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Dickson's letter leaves HRC 'open to question'

(Steven McCaffery, Irish News)

Holy Cross priest Fr Aidan Troy has for the first time questioned the Human Rights Commission's handling of a case linked to the loyalist protest at the north Belfast school.

In a letter in today's (Wednesday) Irish News, Fr Troy credits two unnamed commissioners with supporting the schoolgirls on an almost daily basis as they made their way to school through the loyalist picket of 2001.

But while he praises the pair for displaying "the standard of dedication that society is entitled to expect from its human rights commission", he adds: "This standard is now open to question with the revelation of the communication between the [human rights commission] and the chief constable."

Last week the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) chief commissioner, Brice Dickson, spoke of how the organisation was split over its decision to help a Holy Cross parent launch a legal challenge to the policing of the protest.

It has emerged that despite deciding to finance the parent's case, which was sparked by claims that police did not do enough to protect the children, Professor Dickson wrote to the then chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan revealing that the commission was divided.

Documents supplied to a parliamentary committee revealed that Prof Dickson wrote: "I myself am strongly of the view that the policing of the protest at the Holy Cross school has not been in breach of the Human Rights Act."

Sir Ronnie wrote back informing Prof Dickson that police lawyers were "anxious" to disclose his letter to the court. The chief constable also asked that the commission drop the case.

Publicly available minutes from a commission meeting held two weeks later suggest that Prof Dickson proposed dropping the case, though the commission ultimately continued to fund the parent's challenge.

Madden and Finucane, solicitors representing the Holy Cross parent, have characterised the episode as "a breach of trust".

In an Irish News interview Prof Dickson denied that he was unduly influenced by the chief constable, but conceded that if the same circumstances arose again: "I might judge the situation differently and not send such a letter."

SDLP leader Mark Durkan claimed that the incident undermined confidence in Prof Dickson's position, and he called for "frank answers".

Mr Durkan, and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, are to hold separate meetings with Prof Dickson today.

Prof Dickson has said the entire commission believed that the protest represented a breach of the human rights of the Holy Cross girls, but that the group was divided on whether the police handled the protest properly.

Writing in his capacity as chairman of the board of governors of Holy Cross Girls Primary School, Fr Troy today comments for the first time on the affair.

He notes that Prof Dickson and two other commissioners visited the scene of the protest at its height.

But he reserves particular praise for two further unnamed commissioners, who he says attended the protest "on an almost daily basis" regularly accompanying the children and their parents to school.

"At all times these commissioners conducted themselves with integrity and objectivity and remained detached from the situation as much as anyone could," he says.

"They neither sought publicity nor recognition for their attendance but displayed courage and dedication in the face of death threats and torrents of abuse for which they earned the respect and gratitude of those who were aware of their presence."

He writes that the unnamed pair displayed "the standard of dedication" expected of the Human Rights Commission, adding: "This standard is now open to question with the revelation of the communication between the NIHRC and the chief constable after the commission's decision to support the Holy Cross parent's case."

July 31, 2003

This article appeared first in the July 30, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

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