferris pointed out, ex-prisoners played a pivotal role in the peace process and continue to do so despite all of these impediments. I have to say I am not sure the Good Friday Agreement would get the support of loyalist members of the ex-prisoner community now, however, because of the situation they find themselves in.

Mr. Michael Culbert: I will refer to the points that were made earlier and give some clarification from my knowledge base. I have met US Embassy staff here in Dublin and consulate staff in Belfast on several occasions. They have washed their hands of this issue. They just ask us what they can do. They speak about the US Department of Homeland Security just as they used to speak about the US State Department. I suppose the baseline is that the Americans can let who they want into their country. The angle from which this is being chased by me and by others within the republican family involves asking certain questions. How do the Americans know? Who is supplying them with information? We can see how they might know about us because when we are filling in visa applications, we have to tick a box indicating that we are former prisoners, but if my wife is going to America how do they know to stop her? At the moment, we are pursuing the British through the information commissioner. We want to know what the process is. What is the legal position if they tell the Americans about us? America does not stop Vietnamese or Japanese former activists, or Germans or Italians who fought wars against the Americans, from entering the US. What have the Americans got against us? I could go to London tomorrow, but the British Government tells the Americans not to let me into America. There is an amazing irony about that. I am okay to go to London, but I am not allowed into New York. That is the situation in the American context. They seem to be quite powerless to exert change.

Various things have happened in this Legislature. The taxi legislation that was introduced a year or so ago reflected the legislation that had been introduced in the North, which militates against people being employed as special advisers. In the North, it was directed against political ex-prisoners. We were not able to get that changed. Sinn Féin argued against it, but there was a lobby and it was pushed through. I can understand the climate because the media up there has us as the guys with the black hats and everybody else as the people with the white hats. We are depicted as the cause of the problems on the island of Ireland.  That is the way is and that is the way the media portrays it. The taxi Bill was passed here and this bad Bill was passed in the north of Ireland, which mitigates against the political ex-prisoner community who both Governments agreed should be assisted into employment. It mitigates against us because other powers are at play and the structures of employment, both North and South, are such that former political prisoners find it difficult to get work in any event and where they can get it is narrowed down to particular areas of work. Taxi driving is one such area and other major areas of employment for them in the North are as door staff or doing casual work. Legislation is operating against them, which we are working to address. To summarise, our problem is that the Good Friday Agreement did not bring about legislation to expunge the prison records related to the conflict. The war is not over legally. That is the problem.

A question was asked about Maghaberry Prison. I visit it not as a casual visitor, but as part of the Sinn Féin delegation. Myself, Raymond McCartney and Carál Ní Chuilín visit it as part of a delegation to see what the situation is there. We do that because we have a fair working knowledge, as we are all former political prisoners. We know quite a number of the prison staff. We know the governors in the jail and we go in to speak with the prisoners to see how the conditions are. Unfortunately, the prisoners do not really talk to us. I referred to this earlier, when I said that we have sold out in the war. The prisoners are a little hostile towards us but some of them talk to us and some of us ask if we can assist in the betterment of conditions there. The reason we go there is that we want to ensure, at the bare minimum, that there are humane reasonable conditions for people who have to spend their time there and that they are not getting the treatment we got for years within the prison. I wanted to mention that point about the prison.

I have supplied the committee with a full list of the conditions but the summary title of what mitigates against the political ex-prisoner community is the provision of goods and services. It could be home insurance, service in a restaurant, travel to the United States, car insurance or employment. We can be legally discriminated against because of a decision made in the British House of Lords within the northern jurisdiction. I sat in the British House of Lords about six years ago. Our case was assisted in terms of funding by the Equality Commission in the North. We lost the case because three out of the five judges decided we were on a par with the Nazis, and, as it was put to us, how could one expect a survivor of the camps in Germany or wherever else they were to be treated on an equal basis as someone who was a worker in the camp as a Nazi. That is how the judges referred to me as I sat there sitting there listening to that. I understand people might not like me and might not like the actions I took, but I do not consider myself that. That was the justification given by the British judges for allowing us to continue to be discriminated against within the British jurisdiction. It is not as bad here but it is bad enough when that taxi Bill could be introduced.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan Thank you, Mr. Michael Culbert. I now call Deputy Dessie Ellis.

Deputy Dessie Ellis: Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis I thank our guests Mr. Michael Culbert, Mr. Tom Roberts and Mr. Robert Campbell for their contributions. I am an ex-prisoner myself and I find a few areas extremely worrying. One area is the issue regarding taxis and another area is that of visas, and there is also the message that this sends out. I was in jail in America and I cannot get into America or Canada, and that is the case now 17 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. That sends out the wrong message. It is very difficult for anyone on the front line, whether loyalist or republican, to hold the line in terms of their support. As Mr. Tom Roberts said, there is obviously wavering in terms of the Good Friday Agreement in the loyalist community. He is not sure whether it would get the same vote again. That shows the seriousness of situation, that there is a reluctance on behalf of both this Government and the British Government to engage, to see an end to this conflict and to write it into the history books in terms of the rights of individuals who were convicted and jailed in this conflict.

There is also a situation where people are being charged on an ongoing basis over similar things that happened in the past. Rightly or wrongly, we entered into the Good Friday Agreement, and the matter of constantly trying to go back and charge people or otherwise must be left behind. That is only adding to the problems. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan mentioned that there are people in jail at present. They will be the next ones we will be dealing with down the road. I find it very difficult.

