WORLD REPORT 2001 - United Kingdom / Northern Ireland

Human Rights Developments

In accordance with the 1998 Multi-Party Agreement, the British parliament devolved power to the new executive and assembly for Northern Ireland in December 1999. In February 2000, these institutions were suspended and direct rule by Westminster was reimposed when disagreements among political parties and paramilitary groups stymied the process of decommissioning weapons. After a favorable subsequent report by a decommissioning panel, the executive and assembly were reinstated in May. The agreement was threatened again during July and August when internal feuding among loyalist paramilitary organizations led to three killings, putting the loyalist cease-fire into question. Despite political setbacks, reforms dealing with human rights under the agreement-including police reform and a criminal justice systemreview-proceeded, albeit with some disappointing outcomes. Other issues of concern included new antiterrorism legislation; government stalling on establishing independent judicial inquiries into the murders of two human rights lawyers; and impunity for police abuse.

The draft legislation to implement the 1999 Patten Commission report on police reform failed to incorporate several key provisions of the report, in particular Patten's call for a policing service with human rights protections at its core. As of October 2000, the draft bill departed significantly from the recommendations addressing the crucial issue of police accountability mechanisms and the creation of a new name and symbols for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force. These departures threatened future recruitment of traditionally excluded groups-primarily Nationalists and Catholics-to the service.

Patten called for the police ombudsman-which replaced the ineffective Independent Commission for Police Complaints-to have the power to investigate and comment upon police policies and practice and have access to past reports on police conduct. The ombudsman's remit was limited to the investigation of individual complaints only and access to government documents was restricted. In a separate move to hold the chief constable accountable, the Patten Commission envisioned a civilian Police Board with authority to establish inquiries and to call for reports on policing matters. The proposed bill placed several important restrictions on the board's authority, however. In May 2000, Thomas Constantine, former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, was appointed oversight commissioner for police reform. While the report envisioned a proactive commissioner with a key role in setting objectives in the reform process, the delay in Constantine's appointment and the bill's provisions suggested that the U.K. government saw a much narrower role for the post. The bill also failed to incorporate the recommendation that the name of the force be neutralized to Police Service of Northern Ireland. The bill proposed that the force's name be changed to "Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating Royal Ulster Constabulary)" on all title documents, causing nationalist and republican political parties to accuse the British government of bad faith.The bill went back to the House of Commons in the late fall for a final reading.

The Criminal Justice Review in its March 2000 report failed to address the effect of emergency laws on the criminal justice system; to consider new judicial arrangements, or the limited capacity of existing ones; to address human rights issues arising from passage of the 1998 Human Rights Act and the proposed Bill of Rights; and to include an independent oversight element, relying solely on the government for the report's implementation. The report recommended the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission; a bench more "reflective" of Northern Ireland's population; the creation of a new prosecution service; and the appointment of an attorney general. Human rights groups criticized the report for avoiding an accountability mechanism for past and pending cases.

In October 2000, the 1998 Human Rights Act, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), went into force throughout the U.K. with a derogation from article 6 (fair trial standards) intact.

The Terrorism Act 2000-permanent, U.K.-wide, anti-terrorism legislation replacing emergency laws concerning political violence-became law in July and will come into force in spring 2001. The act extended, for up to five years, most of the emergency powers that applied in Northern Ireland, including retention of non-jury Diplock courts for certain political offenses; a lower standard of admissibility for confession evidence than in the criminal courts; the admissibility of statements by a senior police officer coupled with a suspect's remaining silent as evidence that a suspect belonged to an illegal organization (for example, a paramilitary group); and police and army powers of arrest, entry, search, and seizure without a warrant.

The Human Rights Commission Bill became law in the Republic of Ireland in June 2000. The Irish commission's creation, coupled with the March 1999 inauguration of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, paved the way for the future establishment of a joint committee of representatives from the two commissions, tasked by the Multi-Party Agreement with the consideration of human rights concerns in all of Ireland.

In September, the family of murdered Belfast lawyer Patrick Finucane met with Prime Minister Tony Blair to press for an independent public inquiry into his killing by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. The family stepped up efforts to establish an inquiry since new evidence was presented to the British and Irish governments in February 1998 and in an updated report in February 2000. The Finucane family and rights organizations accused the British government of using the June 1999 arrest and pending prosecution of William Stobie-charged with aiding and abetting the Finucane murderers-to stall the establishment of an inquiry.

