In Northern Ireland, City Bar Sees Significant Advances in Human Rights and Justice While Challenges Remain

In a report titled “In Northern Ireland, the Past Is Still Present,” the New York City Bar Association praises the many encouraging developments that have taken place in recent years in Northern Ireland, but warns that significant challenges and substantial work remain to ensure that the abuses of human rights and injustices of the past do not destabilize the peace that has already been secured. For more than 25 years, the City Bar has been monitoring developments in human rights and the administration of justice in Northern Ireland, primarily through its International Human Rights Committee. During the Committee’s first visit in 1987, parts of Belfast were “armed camps with homes and shopping areas bombed out or blackened by recurrent fires.” Military checkpoints and army patrols were commonplace. Less than two years later, human rights attorney Patrick Finucane was murdered by members of a loyalist paramilitary organization. The Committee visited again in 1998, to examine the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and after its third visit in 2003, the Committee commented on the transformation of public life in Belfast coupled with political changes that signaled “even greater prospects for lasting peace.” Much depended on the extent to which Northern Ireland was able to contend with its past, and in 2014, the Committee returned to Northern Ireland amid renewed domestic and international discussion about how to deal with a legacy of violence. The delegation met with government officials, legislators, lawyers, judges, and NGO workers regarding ongoing efforts to address the past as well as reform the criminal justice system, and to more fully understand whether and how Northern Ireland was dealing with the “substantial burdens it inherited from three decades of violence.” The report examines the efforts that have been made since its visit in 2003 through the close of 2015 on establishing mechanisms to deal with individual past cases during ongoing political challenges. Most significantly, the report praises the fact that “substantial reform of the police and criminal justice apparatus has been implemented following the transfer of executive authority over the police and prosecution services from the UK government in London to authorities in Belfast.” The report also reviews efforts to reform the justice apparatus in the judiciary, police, public prosecution service, and prison system, lauding “efforts toward greater transparency and accountability” in each of these areas. The Committee commends the progress made to date, and in the spirit of promoting human rights in Northern Ireland in the same way that it does at home in the United States, the Committee offers a number of recommendations, including:

  • All parties must prioritize a comprehensive approach toward transitional justice in order to address the past effectively, including adopting an inclusive mechanism that can investigate all allegations of abuses in the past and ensure that they receive impartial and independent examination.
  • The case of Patrick Finucane should receive a full independent and public inquiry, with the UK Government promptly committing to such an inquiry.
  • Greater dialogue and coordination are needed between the police service and prosecutorial authorities to improve the timeliness and quality of investigations and to minimize concerns relating to prosecution failures and decisions not to prosecute.
  • Further reforms to the prison system should be undertaken to improve inmates’ health and safety, eliminate discriminatory treatment among prison populations, and eliminate abuse and overly restrictive practices.
  • Continued focus is needed on issues related to flags and parades, which regularly result in disruptions to the peace.

Ultimately, while Northern Ireland has displayed many “affirmative and remarkable changes” since the Committee began its work to understand the impact of the political troubles on the administration of justice, significant challenges remain that must be addressed in order to rebuild and ensure a lasting peace. The report can be read here: