This week saw the publication of the Fourth Opinion on the UK by the Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for National Minorities. In accordance with the treaty-body procedure the report itself was finalised on the 25 May 2016 but awaited UK government comments before its publication. The report therefore was completed before the ‘BREXIT’ vote, and hence does not cover its consequences for minorities. CAJ met with the committee during the preparation of its report and made a formal written submission.
The Convention covers linguistic as well as ethnic minorities (but not minority sexual orientation) and there is considerable comment on the rights of Irish speakers in the fourth opinion; the second most prominent NI issue is the need to implement the ‘good relations’ duty in s75(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in a human rights compliant manner. The two recommendations for ‘immediate action’ cover these two areas; the report urging the state party to:
- Adopt appropriate legislation protecting and promoting the Irish language and take measures to ensure progress on language rights of persons belonging to the Irish minority; the UK Government should engage in a dialogue to create the political consensus needed for adopting legislation;
- the Northern Ireland Executive should endeavour to implement the ‘good relations’ duty as provided under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in a manner that does not run counter to the equality duty and that does not prevent access to rights of persons belonging to all national and ethnic minorities;
Within the body of the report the Advisory Committee again regrets the absence of any information being provided by the Northern Ireland Executive – as a “consequence of the lack of agreement on minority and human-rights related issues between the two largest parties of the Executive, particularly on the issue of the Irish language”  and urges Stormont to at least provide information on ‘non-controversial’ issues and the UK government to build consensus on the reporting process. Notably the UK Comments on the Advisory Committee’s report address none of the main NI issues raised in the report, and instead consist largely of a few general references to the NI Racial Equality Strategy. The Advisory Committee report summarises the local situation as follows:
The situation in Northern Ireland is characterised by political tensions in governing bodies, tensions that often prevent smooth governance, by lack of dialogue with stakeholders and by the continuing lack of an updated legal framework for equality implementing Section 75 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act. Sectarian politics and a static interpretation of the notion of ‘good relations’ prevent reform of equality legislation and adoption of an Irish Language Bill. They also hamper efforts to put adequate focus on other smaller national and ethnic minorities, whose number has increased substantially in the last ten years owing to European Union (EU) enlargements [paragraph 7].
The report goes on to reference the ‘gridlock’ in power-sharing as having prevented the adoption of the Irish language act–blames “sectarian policy making”, and the Act becoming hostage to misconstrued ‘good relations’ approaches:
The lack of progress on language rights of persons belonging to a national minority is emblematic of a wider practice of sectarian-driven policy making that appears to dominate the political process, pushing the protection of the rights of other national and ethnic minorities to the fringes. Although the issue of language has become less sensitive in society, it continues to be perceived as an instrument with the potential to alter the balance between the two main communities, thereby becoming a hostage of a “good relations” policy which aims at avoiding tensions. 
These issues are picked up in a section on Community Relations in Northern Ireland. This notes the adoption in 2013 of the “Together building a united community” (TBUC) strategy, which it notes reflects the “Executive’s ongoing commitment to improve ‘good relations’, equality of opportunity and reconciliation between communities in Northern Ireland.” The Advisory Committee refers to interlocutor reports of the ‘good relations’ duty appearing “on several occasions to take priority over wider equality and minority rights initiatives, which were blocked on grounds that they would lead to ‘community tensions’”. The report elaborates that:
This would be due to the fact that, unlike the rest of the country, Northern Ireland does not interpret the ‘good relations’ duty as including a duty to tackle racism, including sectarianism. Instead, the lack of proper definition allows this notion to be used rather as a ‘tool’ to set aside politically contentious issues, such as legislating on the Irish language, and to justify a “do-nothing” attitude, eventually based on ‘perceptions’ rather than objective criteria. The Advisory Committee reiterates its opinion that the concept of ‘good relations’ apparently continues to be substituted for the concept of intercultural dialogue and integration of society, which would include other national and ethnic minorities present in the region, and regrets that this is used to prevent access to rights by persons belonging to these minorities. 
The Committee then continues by reiterating that sectarianism should be treated as a form of racism:
In its previous opinion, the Advisory Committee also drew the attention of the authorities to the fact that to treat sectarianism as a distinct issue rather than a form of racism is problematic, as it allows it to fall outside the scope of accepted anti-discrimination and human rights protection standards. The fact that there is no legal definition of sectarianism and that it is taken rather to indicate discriminatory attitudes and opposition between the two main political/religious communities has insulated the terms from the broader equality framework. However, during its visit the Advisory Committee was informed by the authorities that no progress on the definition of sectarianism is expected in the short term .
The Committee goes on to highlight serious concerns expressed by Interlocutors to the Advisory Committee “about the institutionalisation” of sectarianism and its entanglement with the notion of ‘good relations’, which are “causing gridlock in the political debate.” The experts go on to reference concerns regarding sectarian-motivated crimes and the visibility of sectarianism in society in may other areas – “with a direct impact on other national and ethnic minorities, whose needs remain unmet.” Specifically the Committee singles out housing segregation and its impact on housing solutions for other ethnic minorities. Specifically the Committee recommends:
- The authorities should begin to implement the ‘good relations’ duty as provided for under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in a manner that does not run counter to the equality duty and that does not prevent access to rights by persons belonging to all national and ethnic minorities. 
- It also calls on the authorities to introduce definitions of ‘good relations’ and ‘sectarianism’ in legislation, drawing on international standards relating to racism and human rights in general; and to ensure that sectarian crimes are dealt with in the criminal justice system in a way equivalent to other forms of hate crime. 
