In the most serious crisis to hit the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission two serving members have called for the resignation of chief commissioner Brice Dickson.
Commissioners Patricia Kelly and Frank McGuinness, interviewed in today's Irish News, are the first members of the organisation to say Mr Dickson must step down if the commission is to survive.
This is the most significant development in a long-running row which has been closely linked to the handling of the loyalist protest at Holy Cross Primary School in 2001.
Earlier this year it emerged that after the commission had agreed to fund a Holy Cross parent in a legal challenge of the policing of the protest, Mr Dickson privately wrote to the then chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan saying he did not believe the case had merit.
Ms Kelly and Mr McGuinness today describe Brice Dickson's letter as a breach of trust, but their comments come amid fresh allegations:
- in October the commission published an 'Action Plan' underlining its commitment to "remaining totally independent of government". But the Irish News has obtained emails believed to have been written by Brice Dickson that show the document was drafted with the help of "senior figures" in the Northern Ireland Office.
- Ms Kelly and Mr McGuinness claim the action plan's explanation of the Holy Cross crisis does not reflect the seriousness of the episode and represents a "plan for survival rather than the restoration of integrity".
- the commissioners say they "have no confidence in the chief commissioner" and believe he "should resign immediately".
The Human Rights Commission was one of the key institutions formed under the Good Friday Agreement and was intended to guarantee 'equality for all'.
But in the last year three of its members resigned over claims that commission proposals for a new Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland could dismantle existing fair employment laws.
Though the commission insisted its plans had yet to be finalised, Inez McCormack, Christine Bell and Patrick Yu resigned on the issue.
A decision by Ms Kelly and Mr McGuinness in September to withdraw from the day-to-day operation of the commission they stopped short of resignation means only seven commissioners remain of a panel which once totalled 13.
The commission has now changed its rules so that the attendance of five members is sufficient to conduct business.
Reacting to the apparent NIO involvement in the action plan, Ms Kelly said: "To me, the involvement of the NIO in the drafting of the plan compromises again the independence of the commission.
"It is also reminiscent of the compromising of the commission in terms of the communication with Ronnie Flanagan."