No person was charged with the March 1999 loyalist paramilitary car bomb murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson. Citing earlier police intimidation of Nelson, human rights organizations continued to call for an independent judicial inquiry into the killing. The director of public prosecutions (DPP) decided in January 2000 not to prosecute criminally the police officers that harassed Rosemary Nelson. In May 2000, the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC) decided not to take disciplinary action against any of the officers.

The coroner for Greater Belfast decided in June 2000 not to hold an inquest into the death of Robert Hamill, who was brutally assaulted by a loyalist mob in Portadown in April 1997 and subsequently died from his injuries. Hamill's assault occurred twenty yards from a Land Rover containing four armed RUC officers. One person was convicted of "causing an affray" in the incident, but no person had been convicted of the murder, despite an investigation by the ICPC and consideration by the DPP. The coroner concluded that concerns for the safety of witnesses outweighed the imperative for an inquest. In June, the Irish government backed the call by human rights groups for an inquiry.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry-a new tribunal of inquiry into the British army killings of fourteen men in Derry on January 30, 1972-opened in March. The original tribunal, finding the army not liable for any of the deaths, was discredited.

In December 1999, Castlereagh Holding Centre, notorious for the physical and psychological ill-treatment of political suspects, was closed.

David Adams' application for judicial review-which sought to challenge the DPP's decision not to prosecute the police officers responsible for brutally assaulting Adams in Castlereagh Holding Centre in 1994-was denied in June 2000. The application also sought judicial review of the DPP's failure to give Adams reasons for the decision not to prosecute, particularly as the decision came after a civil court judgment supporting Adams' version of the attack. In September, it was reported that one officer would face a minor disciplinary charge of "willful or careless falsehood."

Defending Human Rights

In July 2000, the police informed civil rights lawyer, Padraigin Drinan, that she was under threat from loyalist paramilitaries. Drinan succeeded Rosemary Nelson as the lawyer for the Garvaghy Road Residents Association. After significant delays, the government provided Drinan with assistance to fortify her home and protect her person.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

In a February 2000 report, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression urged the U.K. to repeal emergency laws that had a "chilling effect" on the right to free expression; protect journalists' confidential sources; amend the Official Secrets Act to allow penalties for disclosure only when a legitimate national security interest is implicated; and disclose classified information to the public-in particular, the findings of the Stalker/Sampson and Stevens inquiries into collusion.

The U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers reiterated his call for an independent judicial inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane. Noting inconsistencies regarding the murder's previous investigation, the special rapporteur stated that "such inconsistencies... generally arise in cases where there have been cover-ups by interested parties, including State organs."

Council of Europe

In April, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled admissible four cases against the U.K. The cases of Gervaise McKerr, Patrick Shanaghan, the Loughgall eight, and Pearse Jordan charged violations of the right to life, the inadequacy and partiality of mechanisms to investigate killings by state agents or where collusion is alleged, and discrimination.

A June 2000 ECHR decision in the case of Gerard Magee found the U.K in breach of fair trial standards for denying Magee access to a lawyer for the first forty-eight hours of detention, holding him virtually incommunicado, and creating a "psychologically coercive" interrogation environment that forced Magee to make incriminating statements against himself.

United States

On September 13, President Clinton met with First Minister David Trimble and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon in the first visit to the U.S. by the leaders of Northern Ireland's new government. Clinton expressed his ongoing support for the peace process.

The U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee recommended in September a congressional resolution demanding the full implementation of the Patten recommendations on police reform.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) held a hearing in March on the protection of human rights defenders in Northern Ireland and called for independent inquiries into the Finucane and Nelson murders. The CSCE held another hearing on policing in Northern Ireland in September.

The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999 provided a fair assessment of human rights concerns in Northern Ireland, noting police abuse and impunity; intimidation of defense lawyers; emergency laws and abuse of special powers; and calls for a ban on plastic bullets.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


Northern Ireland: A New Beginning to Policing? The Report of the Independent Commission on Policing, 11/99