In terms of the Taxi (Regulation) Bill, I am the Sinn Féin spokesperson on transport. When I raised this issue, I tried to get clauses included in that Bill in terms of people under the Good Friday Agreement to the effect that there should no bar to them holding a taxi licence. The political resistance from the Government here, never mind anywhere else, was massive. The Government would not entertain it. The resistance to it from the Opposition among Fianna Fáil was also massive. If we cannot get such provision at that level, we have a serious problem. The attitude of both governments on this has been one of incrementally clawing back on many things that were agreed under the Good Friday Agreement. This is something that needs to be addressed. I take on board the idea that legislation would have been the right way to go. That would have solved the problem in terms of some type of expunging of records or otherwise as a result of the conflict. We entered into an international agreement that was overseen by the Irish Government, the British Government and the Americans and there should be no bars in this respect in terms of people who took part in that conflict. We have had excuse after excuse as to why the British Government, its ambassador or otherwise will not come to meetings and we are constantly getting that. Sometimes one has to call a spade a spade. They do not really want to engage in a lot cases. That is very sad. It is not good and it is not sending out the right message to the communities. It is giving many people who are dissidents, whether republican or loyalist, a platform. We have to shout louder about this.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I welcome our three visitors and thank them for their succinct presentation regarding the day to day issues affecting ex-prisoners and people with convictions. Mr. Roberts's reference to paragraph 5 of the Good Friday Agreement with particular reference to prisoners is very important, where it outlines: "The Governments continue to recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the re-integration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunity, re-training and/or reskilling, and further education." That is a very important paragraph in the Agreement. As has been said, both Governments are co-guarantors of this international Agreement. It behoves both Governments to ensure that the Agreement is implemented in full. If we provide education, training and upskilling opportunities for people, by and large, it is on the basis of preparing them for the labour force. On different occasions many of us in this committee in meeting different groups, whether here, in Belfast, Derry or elsewhere, placed particular emphasis on the need to ensure that people, particularly from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, got the opportunity to go on to further education and to avail of upskilling and training on the basis of preparing them for job opportunities that may arise.   It is very important that barriers to participation in the labour force are removed for people who have been in prison or who have convictions from the past.

Back to 2007, the Offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister put in place a voluntary code for employers with regard to providing employment opportunities for people who have convictions. Subsequently, a review panel was put in place to review the working of that provision, the voluntary guidance for employers. The panel recommended that the employers' guidance should be complemented by legislative change, but that has not happened. I presume that is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. To the witnesses' knowledge, what has or has not happened in respect of furthering a legislative measure to remove the obstacles and barriers to people gaining employment? It is very important. We can all call on both Governments to implement the Good Friday Agreement in full, which is absolutely essential, but in that particular instance, and the witnesses can correct me if I am wrong, it is a devolved matter to put in place the legislative measures to remove those barriers.

In his presentation, Mr. Culbert referred to the pressure on funding or the non-existence of funding for the provision of the services he provides to a large number of people. Again, it is my understanding that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade PEACE IV has not been available to him. That is a mistake. I represent two southern Ulster counties, Cavan and Monaghan, so I am familiar with the work of the PEACE programmes from the time they were initiated back in the mid-1990s. Often small amounts of money can achieve a great deal and provide the leverage for groups to get other assistance and do very valuable work. Am I correct that all of Mr. Culbert's streams of funding have been put under particular pressure, be it from the reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or European Union funding? Is the European Union funding entirely gone? Also, has the funding from the Department of Social Development and the Offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister been reduced as well? If so, he has met a tsunami of reduction in his streams of funding, which must be counterproductive.

There is a major onus on both Governments to support the valuable work of the groups and there is an onus on the Executive to step up to the plate and support the groups that are doing good work in the community in difficult circumstances. Most members of the committee have visited different parts of Northern Ireland and we have met with various groups and the witnesses' colleagues. We know at first hand the difficulties they encounter and the need to have supports in place at all times to continue their work.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle I thank the witnesses for their presentations and I apologise for being late to the meeting. I had to attend another meeting. I apologise in advance if my question has been addressed already. I am interested to hear the witnesses' views on whether the lack of dealing with ex-prisoners' issues feeds into existing conflict and the potential for escalation in that conflict and how the lack in dealing with that political process encourages the view of people to continue with conflict. How are the two linked?

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan The Government continues to press on the implementation of all agreements, including the Good Friday Agreement. I understand a review of the Stormont House Agreement is taking place today, so there are ongoing issues in dealing with the past. Also, with regard to the funding, it would probably be helpful if Mr. Culbert could meet with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on any outstanding issues. A meeting could be set up between yourselves and that Department to discuss any outstanding issues regarding funding. We will see what we can do in that regard.

I have two questions. Mr. Culbert said that the British state's responsibilities are being ignored in Dublin and Westminster and he asked that the role of DDR be adopted or at least acknowledged and to bring all the previous combatants in from the cold. Can he expand on how the British state is not fulfilling its responsibilities and give specific examples? Will he explain further what DDR is and how it could be used to bring people together, including both Governments?

What initiatives have had the greatest impact or does he have any insights or suggestions as to how those outside the process could be encouraged to come to the table and have their views heard?

