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Northern Ireland Bill of Rights: let the people have their say

Patrick Corrigan
23 May 2009

Cross-posted from Amnesty NI blog

I previously blogged about Shaun 'Seven Houses' Woodward – the ‘butler-toting’, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, potentially seeking to deny the inclusion of basic housing rights and other economic rights protections in a NI Bill of Rights. 

In his recent oral evidence to Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, he suggested that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had "gone so well beyond the brief they were given” in formulating their advice to the government on the Bill of Rights.  Now, he has suffered the embarrassment of the government, of which he is a member, correcting him in an answer to a Parliamentary Question in the House of Lords. 

The question was one of a series put by Ulster Unionist Lord Laird, himself no stranger to extravagant expense claims paid for by the taxpayer. Lord Laird fancies himself as the scourge of the Human Rights Commission and has asked thousands of pounds worth of questions in the House about its activities. Sadly, things don't always work out as planned for the peer and this occasion was no different.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, representing the government, in her response to Lord Laird's question, delivered a very public correction for Shaun Woodward – for himself going beyond his brief. The understated killer line is the final sentence of her response (full details of the exchange here): "The Government have no reason to believe that the commission has exceeded its statutory remit and no plans to take any action in this respect." 

Perhaps Mr Woodward is nervously looking over his shoulder at David Cameron, leader of the Secretary of State's former party, who has made a play of lambasting the Human Rights Act and rejecting effective additional rights protections for Northern Ireland. Cameron was in NI yesterday for one of his biannual visits, as part of the Euro election campaign. The Conservative sceptic line may go down well with those in Cunningham House, the party HQ of the Ulster Unionist Party with whom Cameron has entered an electoral pact, but it's a let-down for ordinary people here – unionist and nationalist - who back the Bill. 

Of course, the Bill of Rights was first seriously proposed in the legally-binding, inter-State Belfast Agreement of 1998, which was also endorsed by popular referendum on both sides of the Irish border. The Human Rights Commission was subsequently given the job of consulting with people in Northern Ireland and drawing up advice which should ultimately result in Westminster legislation.  

The overwhelming majority of the submissions received by the Commission during their consultation supported a strong and enforceable Bill of Rights and this has also been backed by opinion poll after opinion poll conducted in Northern Ireland over the last decade. The most recent of these was published just days ago, indicating some 70% of people in NI (drawn equally from 'both sides' of the community) think a Bill of Rights is important, while over 90% think any Bill should include provisions on economic and social rights. 

The Commission's advice was handed over to the government on December 10th and the Northern Ireland Office promised a consultation in late Spring of this year. That time is now here and the people of Northern Ireland are still waiting for the Secretary of State to deliver his end of the deal.

So, while the Secretary of State has had the chance to express his (now publicly corrected) opinion to a Westminster Committee, he has so far denied the people of Northern Ireland the chance of delivering their verdict.  

Admittedly, most ordinary Northern Irish folk just own somewhere between zero and one houses. Hope nobody in Westminster thinks some views are less equal than others…

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