We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Kevin Hanratty, Human Rights Consortium. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the upcoming Westminster General Election, the parties in Northern Ireland have been setting out their stalls via their manifestos, with the hope of electoral endorsement. The Human Rights Consortium has been reviewing each of these manifestos with a view to assessing the emphasis place on rights by each party.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement set out provision for a Bill of Rights to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights and “reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”. The Bill of Rights was intended to be passed as Westminster legislation but progress has been slow, particularly in the last five years with a coalition Government that has shown complete disinterest in moving this aspect of the agreement forward. But can the Westminster election manifestos of local parties provide any updates as to current party attitudes towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland or human rights more generally.
The Nationalist parties reaffirm their commitment to a Bill of Rights. The SDLP pledges to continue lobbying for a Bill of Rights that will “support the common ground that does exist in our society, and provide protections and principles upon which we can agree despite our differences.” They also state that the Irish language must be fully recognised in such a Bill.
Sinn Fein has said they will push for a Bill of Rights as well as an All-Ireland Charter of fundamental rights, although they do not expand upon what this may entail. They add that the “forthcoming” Bill of Rights will include “equality protections for LGBT citizens and prohibitions on homophobic and transphobic discrimination”. This is supplemented with commitments to implementing both the Stormont House Agreement and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in full.
The Unionist parties, on the other hand, are mostly silent on the issue of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The DUP, UUP and TUV make no mention of a Bill of Rights in their election manifestos. However the UUP talk about rights for victims, a right to independent living, education rights for people with disabilities and protections from abuse for the elderly. While the DUP raises the idea of legislation on parading to protect the right of assembly, prioritising the needs of older people through anti-discrimination legislation and protecting in law the official display of the Union flag and other symbols of the nation.
While it doesn’t specifically mention the Human Rights Act in it’s manifesto the DUP made their position on at least one part of the Act clear in a policy document launched in February this year. Their law and order policy paper said they would “support, as a minimum, the reform of the Human Rights Act, to remove the ‘right to family life’ defence against deportation upon conviction for a serious criminal offence.” So predictions of the DUP playing a king making role once the votes are counted may bring a Northern Ireland aspect to a political debate that has currently confined itself largely to Westminster.
UKIP NI, in line with its English counterparts, endorses the repeal of the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom.
Similarly, the NI Conservatives fall in behind the Tory party pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom. They add that “any supplementary rights for Northern Ireland should be considered in this context.”
The Alliance Party requires a compelling argument as to why NI needs a “fundamentally different human rights regime to other, especially neighbouring, jurisdictions.” Whilst not being opposed to the idea, they set out some conditions of what a Bill of Rights must be. These include being in line with European and international standards, realistic and enforceable, flexible enough to deal with changing circumstances, and avoid entrenching a two community view of identity.
The Green Party in Northern Ireland does not make any reference to a Bill of Rights but it does list other rights issues such as extending equal marriage to NI, womens involvement in politics and dealing with the poverty and human rights abuses suffered by migrants.
The party manifestos show the wide range of attitudes towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The Nationalist parties highlight the issue and are keen to press forward with it. The Alliance party remain open-minded to the idea, but only under certain conditions. The three main Unionist parties make no mention of a Bill, suggesting disengagement. The other Unionist parties make mention of a British Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom, not a separate Northern Ireland Bill. In relation to the Human Rights Act the role played by the DUP in any coalition may yet be of influence on the issue. On other rights the list is broad and often competing.
This all highlights the need for a renewed discussion on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and the place of rights generally in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the General Election. To engage all forms of opinion and find consensus on moving forward with the implementation of the core human rights commitments set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
It may seem that the space to do so may be limited given the variance in the approach to rights expressed in the manifestos but perhaps the most striking aspect of reviewing the local manifestos is that all parties seem comfortable using the language of rights and clearly have specific human rights priorities set for the term ahead. While the commonality breaks down when we compare the approaches to many issues, it surely leaves room for an enhanced discussion about how we wish to see existing and additional rights set in law. The election campaign trail has left a wake of rights related issues that are not going to go away anytime soon – gay marriage, abortion, freedom of expression, flags and social welfare, to name but a few.
Will the next Westminster term see the usual déjà vu approach to these contested issues by local parties or can we open up some space to discuss how a framework of rights could be developed in a way that leaves everyone feeling better protected?
For a full break down of the human rights content of each of the local party manifestos you can read the Manifesto Watch paper prepared by the Human Rights Consortium.