Mr. Michael Culbert: I am grateful for the comments. I will respond to you first, Chairman. DDR is a process of demilitarisation, disarmament and reinsertion of the former fighters in wherever the conflict occurred. Our situation, and the republican perspective on it, is that one side has not been dealt with. I will not go into the history of it, but after the IRA ceasefire there was a situation in which a disarmament and demilitarisation process was under way. Part of that was the buying off of the former RUC. A sum of £1.5 billion was paid out to sever its members' employment and to insert a new policing force.

What usually happens in former combat situations is that one then recruits from one's peaceful community, but that was not so. We are carrying the criminal record and we could not join the new police force. That was one issue. There was a great opportunity and a very good spirit for a few years in the 1990 scenario. It was a great opportunity missed. My personal view is that had former political prisoners or former activists been able to join the police, it would have been very difficult for people to take up arms against them, as has been the situation in the North. It is in a very limited manner but it has been happening. This relates a little to a comment made earlier by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Much of our work is interacting, where they are willing, with other people who do not support the peace process and some of whom would be former political prisoners. It is very difficult work.

Part of what we do, together with loyalists, is visit schools, youth clubs and community groups to explain our actions. We explain what we did and why we did it. More importantly, we explain to them why we no longer do it and why it is no longer correct to do it. We make good logic because the circumstances are totally different. That is what we explain to people. The circumstances might look the same, but they are never the same. They always have changed. That is some of what we do as part of our work in peace building and reconciliation. As republicans, we also work very closely with former members of the British military forces. We interact with them. We operate a network of 12 offices throughout the northern half of the country and we bring them to visit our groups, we bring our people to meet with them and we bring them to meet our communities. Once again, the former members of the British military explain their circumstances. We consider this to be reconciliation of the east and west, not internal to the North or North and South. We are heavily engaged in that at present and it is paying dividends. Understanding leads to great changes in people's attitudes.

The Chairman said I should contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Currently, many of us are doing our work voluntarily because European funding has ended. The Department has refused to help. It obviously has grounds for declining - "refuse" is too strong a word - to offer us funding. There is no other source of funding, except a limited amount of funding within Belfast City Council.  However, that only caters for our Belfast offices. We have a large client base and a large geographical area to cover.

This may sound harsh, but it is a reality and we may as well speak about the elephant in the room. The people most likely to revert to using arms or to take militant actions are those with proven abilities to do it. Part of our work is to ensure the people whom we know have those abilities do not do it. That is why we engage with former members of the British military and former loyalists to explain that things are no longer the same. That is the work we are doing. It is not just about providing training courses for people on a computer and perhaps finding them a job. That is important at one level, but at a broader communal and societal level our work is to convince people to change in the long term to make the society of Ireland a much better place in which to live. I do not want it to sound idealistic, but that is literally what we do.

I think I have covered the issue raised by Deputy Thomas Pringle about disaffected former republicans.

We constantly refer to the problem in gaining access to the United States. I do not want this to sound in any way racist, but it is quite strange that the countries in which people are mostly white or Aryan - Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States - are the one we cannot get into. I have no idea what the British Government's contacts are with these countries, but they are the ones we cannot access. We have no problem in getting into Afghanistan, India or Thailand, but we cannot get into these countries. I often wonder why that is the case. They are the ones we are constantly struggling against. It is very difficult to get into Australia.

Mr. Tom Roberts: On a general point, the importance of the DDR is recognised in former conflict zones across the globe. As we have seen in other countries, if it is not addressed properly, there is the danger that former combatants will resort to whatever means are necessary to provide themselves and their families with a livelihood. We see examples of this in Northern Ireland, right across the board with former republicans and loyalists. I am not excusing the nefarious activity involved, but I can understand that if people are not given an opportunity to pursue legitimate livelihoods, they will resort to other means to make a living. I saw this happen in Nicaragua quite a few years ago. I know that it was in a different context, given that it is a Third World country, but former Contras and Sandinistas were coming together and taking to the mountains like bandits to enable them and their families to live because they were not being afforded an opportunity to pursue proper livelihoods.

On the general issue, as I mentioned, the feel-good factor associated with the Good Friday Agreement is long gone. There is now a notion, particularly among loyalists, that they are being made scapegoats for the conflict. All other sectors of society are absolving themselves of responsibility for creating the conditions that made conflict inevitable. We see ex-prisoners being pursued relentlessly in historical cases. I would like to think I have great empathy for victims because people suffered horrendously during the conflict. I acknowledge this and my role in it. However, the victims are constantly being played off for political reasons against ex-prisoners. The problems of both should be addressed. However, for victims of the conflict, in particular, there should be greater concentration on reparation rather than retribution.

Mr. Michael Culbert: I used the word "Aryan" earlier. I do not know from where that word came. I meant "Caucasian". Countries in which people are white are the ones that refuse us access. Perhaps it is because they are former colonies of Britain.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I asked about the proposal of the review panel that the voluntary code be put on a statutory basis. What is the status of that proposal? What interaction do the delegates have with members of the Executive on that legislative measure?

Mr. Tom Roberts: I am sorry; I missed that question.

Both groupings were involved in drawing up the voluntary guidelines for employers. It is a process that has been ongoing since 1998. There is a working group of ex-prisoners that has been chaired by successive heads of the Northern Ireland civil service. I reluctantly agreed to support the voluntary guidelines because I believed legislation was necessary. We decided it to give it a fair wind and were led to believe the civil service would commit to implementing the voluntary guidelines. I think it actually went as far as stating it would penalise any contractor servicing it if it did not adopt them also. However, shortly after the voluntary guidelines were published, there was a question asked in the Assembly. The Minister for Finance and Personnel - it might have been Mr. Peter Robinson at the time - said the existing recruitment processes within the civil service were adequate and effectively nothing changed. In my view, the voluntary guidelines are dead in the water.

There is one other point. There is apathy among ex-prisoners on the issue of employment; they just say, "There is no point in applying for that job as I won't get it anyway." It is very difficult to research the issue of discrimination because people say it is just apathy. Many of the ex-prisoners were incarcerated in the 1970s and early 1980s; they are, therefore, thinking more about retirement rather than employment. There has also been no provision for retirement.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Is there no appetite among political parties in the Assembly and in the Executive to provide legislative measures?

Mr. Tom Roberts: It is very low down on their list of priorities.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Is that true of all parties in the Assembly?

Mr. Tom Roberts: Yes.

Mr. Michael Culbert: That is not quite correct. There is a particular political party in the Assembly that would like to see situation changed. I do not need to explain to people here that cross-party support is needed in Stormont for legislative change. There will not be a move by a particular political party to have parity of esteem or equality of citizenship for former IRA prisoners.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan On behalf of the joint committee, I thank the delegates for meeting us. We have had a very informative discussion on an issue that goes to the very core of seeking peace and reconciliation for all those affected by the troubled past of Northern Ireland. I commend the delegates' genuine commitment to the peace process and for their work in that regard. Groups such as theirs coming together in this way is a positive step and a good omen for the future of the island. I again thank them for their attendance.

  Sitting suspended 11.30 a.m. and resumed at 11.50 a.m.

Proposed Repeal of UK Human Rights Act: Discussion

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I apologise for the delay. I welcome the representatives of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ms Emily Logan, who is the chief commissioner, and Mr. David Joyce and Mr. Mark Kelly, who are members of the commission. I also welcome the representatives of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Mr. Les Allamby, who is the chief Commissioner, Ms Virginia McVea, who is the director of the commission; and Mr. David Russell, who is the deputy director of the commission. They are here to discuss the potential effect that the UK Government's proposal to repeal the UK Human Rights Act 1998 could have on the Good Friday Agreement. I ask Ms Logan to make her opening statement. She will be followed by Mr. Allamby. Members of the joint committee will then be invited to ask questions.

Ms Emily Logan: I thank the Chair. We are very pleased to be here along with our colleagues from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. We thank the joint committee for the kind invitation to address it this morning. We have decided that our guests from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission should speak first, if that is okay with the Chairman. Therefore, I hand over to my colleague, Mr. Allamby.

Mr. Les Allamby: I thank the joint committee for inviting us to speak. I have inherited a strong long-standing working relationship with the Irish commission. This has been reinforced in the early days of both of our tenures as chief commissioners. I am particularly pleased that we are able to make a joint presentation to the committee today. I would like to lay out what we know about the proposal to repeal the UK Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, before exploring the ramifications of such a measure for the Belfast Agreement. I will be more than happy to take questions on that.

In September 2014, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced at the Conservative Party conference her intention to repeal the Human Rights Act. These kinds of announcements are sometimes no more than a play for the gallery, but in this case the announcement was followed almost immediately by the publication by the Conservative Party of a document, Protecting Human Rights in the UK. Two of the key objectives set out in the document were to repeal the Human Rights Act and put the text of the convention into primary legislation. Significantly, the document proposed to break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The effect of this would be to treat court judgments as advisory opinions. Instead, the question of which judgments the UK Government would follow and which it would not would be decided by means of some kind of parliamentary process. I might characterise this is as a "pick and mix" approach to court judgments. The document also proposed to limit the use of human rights laws to the most serious cases. No detail was given on what that might mean in practice. We still do not know what the Conservative Party has in mind in this respect.

The document published by the Conservatives also proposed to reduce the reach of cases to the UK. In this case, we have an indication of what they almost certainly mean. They are seeking to address the concerns of the UK Government about being held to account for what the UK armed forces do abroad, for example. Cases have been taken regarding the deployment of troops even though they are ill-equipped to deal with the conflict to which they are being sent, or regarding the behaviour of the armed forces in certain situations. The Conservative Party has also announced its intention to amend the ministerial code, which places a duty on Ministers and civil servants to respect international legal obligations. While this might almost sound prosaic, the idea of amending the ministerial code suggests there is more to this than might at first have seemed the case.

According to the Conservative Party document, it was intended to negotiate these changes through the Council of Europe in the first instance. However, the party was proposing withdrawing from the Council of Europe altogether if it did not prove possible to make such accommodations. One of the difficulties with that approach is the reality that Article 46 of the convention requires all signatories to abide by the judgment of the courts and those judgments are then supervised by the Council of Europe. The party was putting itself on a collision course with the Council of Europe. The reality is that if these proposals are put forward, the chances of them being negotiated with the Council of Europe are somewhere between negligible and nil. Those initial proposals subsequently appeared in the Conservative Party manifesto, albeit without reference to withdrawing from the Council of Europe. More recently, they appeared in the Queen's speech, which repeated the intention to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights. On that occasion, it was announced that there would be consultation on the changes. The process of consultation is currently undefined and is without a timetable. My understanding is that the brakes have been applied to this process. The lack of detail reflects considerable unease within Whitehall about the original proposals.

