QUB student working group calls for renewed consideration of NI Bill of Rights

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from the QUB Human Rights Student Working Group, consisting of Leo McSweeney, Leah Rea, Mansoreh Abolhassani and Laura Garland. They can be reached at lmcsweeney01@qub.ac.uk.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement has become the foundation for the peace paradigm and the basis for the new legal regime of Northern Ireland. Much of its content has become part of the political mainstream, but work is not yet finished. Resulting from the Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) was established, with the intention of providing advice on a Bill of Rights, which would supplement the ECHR but also address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. In 2017, we are now one year away from the 20th anniversary of the Agreement and we appear no closer than we were back in 1998. With that impending landmark, the uncertainty NI faces in the wake of Brexit, and the political sea change currently occurring at Stormont, we are at the ideal juncture to revisit this issue and ensure better protection of human rights in Northern Ireland.

In the time since the NIHRC was set up, there has been progress made through various consultations and the drafting of the ‘Advice for the Secretary of State’ which was published in 2008 (), it was not a draft bill but set out clear guidance on what was needed for Northern Ireland and the issues that should be addressed. The Commission set out detailed recommendations for the rights to be included, looking at both those already provided by the ECHR and also those supplementary and specifically relevant to NI. While there was some agreement, much of this was met with contention and misinterpretation by the Northern Ireland Office, arguing at times that not all supplementary rights were reflective of the “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland” and that some issues required attention in a possible UK wide bill of Rights instead.

At this point it is important that we go beyond the various obstacles which have continuously impeded the much-needed Bill of Rights and find a way to make it a reality. The current political situation has placed NI on the brink of dramatic change, but also with an opportunity for human rights to return to the forefront of the agenda. Within the context of Brexit, NI is in a unique position of being on the border of another EU member state, with much of its trade and relations being built around the idea of ease of movement across this border. This means that it is imperative that the circumstances of NI are recognised and addressed and its interests protected through the mechanism of enhanced human rights protection. Additionally, with the recent Northern Ireland election and the changes it will bring, a chance is arising for human rights to be brought back on the agenda because, while the specific outcome of negotiations remains unclear, it is apparent that there is a need and a desire for change.

One of the most important issues to be addressed by an NI Bill of Rights is equality; this applies not only to the divide between the two main communities but also the growing diversity of NI, in terms of the range of religions, ethnicities and cultures. Human rights belong to everyone. It is therefore essential that we address these issues in a way that is constructive and inclusive, for example, beginning to resolve the debate around the Irish language by also creating an additional right to cultural identity and language, which would protect not only Irish (as significant as this is) but other languages too. Change will not happen overnight, and the lack of progress so far has been the result of continuous disagreement, therefore the opportunity must be taken to treat the Bill of Rights, not as a point of contention, but as an opportunity to lay the constitutional foundation for progress which can then be further built upon legislatively