"The position of Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a full-time post"and:
"The terms and conditions of the Chief Commissioner and other Commissioners of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) require them to inform the Secretary of State and the NIHRC's chief executive in advance of any appointments that may impinge on their duties as Commissioners and to declare any conflicts of interest. The NIHRC code of practice also contains further guidance for Commissioners."The emphasis in the last answer is mine.
Through the means of a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, I’ve discovered details of two foreign trips undertaken by Professor McWilliams in the space of 2 months during the latter part of 2009. The nature and timing of these, I believe, call into question that "full-time" requirement, the "conflicts of interest" and most damagingly of all, her own professionalism.
Firstly, as I mentioned here, the Republic of Ireland’s Embassy in Uganda press release mentioned Professor McWilliams had undertaken a visit on their behalf to the country. Interesting enough, the response to my FOI request stated:
The Commission incurred the following expenditure in respect of a visit by the Chief Commissioner to Uganda on 28 September – 2 October 2009:Her own diary, (only recently, ie February this year, updated) stated:
· Vaccinations: £78.00
· Travel Visa: £30.04
Please note that, apart from these costs, the visit was sponsored and funded by the Irish Ambassador to Uganda.
27 September to 4 OctoberIt’s not clear whether the visit was in fact 4 days as stated on the FOI answer, or 8 as stated by Ms McWilliams herself. What is important is that this was a trip made on behalf of the Republic’s government, with the expenses largely paid for by them. However, the fact that the NIHRC paid for her vaccinations and visa, indicates that this was not a "leave" situation; in other words, during those 8 days in which she was being paid by the UK government (and ultimately the UK taxpayer), she was effectively undertaking work for another state.
Participated in an international visit to Uganda, sponsored by the Irish Ambassador to Uganda which included two-day visit, with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, to Gulu, the former conflict zone in Northern Uganda, and meetings with the African Centre for Victims of Torture and an Internal Displaced Persons Camp; delivered a plenary address on Conflict Resolution and Human Rights in Kampala and led a number of workshops with the justice and law sectors. Also met with the Lord Chief Justice and the British Ambassador.
On the 30th November 2009, Shaun Woodward delivered his government’s verdict on the Bill of Rights proposed by the NIHRC. It wasn’t a positive one.
As I noted before, the nature of the response from the NIHRC was unexpected:
Given her past form, the response from Monica McWilliams, the Full-Time Chief Commissioner for the NIHRC, was strangely muted:
"The Human Rights Commission welcomes this consultation on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Following the advice submitted by the Commission to the Northern Ireland Office last December, we will now carefully consider the Government’s proposals before issuing a full response in due course"
The reason it was "muted" is now clear. At this crucial time for the proposed Bill and the NIHRC, the Full-Time commissioner of the organisation was actually not even in the country; this from another FOI:
26 November Visit to Timor Leste with Dame Nuala O’Loan, to 4 December: Ireland’s Special Envoy to Timor Leste, with representatives from WAVE (victims group) and Women’s Aid on issues relating to gender based violence in conflict situations. Timor Leste, Liberia and Northern Ireland are linked in a three country project funded by the Irish Government’s Conflict Resolution Unit as part of the response to UN Security Council Resolution 1325According to the NIHRC:
No foreign travel costs were incurred by the Chief Commissioner during the period (between 20 October 2009 and 30 January 2010) in question
Meaning, once again, Professor McWilliams’ expenses were paid in full by the Republic’s government and given the timing, the details of this trip raises even more questions about her suitability to continue in the post:
1. In the space of 2 highly important months for the NIHRC, a quarter of her time had been spent out of the Northern Ireland on non-N.Irish related Human Rights affairs. She is employed as a full-time Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; the UK tax-payer is not paying her to undertake duties as a roving international Human Rights Ambassador.
2. Those trips have been undertaken on behalf of and have been paid by the Republic’s government- a new version of the NIHRC Register of Interests is now posted up on its website with no mention of any work paid or otherwise anywhere for the Irish Government
3.November 30th- December 1st 2009 were the most crucial couple of days last year for the NIHRC. Yet its full-time Chief Commissioner was not available for comment, never mind interview as she was engaged in a project on behalf of another country on the other side of world. This displays an appalling lack of professionalism.
It is a vital time for human rights in Northern Ireland and I’m not alone in saying I don’t believe Professor McWilliams is the person to deliver what is really required via the NIHRC... but I’ve spent a fair bit of time on this and because of that, I’m wary of over-reacting on the information I have so far pulled out. However, I do think there is the strong basis of a case to be answered here; I’d be grateful to hear the opinion of those perhaps more experienced in these matters.
(Thanks are due to both Fair Deal, Michael Shilliday for their help on this).
Just had a quick check of the Chief Commissioner's diary on the NIHRC website. As of this morning, it finishes on the 6th of November 2009.