There has been no mention in any of the proposals to date of what this means for the Belfast Agreement. As the members of the joint committee are aware, human rights and equality is one of the foundation stones of the agreement. It underpins the agreement. Annex 1 of the Agreement affirms the commitment to human rights, the intention to incorporate the convention with direct access to the courts and the remedies for breaches of the convention, including the power to overrule Northern Ireland Assembly legislation. At the time the Agreement was signed, the Human Rights Act was in its genesis. The Act came into effect in 2000, but the commitment to implement the human rights agreement was already there in 1998. The Northern Ireland Act subsequently enshrined the requirement of the Assembly to enact legislation which must be compatible with the convention. There are a number of checks and balances within the Northern Ireland Act.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I am afraid I will have to stop Mr. Allamby there because we have a vote in the Dáil.

Mr. Les Allamby: Okay.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan Does Mr. Allamby have much more of his presentation to read?

Mr. Les Allamby: I can canter through it if the Chairman wishes.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan No, we will come back to it. I apologise about this.

Mr. Les Allamby: No, it is fine.

  Sitting suspended at 11.58 a.m. and resumed at 12.14 p.m.

Mr. Les Allamby: To recap quickly, Annex 1 of the Belfast Agreement affirmed the commitment to human rights, to incorporate the convention in terms of direct access to the courts and remedies for breaches of the convention, including powers to override Assembly legislation. That was done through the UK Human Rights Act and the Northern Ireland Act which subsequently enshrined the requirement for the Assembly to ensure its legislation was compatible with the convention. There are a number of checks and balances to ensure that happens, both by way of prevention and cure. For example, the Human Rights Commission and the Attorney General can offer advice on the status of legislation and whether it is compatible with the convention. If the Assembly were to go ahead and enact legislation that was contrary to the convention, the Secretary of State would have powers to override it. To date, the Secretary of State has never had to exercise these powers.

Also included in the Belfast Agreement was a provision for the commission to consult and advise on the scope of a Bill of Rights for defining in Westminster legislation supplementary to provisions included in the convention, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. For us, that is clear evidence that adherence to convention rights is not to be trampled down. There are considerable ramifications for the Belfast Agreement. The three United Kingdom national human rights institutions have recently signalled to the Human Rights Council that the Act is a force for good and that the current proposals have ramifications, both internationally and domestically, for devolved administrations. This extends beyond Northern Ireland to Scotland and Wales.

The St. Andrews Agreement of 2006 reaffirmed that human rights and equality were at its heart. The Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 also made references to having proper regard to the fundamental rights protected by the convention, in terms of any resolution of the outstanding parading issues and the need to take appropriate steps to improve the way the legacy inquest function was conducted and, in particular, to comply with Article 2 on right to life requirements to ensure a proper, independent process was put in place for investigations into deaths in Northern Ireland.

Human rights are in the DNA of the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements. It is an international treaty which has been lodged at the United Nations by the two sovereign Governments, both of which are custodians of it. That means that, as articulated, the proposals are clearly matters for the Irish Government. Both commissions have welcomed the interventions made to date by it. I ask the committee to reinforce the message the Irish Government has already given that any proposal subsequently made must take into account the ramifications for the Agreement and be mindful of the international obligations within it and beyond when it is sought to make changes to the UK Human Rights Act.

Ms Emily Logan: This is an important opportunity to recall the commitments made in 1998 to respect and protect human rights and equality of opportunity. In signing the Belfast Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement the parties affirmed their "commitment to the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community". Since 1998 there has been substantial progress in implementing the human rights elements of the Good Friday Agreement. The founding of two national human rights institutions on the island saw the establishment of the former Irish Human Rights Commission under the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, with a statutory obligation to ensure the realisation and protection of the human rights of all persons in the State. In 2014 the Irish Human Rights Commission was merged with the Equality Authority to create a new body, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, with an expanded mandate and enhanced powers. The 2014 Act explicitly provides for a stronger level of institutional independence and direct accountability to the Oireachtas.

The Belfast Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement laid down not only a mandate for both national human rights institutions but also a mechanism to ensure strong co-operation between them.  The Agreement specifically envisaged the establishment of a joint committee with representatives of the two bodies, North and South, as a forum for considering human rights issues on the island of Ireland.

The first official meeting of the joint committee took place in November 2001 and, since then, members have engaged on several key issues and collaborated on all-island events. Recent examples include the jointly hosted conference held in Newry which brought human rights and anti-poverty practitioners together to discuss poverty on the island of Ireland and ways of responding at a legal, policy and community level. In addition, this years conference on gender equality included expert speakers from across the island of Ireland.

As well as through the formal structure of the joint committee, the two commissions have had the opportunity to meet and participate regularly at a regional and global level in international networks of national human rights institutions.

In terms of the charter of right for the island of Ireland, under the Agreement, the joint committee of both commissions was invited to consider the possibility of creating a charter of rights for everyone living on the island of Ireland. The former Irish Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission together published their advice on a charter of rights for the island of Ireland in June 2011 and this was presented to the Irish Government, the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The joint committee recommended that, as a minimum, a charter of rights for the island of Ireland should reaffirm the political parties' commitment to the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission are concerned and wish to reiterate Mr. Allamby's call that the terms of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement may be affected if the British Government carries through on its pre-election manifesto promises to repeal the UK Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. As Mr. Allamby has already indicated human rights protections were a core feature, not an add on, of the peace process and the negotiations around the Agreement.

Two referenda were held, North and South, on 22 May 1998, in which voters across the island gave their support to their respective governments to approve the Agreement. As part of the Agreement, the Irish Government committed to bringing forward measures to ensure at least an equivalent level of protection of human rights in the South as in the North. Repeal of the Act and withdrawal from the European Convention would have negative consequences for the uniformity of human rights standards across these islands.

The importance of promoting and protecting human rights is fundamental to safeguarding peace, respect and inclusion in communities across the island of Ireland.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan stated in his address to the Seanad recently:

The formal human rights architecture, including the European Convention of Human Rights, is woven into the structures of the Agreements, to give shape and effect to their principles and aspirations.

The Irish Government has demonstrated that it takes seriously its responsibility to safeguard the Agreement. It is the hope of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission that this commitment will continue into the future. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission are committed to working together on human rights issues which affect people throughout the island of Ireland. Full implementation of this aspect of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement can only be ensured if both commissions are properly resourced and their work supported. I would therefore encourage the members of the joint committee to do as Mr. Les Allamby has suggested in terms of commitment to the Human Rights Act and to ensure that there is continued commitment to the work of the two commissions into the future.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan Thank you Ms Logan. Before I call Deputy Pringle I wish to put some questions. In her presentation, Ms Logan states that withdrawal from the European Convention could have negative consequences for the uniformity of human rights standards across these islands, will she expand on this and specify the areas of particular concern?

Does Ms Logan believe that a Northern Ireland bill of rights would be a positive step forward in addressing the outstanding legacy issues that are impeding full reconciliation in Northern Ireland? Should the respective governments seeks to introduce a bill of rights as a matter of priority?

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle I would like to thank members of both commissions for their presentations. It is not clear whether the British Government will deliver on its intention to repeal the Human Rights Act. It might stagnate and not move any further. If the consultation commences on its proposals will both the Irish and British commissions participate in the consultation?

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is registered with the United Nations and is an international treaty, is it a potential breach of international law for the British Government to unilaterally introduce these changes? If so, what can either or both commissions do in respect of that? Is the commission in the South answerable to the Oireachtas? Is this an issue that the Oireachtas could take on board?

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris I thank Mr. Allamby and Ms Logan for their very informative and precise presentations. The protection of human rights is core to the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement. People were trying to find a way out of the mess and I absolutely and fully concur with that. The repeal of the Act and the withdrawal from the European Convention would be a terrible signal and would be viewed in that light by human rights activists both internationally and nationally. One would hope the British Prime Minister, David Cameron would draw back from that.

Has Mr. Allamby met or made a formal presentation to the British Government on this issue and has he stated clearly the implications of their suggestion? Equally has he made a formal representation to the Irish Government on this issue? Does he believe that David Cameron will have a significant majority to repeal this Bill, should he decide to do so eventually?

I appreciate very much the presentations that have been made.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I propose that the witnesses answer this round of questions.

Mr. Les Allamby: Several issue have been raised. I was asked how I would deal with the question of uniformity and the consequences of the repeal and withdrawal of the convention. There are two dimensions, one is a wider international dimension that is beyond the Belfast Agreement.

The UK Government prides itself in terms of its foreign policy of talking to other governments about the importance of nation states meeting their international human rights obligations. Frankly it becomes very difficult to talk to other countries if one does not meeting one's own international human rights obligations. The idea that one can negotiate some kind of accommodation that states that if one does not like what judges in Strasbourg say, one can pick and choose what to follow has all sorts of ramifications. The UK Government has been before the court on 14 occasions in 2014. It has been held to have breached the convention on four occasions. The Russian Federation has been before the court on 129 times and has been found in breach on 122 occasions. I am pretty sure that Vladimir Putin would like a pick and mix approach to the European Convention. It has ramifications beyond these islands.

We all know where politics are. The Belfast Agreement was designed to be anchored for a generation and beyond. Quite frankly we are not quite sure where we will be politically in a month or six months time, not to mind ten or 20 years. The purposes of human rights and equality - I will come back to the bill of rights - were to be substantial bulwarks to ensure we can survive whatever the political situation is in Northern Ireland. Therefore this becomes very important. In a time of relative political stability, the issue of human rights and equality when the political relationship works very well, may assume less importance than at times when there are real political instabilities and tensions. Human rights should be there on universal basis that can ensure whatever the way the wind is blowing, we can recognise the rule of law and that includes human rights provisions. That is very important for us. In terms of the discussions, yes we have discussions with the Northern Ireland Office in particular and with the Secretary of State. I think it is clear that they are very sighted on the ramifications for the Belfast Agreement. I do not think they are under any illusions that the proposals as originally set forth would create some considerable difficulties.  My best, fairly educated guess is they welcome the consultation process and the idea that perhaps we might have some more mature reflection. I am less sanguine about the idea that it will simply stagnate and not happen. They have committed themselves to doing something. The question will be what. They could have quietly dropped it by not putting it in the Queen's speech and they chose not to do that. It is fairly clear to me that something will have to happen.

In the politics of this, the other issue is it could get caught up in the backwash of broader European Union issues. On a purely speculative but best-guess basis on my part, they may wish to get the European Union referendum out of the way before they move down this road, but who knows where we will be sitting after the European Union referendum and what the politics will be? There are certainly a number of MPs within the Conservative Party who are equally uneasy with these proposals and, therefore, it would be unwise to take for granted the idea that the whole of the Conservative Party will rally behind this. It is clear that many of the other political parties will oppose this. That is where we are there.

