Whither the Bill of Rights?
Today Aoife Nolan highlighted that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) published their response to the Government Consultation Paper earlier this week. NIHRC wholly rejected the general tone and content of the Government’s paper and pointed out some of its most glaring inconsistencies. It appears from the NIHRC response that the Government has:
- Attempted to drastically curtail the scope of the Northern Ireland charter by dismissing out of hand any rights (eg social, economic and cultural rights) that cannot be simplistically linked to the Troubles (though many such rights were, of course, violated during the conflict). The Government paper instead claims that such rights should be analysed in the UK rather than the NI context.
- Engaged in double-think by on the one hand criticising the broad scope of the NIHRC proposals while on the other hand complained that many of the suggested rights are already ‘protected’ by a patchwork quilt of secondary legislation and policy documents.
- Utterly (and/or deliberately) misunderstood or misrepresented the nature of the project by failing to appreciate that the protection of rights by such a patchwork quilt is not sufficient to meet the aspirations of the Belfast Agreement. It is clear that NIHRC have in mind a constitutional charter, whereas the Government would be satisfied with the bare minimum protection.
One can’t help but think that the proposed Bill of Rights is becoming a ‘political football’ ‘collateral damage’ ‘insert-cliché-here’ in the electoral jousting of the Labour and Conservative Parties. As will be recalled from my previous post here, the Bill of Rights is approaching its due date at a time when human rights is becoming a four letter phrase in Britain. The general tenor of the Westminster debate tends to range from indifference to outright hatred of the Human Rights Act. The idea that Northern Ireland might be about to adopt a charter that goes further than existing law in Britain or Ireland appears to go largely unnoticed.
For example, in an uncharacteristically myopic op-ed in The Times today, Vernon Bogdanor argued that
In Northern Ireland, the very idea of a “British” Bill of Rights might antagonise the nationalist community and unpick the delicate settlement reached in the Good Friday agreement.
It would be necessary, therefore, to secure the consent of the devolved bodies to Bill of Rights. That would not be easy since neither the Scottish National Party nor Sinn Féin would wish to agree to something that was “British”. But, unless they were involved in the negotiations, they would not accept a British Bill of Rights as legitimate.
Bogdanor is correct, of course, in pointing out that Sinn Féin are unlikely to be fans of a ‘British’ Bill of Rights. But he is short-sighted in that his piece makes no reference to the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Much of the debate in Britain appears to be driven by the rights scepticism that is endemic in England where the Human Rights Act is often portrayed as a rogue’s charter. However, as Afua Hirsch notes…
This is not the view in Northern Ireland. As is so often the case in societies where violations of civil and political rights are a recent reality, there is a dynamism around human rights there that is almost unrecognisable from England. The question in Northern Ireland is not whether human rights protections should be repealed, suspended, or “left on people’s doorsteps” but how much much further they should go, and whether the law should protect the right to housing, work and education – socio-economic rights that are barely even discussed in Great Britain.
Northern Ireland was promised its own Bill of Rights, to reflect its “particular circumstances”, in the Good Friday Agreement. The resulting consultation is an exercise England could learn from, with thousands of responses and a wide range of views genuinely reflected. Despite obvious divisions, there is evidence that 83% of people in both Protestant and Catholic communities support Northern Ireland’s quest for its own Bill of Rights.
Instead the Northern Ireland Office stands accused of offering people in Northern Ireland a “pale shadow” of that. Human Rights Groups say that they are “dismayed” with the government’s response, and that any attempt to link Northern Ireland’s Bill of Rights with the development of a new “British Bill” would be nothing less than a breach of an international peace treaty.
Antipathy towards human rights is not, of course, a strictly English phenomenon, as another recent contribution to the debate from Belfast makes clear. However, the development of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland – a proposal which may have over 80% support in that jurisdiction – should not fall victim to English electoral politics. The Consortium that supports a strong Bill is a broad one and crosses the divide of the two main communities. It would be a shame if the prospect of a robust and progressive charter for one island (or part of it) was undermined by short-term politics of the other island (or part of it).