Northern Ireland Commission backs social and economic rights

Stuart Weir
14 January 2009

Stuart Weir (London, Democratic Audit): As is the way of things, only bad news from Northern Ireland makes it onto the British media. So it is that there was something of a media blackout on the report to government here from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, advocating a Bill of Rights for the province that contained significant economic and social rights.  The report, or advice, was submitted on 10 December, international Human Rights Day.

The Commission is a statutory body, set up under the Northern Ireland Act, to recommend a Bill of Rights specifically for the province that reflects “the particular circumstances” of Northern Ireland and draws upon international human rights instruments.  The Commission has worked hard since 2000 to meet this brief, but has continually met political obstruction because of its members’ interest in a broad and consensual proposal.

Its proposals are embedded in a deep consultation programme of the kind that democrats argued should inform government action on human rights, values and a constitutional settlement for the UK as a whole under Brown’s now dead governance initiative.  The Commission has considered 600 submissions from individual people and agencies, and held public meetings, seminars and training events to get down as deep into what people in Northern Ireland want.  It has been an inspiring process.

Northern Ireland’s Bill should, the Commission advises, contain basic civil and political rights, build in equality, create rights to health, education, work, accommodation and “an adequate standard of living”, and environmental and children’s rights.  A majority of Commission members have agreed this proposal, but its two unionist members, Lady Trimble, of the UUP, and Jonathan Bell, DUP, are firmly opposed, as the unionist political hierarchy has been since 2000.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary and Attorney General, knows better than the people of Northern Ireland what they want, or what is good for them. In a speech at a Tory-UUP dinner a few days ago, he set aside all the assiduous consultation that has gone into the Commission’s advice, saying that such a Bill should not “be imposed” on them.  The advice, he said, “makes my hair stand on end”,  and there was no need for it in Northern Ireland.

His comments are also relevant to the debate on the Human Rights Act in the UK as a whole.  He said that the “rights culture” was out of control not just in Ulster but throughout the UK. “The undeserving in society” could often use rights legislation “for personal gain”.  The Conservatives would create a UK Bill of Rights with built-in safeguards to prevent those “whose own behaviour is lacking” from abusing its powers.  A devolved administration at Stormont could then make changes to take countenance of “local needs and issues”, just as long presumably, as local people had no say.

As for socio-economic rights, governments and legislation were intruding too much into people’s lives.

There is not much point here in de-constructing the populist rhetoric within which Grieve masks the real objections to socio-economic rights which are held just as fiercely by his Labour counterparts, state bureaucrats, judges and the rest of the political and business elite.  This is distressing because there is a need for serious and detailed debate, just as much on the left as on the right, about how socio-economic rights might be realised if those of us who advocate them are ever to succeed.  (See here Claire Methven O’Brien’s article, “Entrenching Social Citizenship”, in Renewal, 16-1.)   It is also distressing, as defence of the Human Rights Act depends on rescuing its public image from the distortions of political and media representation, in which Jack Straw recently played a shameful part.

I cannot resist an ironical foot note. Grieve spoke movingly of a Bill of Rights that “everyone in the UK could feel they have ownership of and could truly believe in and adhere to”. The nearest we have come to such a measure is that which the NI Commission has recommended. Any true attempt to gauge what the British public as a whole wanted would find that they are also in favour of a Bill that protects socio-economic rights. But we are not likely to see any such attempt.

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