Stormont’s back – and everyone’s inbox is full

16 Jan 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 17 Jan 2020

Stormont’s return has left the NIHRC annual statement out of date, sort of - but it’s also more relevant than when it was published.
Stormont’s return has left the NIHRC annual statement out of date, sort of - but it’s also more relevant than when it was published.

The Assembly’s return is a big deal and surely better than the past three years. However, the list of issues MLAs face is enormous. Scope looks at human rights in NI.


The NI Human Rights Commission annual statement was published less than a month ago and, in a sense, is already out of date.

The document’s cover picture is Stormont with a road closure sign. Commissioner Les Allamby described how local rights issues were suffering years of drift because of the Assembly’s collapse.

He cited healthcare struggles, poverty and rising homelessness as issues that were concerning. Like many local issues, they are bad and getting worse.

Mr Allamby said in his statement foreword: “The absence of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly has practical consequences that extend beyond a lack of political accountability and the democratic deficit.

“In stark terms, two examples will suffice. Figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released in October 2019 revealed that 205 people who were homeless in Northern Ireland have died in the last 18 months. This is more than a quarter of all homeless deaths in the UK during that period.

“The figures in Northern Ireland are kept in a way that more accurately reflect homelessness than in the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, behind every death is an individual story and a wider tale of society’s failure to properly protect vulnerable people.

“Moreover, Northern Ireland has not had a childcare strategy since the previous three-year strategy expired in 1992. There is no statutory duty on government departments or public authorities to provide an adequate level of childcare in Northern Ireland.

“Contrast this with England and Wales, where there are statutory duties to provide the equivalent of 30 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year for three and four year olds, and 15 hours of early years provision for two year olds in certain circumstances…

“Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland the first formal strategy on childcare for almost 30 years remains on the drawing board, awaiting the signature of an absent government Minister.”

Out of date – but never more relevant

Framing all these matters within the absence of Stormont made perfect sense in mid December. The re-establishment of an Assembly and Executive renders that framing obsolete, but nothing more. All the issues remain and, now, the focus is not on our lack of a government but on the fact we do have one, the fact we have expectations – and the fact they have work to do.

NIHRC’s annual statement operates a traffic light system to measure progress for the individual issues the Commission has identified as significant in Northern Ireland. There are 86 issues in total, grouped under 14 themes related to article of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Per the statement: “This is the eighth annual statement produced by the Commission and there is not a single green light, signifying that not one human rights concern has been effectively resolved in 2019… The issues making no progress are substantial, lengthy and broad based…

“The traffic light system was introduced to the annual statement in 2014. In that year, there were two ‘greens’, six in 2015 and six in 2016. However, this reduced to no ‘greens’ in 2017, one ‘green’ in 2018 and, for 2019, no ‘greens’.”

Of the issues appraised by NIHRC, 73 have been designated amber lights. A total of 13 are red.

Urgent action required

Amber lights do not mean no progress. They certainly don’t mean there have been no developments, or changing circumstances. The bottom line, however, remains the bottom line. None of the 86 matters identified by the Commission were fixed in 2019.

Instead of looking at the 73 amber issues, here Scope will outline the 13 requiring urgent action – the red lights. These should be among the highest priorities for the fresh Stormont regime.

Under the right to Life, two issues have red lights:

Conflict related investigations: transitional justice and individual cases – the Commission is concerned there remains no implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, or some alternative model for effective investigations into Troubles-related deaths. NIHRC also opposes a statute of limitations on prosecuting State actors as this would represent an amnesty.

Legacy inquests and inquiries – funding for legacy inquests has been delayed for years. The DoJ announced a new Legacy Inquest Unit last February, following legal challenge. A schedule has been set into many legacy cases. However, the UK Supreme Court last year ruled there had been inadequate investigation into the Pat Finucane killing. The court did not order a public inquiry, saying it was for the state to decide how to respond. It is yet to explain how it will do so.

