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23 July 1998 Edition

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Bill falls short

The Northern Ireland Bill being rushed through the Westminister parliament this week has been condemned by human rights and community groups across the Six Counties.

The Bill, which was to allegedly make law the provisions of the Good Friday Document, has failed to address many of the document's key equality and human rights issues.

The Bill proposes two new commissions for the north; the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. Both will be funded by British government agencies in the Six Counties, thus inhibiting their independence.

The Human Rights Commission will stand alone, in contradiction to the all Ireland body proposed in the document. It will not have the power to prevent the RUC from continuing to use the `national security' excuse to stop certain people and companies from getting public jobs or contracts. Nor will it have any remit in connection with fair employment.

Martin O'Brien, a spokesperson for the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) slammed the NI Bill as a ``profound disappointment'' and said, ``It is very serious indeed that the government has chosen to advance a Bill which fails to implement the commitments made in the agreement which was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland.''

The proposed Equality Commission, which will replace the Committee for Racial Equality, the Fair Employment Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, has been similarly restricted in its remit. It will have no power to take proceedings itself on behalf of a section of the community suffering discrimination. It will be allowed to encourage individuals to take proceedings under the anti-discrimination provisions but will not be allowed to assist them in the action. And even this encouragement of individuals to seek justice is tempered in the Bill by a clause which states that the Commission must ``have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations.''

More ominously, the Bill prohibits affirmative action being taken with regard to fair employment.

Other proposals in the Good Friday document that are omitted from the Bill are all eight provisions in connection with enhancing the status of the Irish language (including the proposal to give Irish schools equal funding with integrated schools); and provisions relating to public symbols and emblems on public buildings being used to promote mutual respect rather than division.

The public service union, Unison, has criticised the Bill's proposals as ``weak'' and accused the British government of throwing away ``with both hands'' the opportunity for people in the north to have a better future.

Bairbre de Brun, a west Belfast Sinn Fein Assembly member, confirmed that the party had made a number of suggestions to the British government to improve the Bill and added that it had to ``reflect accurately the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday document.''

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