Ensuring a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland remains on the Political Agenda

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Prof Monica McWilliams, Dr Anne Smith and Priyam Yarnell, Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University. 

On the 6 October 2014, our report ‘Political Capacity Building: Advancing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’ (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2610026) was launched in Parliament Buildings in Stormont. The launch of the report was well attended with political representatives, civil servants, the Irish Secretariat and civic society members present throughout the proceedings.

The aim of the report is to help progress one of the outstanding commitments of the Belfast/Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/136652/agreement.pdf; https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/136651/st_andrews_agreement-2.pdf) namely the introduction of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.  In that context, the report assesses the current position of the Northern Ireland political parties, and the position of the British and Irish governments, on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.


Findings of the report

Having conducted this assessment (undertaken by interviewing representatives from the Irish and British governments and eight interviews with the local political parties) the report notes several findings. The main conclusion is that despite there being consensus amongst all of the local political parties that a political vacuum exists in relation to the Agreement’s proposal for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland the parties disagree on where the responsibility lies for the current lack of progress.

On the one hand, the two main unionist parties believe it is the responsibility of others to convince them that a Bill of Rights is needed for Northern Ireland. They argue that they are open to persuasion but that is where the obligation ends.  The parties in favour of a Bill of Rights, on the other hand, believe they are being left to take forward this commitment and note that this was also a commitment endorsed by the people in the referendum that followed the Agreement. Their view is that it should not be up to them to persuade others of the need for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland since the obligation to take forward the legislation lies with the British government.

In that context, as the co-guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the report sets out how the British and Irish governments can fulfil their obligation under this and subsequent agreements.  The report argues that a policy framework needs to be developed and implemented by the British and Irish governments which would help to create a much more coherent approach on the government’s side. Such a framework could enable an assessment of the extent to which the parties agree and/or disagree with the proposals forwarded by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, (http://www.nihrc.org/uploads/publications/bill-of-rights-for-northern-ireland-advice-to-secretary-state-2008.pdf) the Bill of Rights Forum (http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/law/bor/borf310308_report.pdf)  and any other bodies.

Following this, parties should be encouraged to agree a set of principles from which the rights appropriate to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland could be developed. Each stage should allow sufficient time for the deliberations and the process itself should set out a schedule for the eventual outcomes.

The report also found that there was a diversity of knowledge amongst the parties on the applicability and justiciability of various human rights standards.  The report argues that if a process was to be established to progress the discussions on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, then guidance should be provided to assist the parties in their deliberations. Consideration should be given to identifying the human rights expertise that is needed to help create a more conducive environment for the deliberations. As civil society continues to play a pivotal role in campaigning for a Bill of Rights, its input and support should also be encouraged in the design of the framework.

The Conservative government’s pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act by introducing a British Bill of Rights, (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/interactive/2014/oct/03/conservatives-human-rights-act-full-document) and the increasing focus on this following the General Election, make the findings of this report timely. Similarly, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade’s recent address to the Seanad on the effect of the repeal of the UK Human Rights Act and the Good Friday Agreement (https://www.dfa.ie/news-and-media/press-releases/press-release-archive/2015/may/minister-flanagan-addresses-the-seanad-uk-hr-act/) makes the report a timely one. In his speech, the Minister expresses his disappointment ‘that a renewed commitment to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland based on the European Convention of Human Rights, as provided for by the Good Friday Agreement, was not included in the Stormont House Agreement, despite the Government’s best encouragement’. The failure to secure an agreement on how to take forward a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland in both the Haass-O’Sulivan talks and the Stormont House Agreement highlights the relevance of the report’s recommendations as well as the pressing need for a resolution to this outstanding issue.