I was pleased to be at the Alliance Party conference dinner in the La Mon hotel last night to hear the guest speech from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore TD.
He used it to make a strong call for Northern Ireland party leaders to get round a negotiating table to deliver the long-awaited Bill of Rights. It’s worth reproducing the relevant extract at length:
Just as history is shared between the communities, so must the future be. As we near the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement we must cast our minds forward and look at what can be achieved in the next 15, 25, 50 years. We cannot become complacent. Our work is not done. There remains much which we can do, and should do, and must do. Just as we will be commemorating the past …in the coming years, we must not lose sight of the future of this island.
A shared future for the people of Northern Ireland must be built on a cornerstone of equal respect for the rights of all communities. The Good Friday Agreement provides for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland which would be based on the European Convention for Human Rights but also formulate rights which ‘reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem.’ The formulation and enactment of these rights, specific to Northern Ireland, would offer a strong, codified, response to those who allege that this post-Agreement society is not equal and does not respect the rights of all citizens.
We continue to be deeply engaged with the human rights agenda and hear regularly from civil society of the lacunae in human rights legislation. There are many groups who feel strongly that it is high time we addressed this.
Human rights and equality are fundamental to building a stable future for the island of Ireland. They are necessary for a solid, unshakeable, foundation for a lasting peace. A clear expression of these rights in a formal Bill of Rights can act as a touchstone.
Human rights and Equality are not unique, distinct entities; they have application and implications across all of the strands of the Agreement.
Human rights are part of the safeguards for the successful participation of all communities in the political and social life of Northern Ireland; equality of opportunity and parity of esteem are also fundamental to this society.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission were established to ensure that rights and equality are respected, and I commend them for their work now and in the past. However, a Bill of Rights drawn up by agreement between the main parties would set out precisely and formally the rights upon which a shared future can be based.
It is from certainty that trust and confidence is built, and trust and confidence were the cornerstones of the peace process. A Bill of Rights would base rights and equality in certainty and ensure the trust and confidence of the people of Northern Ireland for the future.
Next week we host a conference, as part of our Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 2012, the world’s largest regional security organisation, comprising 56 member states from across Europe, Central Asia and North America. The Conference will reflect on the peace process with a view to the future.
The title of the conference is ‘Shared Future: Building and Sustaining Peace’ and the speakers will be drawn from those who had experience of the process and those who are currently working to enact its provisions.
The Conference is a case-study for the information of others grappling with the challenge of peace, but it will reflect themes which we must continue to engage with ourselves. We have come this far and created a framework for peace, and now is the time to begin to build a concrete peaceful future.
The only way we can ensure that this peace will last is by ensuring that human rights and equality are the basis of all progress.