We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Prof Colin Harvey, QUB School of Law and Human Rights Centre. Colin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the first majority Conservative government at Westminster since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 1998. That Agreement emerged under a Labour government that had constitutional reform firmly on its agenda. The Conservative Party is not new to ‘peace process politics’, and it plainly has its own constitutional ambitions. The one that is attracting intense comment is the pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act. It is hard to know what more can be said, other than to marvel at the impressive list of defenders the legislation now has. Another is the referendum on EU membership, and the nature of the debate that is likely to come. Many commitments of this new government also raise multiple concerns among those working for human rights and civil liberties. Given the slim prospects for a strong and expansive human rights and equality agenda at Westminster, and the engineered inertia of the Northern Ireland Executive on some of these matters, thought turns to what might now be done? There are five points to note.
First, recall that society here has experienced worse. This is not to say much more than we are a resilient place; even as we continue to acknowledge the appalling and enduring impact of conflict on individuals and communities, and the profound socio-economic inequality that prevails here.
Second, this society has a remarkable resource in the work of its many impressive civil society and statutory organisations that struggle tirelessly and selflessly to advance rights, equality and social justice. The experience and skills gained are still there and will be tested to the limit (and breaking point) in hard times such as these.
Third, there are norms to work with (for now) and institutions to work on. Credibly maximising the potential of what exists is worthwhile, so long as this does not mislead people into believing that law delivers more than it can. The demand for a strong Bill of Rights, for example, is proof that the human rights law we do have (while significant) is insufficient. If resources will permit, and if the energy is there, then existing law can be tested to see if the ‘living instruments’ of rights and equality might offer hope to the marginalised, vulnerable and to all those whose human dignity is denied. There are many institutional mechanisms supported by legal guarantees; why not make best use of them?
Fourth, it is possible to promote coalitions for progressive politics across these islands and globally. The socio-economic climate might produce an entirely understandable level of gloom. But there is scope to mobilise to disrupt the political world. Never forget that political positions previously disowned can secure a warm embrace if the popular mood shifts decisively. What externally might seem monolithic can be surprisingly fragmented inside. How awful it would be if civil society invented myriad new forms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ politics to mirror the mess we are seeking to emerge from.
Fifth, the international standards and institutions are still there. While the weaknesses are well known, they can keep governmental minds focused. No government likes to be embarrassed internationally. This was always a core component of any advances made in the past, and will surely continue to be so. The international dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, in particular, place a considerable weight on the responsibilities of both governments as guarantors of substance as well as process.
These are indeed challenging times, but the work for equality, human rights and social justice will continue. Retaining what is there may be an achievement itself; but we should remember that much of this is intended as the starting line only for us. Perhaps one lesson from our process is the potentially transformative nature of life itself. People change, institutions stumble on, and standards evolve; all too slowly for many, of course. Disrupting monolithic worldviews, building surprising coalitions, ensuring promises are kept, and testing the interpretative legal room that exists in any measure (or within any institution); these are all avenues that are open. Talking together with mutual respect and working in solidarity with each other remain universal ways of finding paths out of difficult contexts. No one needs to pretend that there is always consensus (there will not be in any truly democratic conversation), but achieving the societal ambitions expressed in our Agreements surely means that the effort must continue, and be robustly supported?