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20 November 2003 Edition

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Human Rights Commissioner must go

BY LAURA FRIEL

Brice Dickson

Brice Dickson

Brice Dickson must go. The position of the Human Rights Commissioner is no longer tenable. He should resign. In the latest in a series of crises to hit Dickson's leadership, two more members of the Human Rights Commission have publicly called for the Chief Commissioner's resignation.

Patricia Kelly, Director of the Children's Law Centre in Belfast, and Frank McGuinness, a former Director of Trócaire in the North, this week added their voices to the list of commissioners, former commissioners and other public figures demanding Dickson's resignation.

Established as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Commission is seen as integral to the process of conflict resolution in the North. But under the stewardship of Brice Dickson, appointed head by the British Government, the commission has failed to meet the expectations of its inception.

Earlier in the year, Patricia Kelly and Frank McGuinness had stepped down from the day-to-day work of the commission in the hopes that a pending 'Action Plan' would herald a new beginning for the commission. Controversy around the policing of the Holy Cross blockade had initiated Kelly and McGuinness' initial protest.

Despite the fact that the commission had agreed to support legal action taken by a Holy Cross parent challenging the policing of the loyalist blockade, the Chief Commissioner wrote to Ronnie Flanagan reassuring the then Chief Constable that he believed there was no case to answer. The letter came to light after Flanagan signalled that he intended to use Dickson's letter in court to undermine the legal action against him and the NIO Secretary of State.

Clearly, the actions of the Chief Commissioner had undermined the integrity and compromised the independence of the Human Rights Commission — criticisms that Kelly and McGuinness were reassured would be addressed in the pending 'Action Plan'.

Yet despite the fact that matters of independence and integrity were acknowledged as at the core of Dickson's leadership failure, it emerged this week that the Chief Commissioner allowed the Action Plan to be vetted by the NIO prior to its publication last month.

The revelation came after two internal emails were leaked to the press. An email sent by Brice Dickson and dated 2 October 2003 reads - "I sent the (6th draft of the) Action Plan to the NIO last Friday, saying I would appreciate hearing from them within a day or two." Dickson goes on to say that he was told that the "NIO would need a bit longer" and have requested that he meets with their Political Affairs Directorate. "A meeting would be arranged as soon as possible," reads the email.

In the second email, dated 8 October, Dickson reports that the meeting has taken place. "I met with senior figures in the NIO this afternoon to discuss our draft Action Plan." Dickson goes on to report that the NIO have made "various suggestions" which "I shall incorporate" and which will make the Action Plan "more watertight against further criticism from our critics". Kelly and McGuinness have concluded that the phrase "our critics" is a reference to them.

"To me, the involvement of the NIO in the drafting of the action plan compromises again the independence of the commission," said Patricia Kelly. "It is also reminiscent of the compromising of the commission in terms of the communication with Ronnie Flanagan."

Kelly went on to point out that the NIO were the other respondents in the Holy Cross case involving the RUC Chief Constable.

Announcing their decision to withdraw from the Commission, Kelly and McGuinness pointed out that the Action Plan had failed to address the breach of confidentiality in relation to Dickson's handling of the Holy Cross case. They said the plan characterised the incident as a problem of internal management rather than recognising the Chief Commissioner's actions as a fundamental breach of trust. Dickson's controversial letter is described as "a letter of explanation".

"After the casework committee had made a decision to support an application in a case against the police, the contact with the Chief Constable in respect of the case would have been inappropriate," said McGuinness.

"The glossing over of the implications of inappropriate behaviour amounts to a disregard for the necessity for confidentiality. This letter went beyond a letter of explanation, it was used by counsel for the former Ronnie Flanagan against the applicant," he said.

"To dismiss that letter as a letter of explanation to me raises serious questions as to whether or not the fundamental nature of the breach of confidentiality is understood," said McGuinness, "consequently I have no confidence in the chief commissioner and I think he should resign."

Former members of the commission, who had previously resigned in protest against Dickson's leadership, swiftly reiterated the two commissioners' call for his resignation. Inez McCormack, a founding member of the Fair Employment Commission, law lecturer Christine Bell and Patrick Yu, head of the North's Council on Ethnic Minorities, resigned. All three cited fears that the Commission's Bill of Rights proposals undermined fair employment legislation.

In September, similar concerns prompted two leading US investment officers to call for Dickson's resignation. New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi controls a budget of around $100 billion but is bound by US fair employment legislation. The proposed Bill of Rights could jeopardise further investment in the North.

Patrick Yu said he was "shocked" by the apparent NIO involvement in the Action Plan and described Dickson's position as untenable.

"This is the second time he has made such a misjudgement and mistake. The first time was the Ronnie Flanagan saga and this is the same," said Yu.

"The Chief Commissioner's position has been untenable for some time and it is difficult to see how things can move forward without him resigning," said Bell. "I think the only way to restore confidence in accountability and probity is for the chair to resign," said McCormack. Sinn Féin and the SDLP have also called for the Chief Commissioner's resignation.

Brice Dickson must go. From the outset his flawed understanding of the operation of sectarianism in the North has undermined his ability to implement the kind of changes necessary to ensure the new beginning envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement is realised.

His characterisation of the loyalist blockade of a Catholic primary school as a case of 'competing rights' epitomises Dickson's flawed vision and fundamental failure as a champion of human rights.

The notion that the operation of sectarian discrimination in employment can be resolved by simply ignoring it is a further indictment of his understanding.

His failure to recognise the importance of promoting and protecting the Commission's independence and integrity while demonstrating a willingness to reassure and collude with powerful institutions like the RUC and NIO brings his position into further disrepute.

The fact that many key people, whose contributions to human rights are a matter of public record, have called for his resignation renders his position untenable.

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