17 June 2005

Daily Ireland

No republicans on rights body

By Jarlath Kearney

No one from a republican background has been appointed to serve on the North’s newly-constituted Human Rights Commission.
Commissioners with strong links to the SDLP, Alliance Party, Women’s Coalition and DUP have all been appointed in a tranche of seven new members announced by secretary of state, Peter Hain, in London yesterday.
As revealed by Daily Ireland yesterday, former Women’s Coalition MLA and University of Ulster lecturer Monica McWilliams was appointed as chief commissioner. Ms McWilliams takes over from Professor Brice Dickson, who stepped down in February 2005.
DUP MLA Ian Paisley Jr yesterday attacked the appointment of Ms McWilliams and claimed that she lacks credibility.
Sinn Féin human rights spokesperson Caitríona Ruane reacted coolly to the announcement of new commissioners and declared that the reconstituted commission will be judged on its results.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said the announcement marks a “new beginning” for the commission.
Two figures with close links to the SDLP, Queen’s University Belfast law professor Colin Harvey and Down District Policing Partnership chairperson Eamon O’Neill, are among the new appointees.
Alongside Ms McWilliams, new commissioner Ann Hope has links with the Women’s Coalition.
Alliance Party councillor and deputy mayor of Castlereagh, Geraldine Rice, and controversial Ards DUP councillor Johnathan Bell have also been appointed.
Speaking to Daily Ireland last night, Monica McWilliams said that “it is not contradictory for someone committed to human rights to have a strong political activist role”.
Ms McWilliams said she feels “it is a wonderful opportunity for anyone to be given the chance to lead the Commission in drafting a Bill of Rights”.
The Bill of Rights was a major recommendation coming out of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and Ms McWilliam said completing that project “is going to be the major objective of the next Commission”.
Ms McWilliams also praised recent work by the commission’s staff in relation to issues like the rights of women prisoners at Maghaberry and subsequently at Hydebank young offenders centre.
A key problem in terms of the previous commission’s handling of the Bill of Rights was that some commissioners wished to undermine existing fair employment monitoring by removing the established practice of communal designation. On this point Ms McWilliams said she has no intention of “reinventing the wheel”.
“In other countries there has been a sunset clause on that type of monitoring, but we’re probably nowhere near that yet,” she said.
The new chief commissioner also said that she made the strengthening of the commission’s powers “an issue in my own appointment”.
Sinn Féin MLA for South Down Caitríona Ruane said that “the worrying thing about this commission is the number of political appointees”.
“Sinn Féin has always said people on the commission should have a strong record as human rights experts. From an initial scrutiny of the new commission, it is ‘human rights-light’.
“Given these political appointees and the British government’s treatment of the commission, Monica McWilliams has an uphill battle on her hands.
“The commission itself will be judged in terms of the outcomes it delivers,” Ms Ruane said.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan welcomed the appointment of Monica McWilliams and called the new Commission a “positive step”.
“I endorse in particular her stated commitment to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as promised under the Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Durkan said.
Ian Paisley Jr said the appointment of Monica McWilliams is “a clear sign of the government’s total disregard for the view of unionists in Northern Ireland”.

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