HC Deb 13 May 1998 vol 312 cc359-62
3. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

If she will make a statement on the impact of the Belfast agreement on the Government's policy towards human rights. [40681]

5. Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

If she will make a statement on the impact of the Belfast settlement on the Government's human rights policy. [40683]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The Belfast agreement will enhance the Government's existing commitment to the human rights agenda. In particular, the agreement proposes the establishment of a human rights commission with significant new powers which will extend and enhance the role of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights.

Fiona Mactaggart

I thank the Minister for that reply. I particularly welcome the human rights commission—its job description is set out in the agreement—which is to be a powerful body. However, in all international human rights legislation, the most fundamental human right is the right to life. What action to protect the rights of victims will follow on from today's report?

Mr. Murphy

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The settlement acknowledged and addressed the sufferings of victims of violence as a necessary element for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and to his assistant, Mary Butcher, for producing a moving and thought-provoking report. The Government have set aside some £5 million as a down payment to support practical work among victims, but, as the settlement says, the achievement of peace and a just society would be the best memorial to the victims of violence.

Mr. McCabe

Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures and safeguards on human rights that are outlined in the Belfast agreement are crucial for both traditions in Northern Ireland? How does he hope to take those measures forward following the referendum?

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The establishment of a human rights commission, an equality commission and a Bill of Rights are all set out in the agreement. They are there to give due respect to the identity and ethos of all communities in Northern Ireland and to pursue parity of esteem. It is right to do that in any event, but it is particularly important as it is an essential part of the settlement. I foresee that the New Northern Ireland Assembly will have a department of equality; it will certainly address these important issues. Like my hon. Friends, I believe that there will be a resounding yes vote for such an assembly in the referendum next week.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Minister will be aware that, in 1975, Northern Ireland, through its assembly, recommended a Bill of human rights, saying that, if it was not introduced in this House, a forthcoming Northern Ireland assembly would do so. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a tendency today to elevate desires and wishes for rights, as long as someone else pays for them? Is there not a need to have rights and responsibilities?

Mr. Murphy

I entirely agree that rights should be matched with responsibilities, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one of the great problems that we have faced in Northern Ireland over the years is precisely that human rights have been in considerable difficulty; it has been a great cause of concern among both communities over many years. I am sure that he will also agree that perhaps the best answer is that the people of Northern Ireland themselves, through their elected politicians, as well as us in the House of Commons, will be able to address the matter in the years ahead.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

In welcoming the mention of human rights in the Stormont agreement, I wonder whether the Minister agrees that one of the great abuses of human rights, which is still going on, is the number of punishment beatings, mutilations and appalling atrocities carried out by paramilitaries on both sides? Does he agree that the paramilitaries' outspoken condemnation of such behaviour will be a mark of whether the settlement will really work, and that that is the only way in which we will see a decent society in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government completely condemn and abhor all so-called punishment beatings and shootings. In a peaceful and democratic society, there is no place for such atrocities. Only this morning, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that the victims commission would look at that very important aspect of human rights in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I warmly welcome Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's excellent report into victims and entirely endorse what the Minister said about the power that we must give to the human rights of victims, but will he give the House an assurance that there will be no repetition of the charade at the weekend when convicted IRA murderers were wrongly allowed out to prance around at Sinn Fein's conference, which was merely a propaganda exercise? I deeply regret the fact that that will harm the yes vote that he and I desperately want from the Province on Friday week.

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that he and I share the common aspiration of ensuring that there is a successful yes outcome in the referendum next week. I am sure that he also agrees that all triumphalism is to be condemned, whether it is the sort we saw last week or anything else.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about letting out prisoners, he knows that that also occurred under the Conservative Government and previous Governments. It is an integral part of the agreement. However, I accept that it is important that people understand that it is not helpful to the settlement to have triumphalism in any shape or form.

Mr. MacKay

With great respect to the Minister, although he and I may agree that, at times, there may be humanitarian reasons for letting out prisoners under strict supervision—for example, to attend funerals or to see a seriously ill member of their family—there is no excuse for letting out prisoners to go to a party conference as a propaganda exercise. Will he assure us that that will never happen again?

Mr. Murphy

I envisage no circumstances in which that would happen again, because I hope that there would be no need for it. What I want in Northern Ireland—in common with everyone in the House—is a peaceful society based on political stability. The only way in which we can achieve that is to vote next week, in overwhelming numbers, in favour of the agreement that was made by all the parties sitting in Belfast on Good Friday.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is not the basic human right on which all human rights are based the right to vote? Was not the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) correct in 1996 when he said, and I paraphrase, that, if a referendum were agreed by all the people of the island, it would have unique constitutional and moral authority and, most of all, enable the republican movement to renounce force without diminishing its political goal? If that was correct in 1996 and correct today, is it not a pity that the hon. and learned Gentleman no longer supports that position?

Mr. Murphy

I obviously regret the position taken by the hon. and learned Member for North Down, but hon. Members must make up their own minds on how they vote and what they support in the coming referendum. I believe that everyone in Northern Ireland wants a society based on the principles of non-violence and democracy, and the only way to achieve that is by supporting the agreement in the coming referendum.

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