In terms of the bill of rights, briefly, we would like to see a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. For us, it is unfinished business in the Belfast Agreement. It was designed to supplement the European Convention. It was designed to be there in both times of stability and instability and that is why human rights are really important. Human rights should be there to ensure that when the state is under pressure, as opposed to when it is not, it abides by its human rights commitments. That is where human rights often come into best effect.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan Does anybody else wish to respond?

Ms Emily Logan: On the question on the European Convention on Human Rights, domestically, the convention has been introduced through the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003. Contained in that Act are three core obligations that are significant in terms of defending and advancing human rights in this jurisdiction. Two of the key elements or core obligations are, first, that in applying the rule of law the courts are obliged to do so in a manner that is compatible with the convention and, second, that every organ of the State must perform its functions in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter is an important provision in terms of protecting human rights as it explicitly regulates the manner in which public bodies undertake their business. I will ask Mr. Mark Kelly to elaborate.

Mr. Mark Kelly: I return to the Chairman's question, because he zeroed in on the following phrase in our opening statement, as to what are the "negative consequences for the uniformity of human rights standards across these islands"? If this were to happen, it would fundamentally undermine the principle of equivalence which is embedded in the Good Friday Agreement and a situation would be created under which it would be possible for persons to go to court and for their lawyers to argue directly before the courts in this jurisdiction the case law of the European Court of Human Rights but that would no longer potentially be possible in the neighbouring jurisdiction on the island. That effect of that is twofold. It is, first, that one creates a jurisdiction in which the subsidiarity arguability of these Strasbourg standards is no longer directly available to those in the courts. One also then creates a cohort of persons, including a significant number who hold Irish passports and self-identify as Irish living in the neighbouring jurisdiction who would no longer have the same level of protection as those in this jurisdiction do. If one thinks about another outworking of it in terms of the Traveller community here, one would have an indigenous national minority who are travelling on the island who in one part of the island would have a completely different lower level of protection in the neighbouring jurisdiction than they would have here, and that offends against another fundamental principle of international human rights, which is that of non-retrogression. Our colleague, Mr. Les Allamby, in his opening statement, referred to another joint statement, which was made by the three United Kingdom national human rights institutions to the United Nations earlier this year, in which they put it simply. They stated:

our human rights laws must pass a simply test: do they take us forwards or back? We would not support a reversal of the leading global role ... [that] has played in protecting and promoting human rights

in the neighbouring jurisdiction and the other jurisdictions that neighbour us, if this were to go forward. Those are the two principal problems: the creation of unequal playing fields in terms of the protection of human rights and retrogression in terms of the current level of protection.

Mr. Les Allamby: Ms McVea will follow up on the legacy issues that were being asked about.

Ms Virginia McVea: A practical observation would be that, because the Belfast - Good Friday - Agreement did not describe in detail the framework for dealing with the past, what has happened in reality in the North is that Strasbourg has stood in the gap for us when we face the difficulty of how will we investigate the deaths, to what standards and what should be the process. It is the Strasbourg judgment in cases, such as Jordan, and the follow-up by the committee of Ministers, that has helped to ensure that processes occur. When one asks about the difficulties about withdrawal, one of our difficulties would be that we do not yet have agreement following the Stormont House arrangements on how that would work itself out and, therefore, Strasbourg and those judgments continue to stand in the gap.

If that were removed, we would have further difficulties in breach of other treaties ratified by the United Kingdom Government, for example, the covenant on civil and political rights, because it is the judgments of Strasbourg that have helped the United Kingdom Government stay on some of the right side of those ratified treaties as well. If we had not had those judgments and we had not had the processes that followed, we would have been in further breach.

Ms Emily Logan: On the question on consultation, we are liaising closely with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I assure the committee that we will be speaking with one voice and we will be working closely together on that.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I call Mr. Pat Doherty MP.

Mr. Pat Doherty: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chathaoirleach. I thank all of the witnesses for their clear and precise presentations.

It has been rightly stated, both here and by the Irish Government, that the repealing of the Human Rights Act would constitute a flagrant breach of the Good Friday Agreement. I wonder what is their view as to what more the Irish Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, can do.

I note that another Oireachtas joint committee, the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, made a submission to the British Government on the potential referendum in Britain about leaving Europe. Should this committee, as guarantor or standard bearer for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, put together a submission on behalf of the Good Friday Agreement, and also present it to the British Government? We cannot take this lightly. We all - the Irish Government, both groups here and, I would assume, this committee - are on the one page. What should we do as a committee to make it clear to the British Government that this is not acceptable?

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I apologise. I had to go to two other meetings in the meantime. It is one of those crazy days. Unfortunately, I missed the presentations. However, I ready the documentation that had been advanced.