Under the right to liberty and security of the person, one issue has a red light:

The remand of children – the number of children in custody is high, and the Commission is calling for the use of pre-trial detention only as a last resort, and for the development of non-custodial accommodation options for children who are unable to return home while awaiting court.

Under the right to be free from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, one issue has a red light:

Physical punishment of children – both Scotland and Wales are currently outlawing corporal punishment. The Commission wants the NI defence of reasonable chastisement to be repealed and wants to see the promotion of “positive and non-violent” discipline.

Under freedom from slavery, three of the four issues identified have red lights:

Child, early and forced marriage – the Commission recommends the removal of all provisions, such as parental consent, allowing anyone under the age of 18 to get married.

Children missing from care – children at risk from running away from care can be placed in secure accommodation, ostensibly for their own safety. However, this offers no solutions for the reasons why children abscond from care and the Commission is concerned at the number of children who regularly go missing from care and wants to see a positive, human rights based approach to tackle the reasons why this happens.

Child sexual exploitation – the “Commission remains deeply concerned that a defendant charged under the Sexual Offences (NI) Order 2008 may claim that he or she believed the victim to be above 16 years, thus requiring the prosecution to prove that the defendant did not reasonably believe this” – and is calling for defendants to have to prove that this was their reasonably-held belief.

More red lights

Under the right to a fair trial and administration of justice, two matters have red lights:

Age of criminal responsibility – the age of criminal responsibility remains at 10 in Northern Ireland (and England and Wales). A 2011 DoJ review found that “the minimum age should be increased to 12 forthwith and, following a period of review and preparation, perhaps to 14.” NIHRC is calling for this also.

Compensation for a miscarriage of justice – Per the NIHRC report, “The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 redefined the test for a miscarriage of justice to require an applicant who has been wrongfully imprisoned to prove his or her innocence of a crime in order to obtain compensation.151 This new test applies for all offences in England and Wales and for offences related to terrorism in NI.” The Commission is calling for the government to review this situation.

Under the right to a family and private life, there is one red light:

Access to financial support for unmarried couples – in August 2018 the UK Supreme Court ruled the requirement that couples are married to access Widowed Parent’s Allowance violates human rights law but, despite the finding, no significant proposals to change the situation have passed through Westminster. “The Commission recommends that the criteria for social security benefits and pensions is widened to allow couples in long term, cohabiting relationships access to these benefits.”

Under the right to an adequate standard of living and to social security there is one red light:

Anti-poverty strategy the Commission states that “[T]he continued failure of the NI Executive to introduce an Anti-poverty Strategy in NI based on objective need is unacceptable and should be remedied urgently. The Commission continues to highlight the disproportionate, adverse impact that social security measures introduced since 2010 are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups.”

Under the right to health there are two red lights:

Termination of pregnancy – the campaigns for and against liberalising NI abortion laws are well known. NIHRC has welcomed the fact there is set to be a widening of the circumstances in which an abortion will be allowed, and said measured introduced under the NI (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 should be implemented within the planned timeframe.

Relationship, sexuality and gender identity education – relationships and sexuality education is a statutory component of key stages three and four however schools are allowed to deliver this within their “ethos”, which allows for positions such as an opposition to contraception. However, the NI (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 states that recommendations made by recently the UN should be implemented, which include the provision of education on sexual and reproductive health and “non-biased, scientifically sound and rights-based counselling and information on sexual and reproductive health services”. The Commission is calling for this to be brought forward quickly.

That’s it. 13 red lights. Plenty for our (hopefully refreshed and re-energised) MLAs to work on.

As the document was published, Mr Allamby said: “The UK government has a legal obligation to tackle these outstanding human rights issues, outlined in today's report, without hesitation.

“We now wait to see the impact of the new government in Westminster and we hope the ongoing Stormont talks will bring about the much needed restoration of the NI executive.”

Over to you, Stormont.

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