This is reiterated in the final recommendations in the report which urge the introduction of “definitions of ‘good relations’ and ‘sectarianism’ in Northern Ireland legislation in line with international standards relating to combating racism and promoting human rights in general.”
Turning, under Article 10 of the Convention, to the Irish language the Committee addresses the issue of legislation and expresses its regrets that there has been little progress on either the legislation or the Irish language strategy provided for further to the St Andrews Agreement. The report notes that notwithstanding public support the Executive rejected the DCAL minister’s proposals for both in the context of unionist opposition. The report also notes issues being raised over resources and the similar fate of the Ulster Scots strategy and repeal of the 1737 Administration of Justice (language) (Ireland) Act, which have also not progressed. The Committee regarded the Irish language act as “a necessity to protect and promote the Irish language” and called upon the British Government to take steps to achieve consensus for its passage through the Northern Ireland Assembly .
Under Article 11, the Committee addresses the issue of bilingual English-Irish signage, noting that the legislative provisions for NI councils have led to ‘patchy’ provision of bilingual street signs, there was no legal framework for road signs and that some new councils “have proposed very restrictive policies, making it virtually impossible to reach a decision on its merits”. The Committee alludes to concerns that signage may assume a ‘territorial marker’ connotation which it holds “continues to lead to an official policy of not posting such signs for fear that they may cause controversy or put at risk public authorities’ duty to promote ‘good relations’.” The Committee raises concerns that such an approach is not consistent with the Framework Convention for which public authorities are to “appropriately take due account of the symbolic importance of minority languages on topographical and other signposts.” The Committee “considers that the use of bilingualism on signage and other public displays should be promoted where possible as a positive tool of integration to convey the message that a given territory is shared in harmony by various population groups” and recommends “closer dialogue on signage among the government and local authorities in Northern Ireland to identify pragmatic and flexible solutions that accommodate the demands of the population in line with the principles contained in Article 11 of the Framework Convention” .
The treaty-body report also picks up on the re-organisation of local government in Northern Ireland and the risks of regression in Irish language provision. The report records that “Interlocutors informed the Advisory Committee that, even in areas where Irish language policies were long established and relatively forward-thinking, the drafting of ‘new’ policies as opposed to the continuation of existing policies has often provoked bitter rows and negative reporting. Without strategic direction, a suitable legislative framework and detailed monitoring of progress within the councils, the Irish language community fears marginalisation and further disadvantage in the new arrangements.”  The Advisory Committee consequently urged “the authorities to ensure that any administrative and constituency border reform follows an inclusive process, which takes into account the presence of persons belonging to a national minority in the territory, their meaningful participation and respect for their rights” [146.]
In other areas the Advisory Committee reiterates its call that fair employment monitoring processes whereby persons can be designated as being from a particular community background are only strictly used to combat discrimination; the Committee also homes in on the lack of progress on single equality legislation in NI, noting that there has neither been progress on “unified equality legislation or, alternatively, reform of the current framework to close the existing gaps.” It urges that the “the Northern Ireland Assembly should adopt robust and comprehensive single equality legislation or otherwise strengthen racial equality in Northern Ireland, and harmonise protection across the UK .
The Committee also notes that adaptation by the NI Executive of the Racial Equality Strategy 2015-2025, but notes civil society criticism of a lack of concrete actions and urges an action plan is adopted [40-42]. The report is also critical of the lack of ethnic monitoring data in NI, and urges that “authorities should prioritise integrating the collection of disaggregated equality data on the situation of persons belonging to national and ethnic minorities into the practices of all relevant departments and agencies in Northern Ireland as a means to adopting and implementing effective minority protection and equality promotion policies” .
The Advisory Committee also urges the establishment of a “multi-agency Taskforce on Traveller accommodation in Northern Ireland to cater for the needs of Irish Travellers” , noting the ongoing levels of discrimination against Travellers and the lack of real progress on adequate sites. The Committee also urges the NI Executive to monitor the Traveller Education Support Service to ensure effective education for Traveller children . The Advisory Committee also encourages the NI Executive “to adopt legislation directing the Department for Education to enhance shared education” . This followed analysis of the situation in relation to shared education and the education of Traveller and newcomer pupils in the report [116-118]. The report also addresses Irish-medium education, and urges authorities to “renew and intensify their efforts to develop Irish-medium education and Irish language teaching” . The final recommendations section of the report reiterates on education that authorities should:
In Northern Ireland, renew efforts to develop Irish-medium education and Irish language teaching; expand and facilitate shared education; ensure that access to education and attendance by Traveller children is effectively put in place and monitored by the Traveller Education Support Service;
In relation to participation in public life (Article 15) the report notes the marginalisation of black and minority ethnic candidates for electoral office and cites a figure of 0.2% for representation in the public service, and 0.54% for ethnic minority representation in the PSNI, which it notes “seems committed to encouraging applications from under-represented groups and to establishing an Ethnic Minority Police Association” .
There is of course plenty in the report that is not NI specific but that is relevant to this jurisdiction. Another measure for ‘immediate action’ is to “Counter the climate of inter-ethnic prejudices and hate speech by stepping up efforts and initiatives to promote tolerance and intercultural dialogue; continue to firmly condemn provocative language in public discourse; engage with mass media outlets to promote a more nuanced understanding and reporting of facts that risk fuelling intolerant and ethnically hostile behaviour and reduce the use of derogatory language.” This recommendation was notably written in the build up to the EU referendum, and has become all the more urgent since.