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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Whose human rights in Northern Ireland?
Riot police are hit by a petrol bomb in Northern Ireland
Civil conflict: Source of many human rights claims
By Ireland correspondent David Eades

Nowhere in the UK has the question of human rights been so consistently challenged as in Northern Ireland.

Many believe the law will be used less often here - precisely because it has been used so much in the past

Through thirty years of troubles, of paramilitary killings, internment, allegations of torture and broadcasting bans, recourse to Strasbourg has become a feature of legal disputes.

Northern Ireland is unique in the UK as it even has its own Human Rights Commission - a creation of the Good Friday Agreement.

'Better prepared'

And according to the head of that Commission, Professor Brice Dixon, no other part of the UK is as well equipped to adjust to the arrival of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law.

"Judges here are better prepared than anywhere else in the UK," he says.

"They have long been familiar with the Convention and have been well trained to appreciate its importance."
The Stormont parliament building
Stormont: Devolution introduced HRA

Times have changed since the Good Friday Agreement was adopted.

But there are still key areas where the ECHR could have particular relevance to Northern Ireland today.

The government's emergency laws to deal with suspected terrorists still apply.

While they allow for up to seven days' detention without charge, the European Court ruling is that anybody held for more than four days can argue their detention is unlawful.

It requires the government then to prove that there is a public emergency threatening the life of a nation.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act also allows for a detainee to be deprived of access to a solicitor.

On both these points, the arrival of the ECHR into UK law means challenges can be made to a local court, allowing for far speedier rulings.

Marching season challenges

The ECHR's Article 11 on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly also has particular resonance in Northern Ireland, where the marching disputes continue to cause political and community unrest across the province.

The Portadown Orange Order march at Drumcree
Parades: Commission could be challenged
The Protestant Orange Order is considering a challenge to the Parades Commission - the public body appointed to rule on every parade - for refusing it the right to march along certain routes in particular.

The most notable of these is the most contentious march of all, from Drumcree Church back to Portadown through the Catholic neighbourhood of the Garvaghy Road.

"We have a team assessing each individual ruling the Parades Commission has made," said George Patton, executive officer of the Orange Order.

"Where we believe the Commission has contravened European human rights legislation, we shall challenge.

"Once a case is established against the Commission, then that should be applied uniformly to all marches."

There is no guarantee that the ECHR would rule against the Parades Commission - indeed many experts believe the court would maintain that public safety would be at risk to allow certain parades to go ahead.

Nonetheless, it gives the Orange Order an opportunity to challenge on home soil and they appear eager to pursue it.


While the passing of the ECHR into all UK law was delayed until October 2, it has been applicable since 2 December 1999 when the devolved Northern Ireland Executive was put in place.

To date, however, no cases have been brought against it, although all ministerial departments have been audited to see whether they need to adjust their own legislation.

In some cases, notably in planning and development, changes are being put forward to avoid future legal action.

And yet, as Northern Ireland heads with some uncertainty towards the realms of a normalised society, many believe the ECHR will be used less often than in other parts of the UK - precisely because it has been used so much in the past .

"Lawyers here are more aware of it, and for that reason may be more wary of using it," explains Proefessor Dixon.

"They have tried it out so often that I don't think they will be as speculative about trying it out now."

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