A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission delivered its final report to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 10 December 2008. In the last issue of the European Human Rights Law Review in 2009, Colin Harvey and David Russell offer their thoughts on the report and the consultation process that produced it (Harvey & Russell ‘A new beginning for human rights protection in Northern Ireland?’  EHRLRev 748). The (relatively brief) article is not a detailed critique (nor could it be – as one of the authors is a co-author of the report) nor a mere summary. Rather, it sits somewhere in between as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for those who need to catch up on the debate (making this blog post a Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes, á la John Crace’s Digested Read Digested).
The Commission’s report advocates supplementing European Convention rights with other rights – civil and political, social, economic and cultural – that ‘reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’. Much of the Commission’s work involved identifying those ‘particular circumstances’. In relation to civil and political rights, it has been determined that particular prominence should be afforded to the right to life (including, in particular, the investigation of deaths), the liberty and security of the person, right to a fair trial and the nullum crimen principle, freedom from violence and rights related to the democratic process. The importance of these rights as a result of the legacy of the Troubles is obvious and unsurprising.
The particular ‘added value’ of the Bill of Rights may be in relation to social, economic and cultural rights. The rights that are referred to include the right to enter into and terminate a marriage or civil partnership, broad rights in relation to equality and non-discrimination and the right to education that is ‘directed towards the promotion of human rights, equality, dignity of the person, respect for diversity and tolerance’. Furthermore, there are important provision in relation to identity and culture, including an entrenchment of the right to identify as British, Irish or both, the right to citizenship of either country and a guarantee that such rights would not be affected by any future change in status of Northern Ireland. There are also important rights related to minority languages (including Gaeilge and Ulster Scots) – such as a right to be educated through such a language. In addition, there are explicit rights in relation to healthcare, standard of living, accommodation, social security and work. These rights go beyond the ‘civil liberties’ (used in sense described by Gearty in Civil Liberties, 2007) and recognise the need for a holistic approach to human rights in the twenty-first century.
The report offers a potential Bill of Rights that would not just revolutionise rights protection in Northern Ireland but offer a model for post-conflict societies (and indeed ‘liberal democracies’ more generally) around the world. However, the proposals come in difficult times for human rights in Britain and Ireland. The Hillsborough Castle Agreement of February 2009 which provides a timetable for devolution of Justice and Policing makes no reference to a Bill of Rights – even though that devolution makes such a Bill all the more important. Harvey and Russell do not mention in the text of their article (although they do in the footnotes: fn 5-6) that support and opposition for a Bill of Rights is divided on ethno-nationalist lines. The SDLP, Sinn Féin, trade unions and ‘a range of leading human rights NGOs’ are in favour of a Bill, while the UUP, DUP and Conservative Party are opposed to the idea. Coupled with rights-scepticism that continues to rise in Britain and the potential for a Conservative Government come May, it seems unlikely that there will be the necessary political support to take this project to fruition. On the other hand, Harvey and Russell note rising grass-roots support for the Bill, with a poll reported in the Irish Times on 13 May 2009 finding 70% support and almost equal levels of support across the North’s two principal communities. Perhaps most notably:
The poll found that 92 per cent believe that it is very or quite important for the Bill to contain “the right to an adequate standard of living”; 93 per cent believe that it is very/quite important for the Bill to contain “the right to work”; and 93 per cent believe that it is very/quite important for the Bill to contain “the right to adequate accommodation”.
Public consultation on the Bill has been open since November 30 of last year and closes on March 1 2010. The consultation document can be found at http://www.nio.gov.uk. Those in favour of a Bill would do well to encourage positive contributions, as they will need to harness that support to overcome likely political opposition (or at best indifference) after the General Election.
London-based readers of this blog can hear Colin Harvey’s most recent thoughts on this matter, along with those of Aileen McColgan (Professor at King’s College London & barrister at Matrix Chambers) at a seminar at the Edmund J. Safra Lecture Theatre, King’s College London (Strand Campus) at 6:30pm on 22 February 2010. See here for more details.
Update (11am 9/02/10): Belfast readers can attend a seminar on the NIO’s Proposals for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland between 2-5pm today in G9 Lanyon North, hosted by the Human Rights Centre at the School of Law in Queen’s.