Whitaker on Politics and the NI Bill of Rights
The latest issue of Irish Political Studies features an article by Dr Robin Whitaker entitled “Debating Rights in the New Northern Ireland”. We have written before (here, here, here, here, here and a guest contribution here) about the difficulties ongoing in the NI Bill of Rights process and this article lends a useful political science perspective to this debate and ongoing commentary. The abstract states:
The 1998 Belfast Agreement provided for a Bill of Rights ‘to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’. Opinion poll evidence indicates strong approval for such a charter. Diverse civil society groups have offered support, as have all the main parties. Yet, over a decade on, the Bill of Rights remains among the unfinished business of the Agreement. What Northern Ireland’s ‘particular circumstances’ demand in terms of codified rights is a matter of considerable dispute. Political unionism supports a narrow interpretation and a minimalist bill; nationalists argue for an expansive reading, encompassing socio-economic issues. Debate about rights looks at first glance like just another battleground for constitutional conflict. However, an examination of the scope of the debates together with their substance complicates any such reductionist reading, although this complexity tends to recede where the demands of formalised cross-community consent are strongest.
The thrust of this article is to consider the “unifying potential” of a Bill of Rights (p.24) against the reality that “the process has often revealed – maybe even helped to produce – conflict and acrimony” (p.p.24-25). Of course, this consideration of the Bill of Rights process perhaps inevitably connects with a broader, and perhaps more uncomfortable, analysis of “how much the cessation of armed conflict has transformed political life in Northern Ireland” (p.26), which is also considered in the piece. Unlike much of the legal scholarship and commentary on the process, Whitaker places the process within the political life of Northern Ireland and does so without a perhaps reductionist consideration of NI politics as ‘simply’ unionist v. nationalist but rather as involving a greater diversity of political parties and various mechanisms of social democratic participation such as trade unionism, community groups, advocacy organisations etc. After a wide-ranging and appropriately complex consideration of the debates around the Bill of Rights, Whitaker remarks:
The prospect of a rights bill and NIHRC’s interpretation of its mandate (consultation, monitoring and advice; public information and education) created spaces for people and groups to pursue a wide range of agendas, articulate diverse hopes and fears, and fire salvos. As much as competing nationalities, debate has been about competing social models, competing ideas of democracy and competing philosophies of rights, none of which are merely local. Nor do the disputants resolve neatly into Catholics/nationalists, Protestants/unionists and others. A closer look reveals multiple differences, not only between groups or even within them, but also within individual members of those groups. Protestant and unionist are not quite synonyms. Unionists are not only unionists, but also variously conservative, liberal and, occasionally, socialist. This complexity holds even when they are speaking as elected representatives of unionism, let alone as members of women’s organisations and community groups, trade unions or business organisations. The same holds for Catholics, nationalists and others. [footnote omitted]
This is a fascinating paper for those interested in the BOR process; I would highly recommend it.