Northern Ireland Bill of Rights meets Unionist No

Damian O'Loan
11 December 2008

Damian O'Loan (Paris): Northern Ireland's Human Rights Commission has delivered its report advising the Labour government on the content of a NI Bill of Rights. Acting on recommendations from a cross-party and civic society Forum, It has done well to reduce an unfocussed report into this clear document. It is important for a few reasons:

The Conservatives have pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act, leaving the ECHR protections. This would reduce sovereignty in that judges in Brussels would take decisions, based on EU legislation, now taken in London on Westminster legislation. In any case, if they are true to their pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership outright, we could be left with neither.

The report is quite modern in two ways. It commits government to "sustainable development and use" of natural resources, and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of "health, genetic predisposition to illness..."

With the NHS under increasing threat of privatisation, and private personal information freely distributed to private companies (Stormont's Regional Development department yesterday declared it “did not represent a breach of data protection regulations”), your access to health insurance may depend on this right.

It commits everyone to "exclusively peaceful means." It states that “legislation must be enacted to ensure that all violations of the right to life relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland are effectively investigated. Any mechanisms established must be fully in compliance with international human rights law.” While difficult for many on all sides to accept, this is an unavoidable step towards stability in peace.

It has been opposed by the DUP and the UUP, the leading unionist parties. The Ulster Unionists, now official Conservatives, have set two tests. “Firstly, do they take power away from democratically-elected representatives and give them to unelected judges? Secondly, would they be acceptable elsewhere in the United Kingdom? Our initial reading of the document suggests, unfortunately, that it fails both tests.” The first line, taken wholesale from Murdoch, logically suggests that government should have no legislative commitments. Yet he supported proper equipment for British troops, and that relied on Right to Life commitments rightly made by government.

The second is in clear contradiction to the commitment made in the Good Friday agreement to support a Bill of Rights “to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.” This invented criterion is a breach more serious than the failure of the DUP to agree to devolving policing and justice, to which they never promised a date. His colleague Dermot Nesbitt has at least acknowledged the commitment, but claims that the HRC has ignored its mandate “to consider the scope for additional rights in Northern Ireland addressing our particular circumstances, reflecting the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem” instead following “an agenda designed to provoke controversy and division.”

He appears not to have read Chapter 3, which “explains how the rights meet the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, how they are supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights and how they are in compliance, where appropriate, with international instruments and experience.”

It is now impossible to believe that the UUP and DUP support a Bill of Rights. They have opposed and obstructed every stage of it's development. The "divergences of opinion" on the Commission itself, two in eight, represent this continued opposition. Finally, this is far more significant than the Policing & Justice issue. These are real promises being flagrantly and foolishly breached.

Nor can we trust David Cameron to hold unionism to its commitments. This is the clearest example yet of why Stormont isn't working. It is a breach of the peace agreements so flagrant that, if accepted, will irrevocably undermine nationalism, republicanism and the Stormont Assembly.

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