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Background information on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission



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Text: Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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THE NORTHERN IRELAND HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION
BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Origins and composition

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a body which was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and which was formally established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on 1 March 1999. It comprises a full-time Chief Commissioner and nine part-time Commissioners, all of whom have been appointed initially for a three-year period. The Chief Commissioner is Professor Brice Dickson. The other Commissioners are Ms Christine Bell. Mrs Margaret-Ann Dinsmore QC, Mr Tom Donnelly MBE JP DL, Rev Harold Good OBE, Professor Tom Hadden. Ms Angela Hegarty, Ms Patricia Kelly, Ms Iñez McCormack and Mr Frank McGuinness.

Accountability

The Commission is funded by the Northern Ireland Office, receiving £750,000 in its first financial year. but otherwise the Commission is completely independent from government. It is accountable. through the Secretary of State. to Parliament at Westminster and is subject to oversight by the UK Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.

Premises

The Human Rights Commission is currently based at Temple Court, 3941 North Street, Belfast BTI INA (tel: 01232-243987), but it will probably be moving premises later in 1999.

Functions

Under section 69 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Commission has the following duties:

  1. To keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness in Northern Ireland of law and practice relating to the protection of human rights.
  2. To advise the Secretary of State and the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly of legislative and other measures which ought to be taken to protect human rights.
  3. To advise the Northern Ireland Assembly whether a Bill is compatible with human rights.
  4. To promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights in Northern Ireland by, for example, undertaking or commissioning or otherwise assisting research and educational activities.
  5. To provide advice to the Secretary of State on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights.
  6. To make to the Secretary of State within two years such recommendations as it thinks fit for improving the Commissionís effectiveness.
  7. To do all that it can to ensure the establishment of a Joint Committee with the (proposed) Human Rights Commission in the Republic of Ireland.

In addition, under the same section, the Commission has the following powers:

  1. To give assistance to individuals who apply to it for help in relation to proceedings involving law or practice concerning the protection of human rights.
  2. To bring proceedings involving law or practice concerning the protection of human rights.
  3. To conduct such investigations as it considers necessary or expedient for the purpose of exercising its other functions.
  4. To publish its advice and the outcome of its research and investigations.

Mission Statement

The Commission has adopted the following Mission Statement based on the above statutory duties and powers:

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will work vigorously and independently to ensure that the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland are fully and firmly protected in law, policy and practice. To that end the Commission will measure law, policy and practice in Northern Ireland against internationally accepted rules and principles for the protection of human rights and will exercise to the full the functions conferred upon it to ensure that those rules and principles are promoted adopted and applied throughout Northern Ireland

In carrying out its functions the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be independent, fair, open and accessible, while maintaining the confidentiality of information conveyed to it in private. It will perform its functions in a manner which is efficient, informative and in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland

Planning and staffing

The Commission is in the process of drawing up a three-year Strategic Plan. It is likely that this will be issued for consultation in July 1999, with a final version being published (after comments on the draft have been taken on board) in October 1999. Ultimately the Commission is likely to employ about 12 staff In this first wave of appointments the Commission is seeking to appoint six staff The Commission expects to advertise a second wave of posts (including, probably, those of Chief of Education Research and Information and Chief of Casework and Investigations) before the end of 1999.

Relationships with other bodies

The Commission will be operating alongside various other statutory bodies which have a role to play in upholding human rights in Northern Ireland.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

The Equality Commission is in the process of being established and is expected to be up and running in the summer of 1999. It will be an amalgamation of four existing bodies:

The Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland
Andras House, 60 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7B (tel: 01232-240020)
(discrimination on grounds of religious or political belief or opinion)

The Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland
Chamber of Commerce House. 22 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7BA (tel:01232-242752)
(discrimination on grounds of gender or marital status)

The Commission for Racial Equality (Northern Ireland)
Scottish Legal House, 65-67 Chichester Street, Belfast BT1 4JT (tel: 01232-315996)
(discrimination on grounds of race, ethnic origins or nationality)

The Northern Ireland Disability Council
Room C4.8, Castle Buildings, Stormont, Belfast BT3 3PP (tel: 01232-520528).
(discrimination on grounds of disability).

In addition. the Equality Commission will oversee the equality schemes which all public authorities now have to draw up. It will be able to proof these from the point of view of equality based on age, sexual orientation and family status (as well as on the grounds mentioned above).

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

The Police Ombudsmanís office is also in the process of being established and is expected to be up and running by the end of 1999. It will be responsible for investigating complaints made against the police in Northern Ireland and will take over the functions formerly exercised by the Independent Commission for Police Complaints. The address of the ICPC is Chamber of Commerce House, 22 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7LP (tel: 01232-244821).

The Criminal Cases Review Commission

Although based in Birmingham, the Criminal Cases Review Commission also deals with cases arising in Northern Ireland. It looks at alleged miscarriages of justice in criminal cases and can recommend that a case be sent back to the Court of Appeal for a retrial. The CCRCís address is Alpha Tower, Suffolk Street Queensway, Birmingham B1 1TT (tel: 0121-633-1800).

The Assembly Ombudsman

Known as the Parliamentary Ombudsman until the Northern Ireland Assembly is operational, the Assembly Ombudsman deals with complaints of maladministration made against Northern Ireland Government Departments. "Maladministration" includes neglect. delay and arbitrariness. Complaints will be dealt with only if they are "sponsored" by a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Ombudsmanís address is Progressive House, 33 Wellington Place, Belfast BT1 6HN (tel: 01232-233821).

The Commissioner for Complaints

This official (the same person as the Assembly Ombudsman) deals with complaints of maladministration made against local district councils and other "quangos" in Northern Ireland (e.g. Education and Library Boards, Health and Social Services Boards, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, etc). Complaints do not have to be "sponsored" by an elected politician. The address of the Commissioner for Complaints is Progressive House, 33 Wellington Place, Belfast BT1 6HN (tel: 01232-233821).

The United Kingdom Ombudsman

The UK Ombudsman - officially known as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration - deals with complaints of maladministration against UK Government Departments, including the Northern Ireland Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Court Service, the Inland Revenue and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission itself. Complaints are dealt with only if they are "sponsored" by an MP. The Ombudsmanís address is Church House, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BW (tel: 0171-276-3000).

The Parades Commission

The Parades Commission decides which parades should be allowed to proceed in Northern Ireland, and along which routes. It operates under the Public Processions (NI) Act 1998. Its address is 12th floor, Windsor House, 6-12 Bedford Street, Belfast BT2 7EL (tel: 01232-895900).

The Sentence Review Commissioners

The Sentence Review Commissioners make recommendations concerning the release of prisoners, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement 1998. They operate under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Their address is 5th floor, Windsor House, 6-12 Bedford Street, Belfast BT2 7EL (tel: 01232-549412).

The Victims Liaison Unit

The Victims Liaison Unit is a unit within government which supports the implementation of the Bloomfield Report (1998) into victimsí rights. Its address is Room 123, Stormont House Annex, Stormont Estate, Belfast BT4 3ST (tel: 01232-527900).


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