I merely want to comment. It would be absolutely reprehensible and totally unacceptable for there to be changes to or abolition of the Human Rights Act by the British Government. An important part of the narrative of the Good Friday Agreement, of which both governments are co-guarantors, that we often leave out is that it is an international agreement and it is lodged with the United Nations, and no one party to that agreement can make a unilateral decision to take a sledgehammer to an important part of the agreement. I was one of those who was glad to have the opportunity to canvas in 1998 in favour of the referendum here. Of course, that was a historic day for the country when the people on all of this island had the opportunity to vote on the one question on the same day. The referenda were overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of this country and that is a message we need to get to the British Government. Politically, we need to do it. We have been doing that through parliamentary questions, statements and Topical Issues here in the Dáil and in the Oireachtas in general.  The British Government is honouring an election pledge. We know that Governments are not good at honouring election pledges. We sincerely hope they do not honour the political pledge that it made in advance of the general election to abolish the Human Rights Act because I think it would be a total slight on another sovereign government and on important international agreements that are lodged with the United Nations. As has been said, both the British and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of the agreement. We want to see the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews Agreement and the Weston Park Agreement fully implemented.

We have had many presentations in the past number of years from different representative organisations and advocacy groups in regard to the need for a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. We should be advancing rather than going backwards. That is a very important message that needs to go out to the public at large on the whole island and in Britain. Significant progress has been made, but we do not underestimate the need to build on that progress and deal with issues of concern which, if they are not dealt with, could cause trouble in the future, which none of us wants to see.

I apologise for not being present to listen the presentations. I have read the written submissions and appreciate the work that has been done. I fully endorse the presentations. I urge the witnesses to continue to advocate very strongly on these issues.

Deputy Dessie Ellis: Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis Have the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission engaged with the human rights bodies in England, Scotland and Wales? What is their attitude to the Irish commissions? Obviously they are well aware of the significance of this vis-à-vis the Good Friday Agreement, which is an international agreement. Will they explain how they are faring with that?

Ms Emily Logan: I ask Mr. Allamby to take that question.

Mr. Les Allamby: I can answer the questions posed by Deputy Brendan Smith and Mr. Pat Doherty on some of the useful things they could do.

The Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom is responsible for carrying this forward, but it is clear that both the Northern Ireland Office and, significantly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are extremely interested in how this moves forward. It is one of the great paradoxes that, despite the political populism that is antipathetic to the European Union and, at times, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the United Kingdom Government spends a great deal of time trying to extend its influence within those institutions and puts a lot of time and energy into its relationships with Brussels, Strasbourg and so on to ensure that it punches above its weight. I think that is what the Irish Government can do, in terms of talking to the UK Government and also on the international stage, where I think the UK Government is very sensitive to its field of influence. There are things the Irish Government can do because of its very good relationships on the international stage that can be extremely useful. That is where some of the pressure may come to bear.

On the question of whether we have engaged with human rights organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, the short answer is "Yes," as Mr. Mark Kelly outlined. The other commissions are very involved in this. The joint statement was put together to send to the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is very clear, for example, in Scotland that there is no appetite for abolishing the Human Rights Act. There is the Smith Commission and there is a Scotland Bill, and there will be considerable constitutional tensions if the proposals as set out were passed on a UK-wide basis. There is no doubt that there would be considerable issues with regard to Scotland getting out of the Human Rights Act as there is no desire for that to happen. Other constitutional issues are in play.

The proposals as set out would almost certainly end in a number of domestic and probably international courts. Whether or not that is resiled from when we see what the consultation brings forward, there is a great deal to play for at present. It is very important that we do the work now rather than waiting until something is produced. For me, time is of the essence. The value of the stepping back from implementing this quickly is that it provides an opportunity for commissions, governments and others who are players in this, including the Irish Government, to really make an impact

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle Mr. Allamby said it could end up in some international court. Which actors would take it to the international stage? Would it have to be Ireland as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement? Should we be preparing for that by exploring the case?

Mr. Les Allamby: I think it would be very useful to explore the ramifications. This is probably a case in which prevention is better than the cure. When the proposals come out, one of the things that will almost certainly be done in a number of places - and it would be very useful if it were done here - is an examination of the legal ramifications of the road that is being trodden. This will be a litmus test of whether it meets all its international obligations, as it is one of the areas on which, no doubt, there will be discussion once the proposals come into effect.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle Based on what we know at present, it is very doubtful that it could meet international obligations.

Mr. Les Allamby: Certainly there are a number of very significant legal issues that arise if the proposals set out in October 2014 are put into effect. There are a number of areas in which that would end up being tested. I think it is both domestically and internationally significant. There is an interesting dynamic around the European Union because, increasingly, the EU and the European Court of Justice, though the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, will have a role in looking at the convention in some of the work that it does. Confining this to Strasbourg is no longer possible. We are moving to a stage at which the European Union and its own court have a role to play in considering the European Convention on Human Rights. Our relationship with the UK and the European Union also has to play out, but there are significant other factors, and these international agreements have ramifications, as Deputy Pringle states, beyond these shores.

Mr. Pat Doherty: May I pick up on Mr. Allamby's comment on bringing this issue to the international stage? While the American Administration is not a formal signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, it had a significant part to play in terms of chairing the meetings and supporting them. Would that be one of the forums that Mr. Allamby is thinking about?

Mr. Les Allamby: I would have said "Yes." What was interesting in the referendum on Scottish independence, in which the involvement of the United States would have been seen as less immediate, was that, while it was careful in its comments, towards the end of the referendum process, the United States did make its views on it tacitly clear. I would have thought that, frankly, given its role in the creation of the Belfast Agreement, the US would be keeping more than a weather eye on this.

Chairman: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms Logan, Mr. Allamby and their teams for meeting us today. The discussion has been very informative on an issue that is of profound significance to future peace and genuine reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is also intrinsic to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.50 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 16 July 2015.

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