We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Dr Anne Smith and Prof Monica McWilliams, Ulster University. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
On the 14 December 2015, the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) held a roundtable discussion on Where Next for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland at Ulster University’s Belfast campus. The event was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and was chaired by Visiting Professor at the TJI, Dr Avila Kilmurray. The event brought together several key stakeholders to discuss the way forward for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. A diverse range of high-level participants included representatives from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Irish Secretariat based in Belfast, Sinn Féin, the DUP, the UUP, Alliance, and SDLP, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a range of community and voluntary organisations as well as academics and students.
The background to this roundtable discussion was the publication of a report Political Capacity Building: Advancing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
published in September 2014 co-authored by Dr Anne Smith, Professor Monica McWilliams and Priyam Yarnell. The report was funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and provides an update on the political parties’ as well as the Irish and British Governments’ positions on the Bill of Rights. The report set out several recommendations to address the current political inertia that exists over this issue and this was the focus of the discussion at the roundtable.
Participants were invited to present their views on possible ways forward in a ten minute slot responding to the question on how they viewed the current stalemate. Other questions focused on whose responsibility it was to move forward the Bill of Rights? Participants largely agreed that there is an appetite among the public for a Bill of Rights but the level of consensus amongst the political parties currently differs. The representatives from the two main unionist parties reiterated their current position (the DUP and the UUP) favouring a UK Bill of Rights whereas representatives from the other parties (SDLP and Sinn Féin) argued that there is a need for an indigenous Bill of Rights. The Alliance representative expressed ‘sympathy’ with both positions and stated that the ‘only way forward’ for this issue is to create a ‘space for discussion.’ Some of the roundtable participants agreed that creating this ‘space’ is essential as the NIHRC’s advice submitted to the British government in 2008 on what rights supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights could be in a Bill of Rights has not been properly discussed.
Likewise, other participants talked about the need for a ‘fresh start’ and ‘reinvigorating’ the discussion. Some contributors talked about the possibility that a Bill of Rights could be ‘paralysing’ and ‘divisive’ rather than having an ‘energising’ impact. A further potential obstacle identified by roundtable participants is that the political context today is significantly different from when the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement came into affect particularly in the light of the British government’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act. This raises several questions not least as to how the Northern Ireland Assembly will deal with the implications of such a move. Some raised the view that if the Human Rights Act is repealed, paradoxically, there could be a ‘double argument’ for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights since this would be more in keeping with what was agreed on April 10th, 1998.
As practical ways forward, the participants were asked if they thought another discussion in the same or other format would be helpful. Generally, there was endorsement to hold another roundtable discussion. However, there was divided opinion as to whether the discussions should take place inside or outside of Northern Ireland. Some participants thought that if it was discussed within the Northern Ireland Assembly, the discussions would be more accessible to the politicians. Others thought that the debate needs to be outside of Northern Ireland as it gives politicians the opportunity to dedicate time to this subject in a way that is not possible whilst they continue to deal with Assembly and constituency business. Wherever the next stage of the process takes place, the participants highlighted the important role of politics and political will and leadership. The convenors of this roundtable were reassured by the participants that this was a constructive engagement and that it needed to be continued in order to assess the potential of advancing the implementation of this outstanding issue from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.