This piece is the work of the QUB Human Rights Student Working Group, consisting of Leo McSweeney, Leah Rea, Mansoreh Abolhassani and Laura Garland. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. They thank Prof Colin Harvey for his advice and support.
Recent years in the UK have resulted in enhanced political instability, with many elections and the EU referendum. The 2017 General Election has brought increased uncertainty to the UK and particularly Northern Ireland, with each day presenting new dilemmas. It is in the midst of this uncertainty and lack of political cogency, that it becomes essential to ensure the mandate of the Good Friday Agreement is delivered and a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights introduced. This would ensure that as Britain enters Brexit negotiations, Northern Ireland can be assured that it is protected and it is not merely a side note in Britain’s EU departure. Human rights need to be a constant, an unwavering protection that exists outside of politics and economic feasibility. Therefore, there is no reason, almost 20 years after the Agreement, why we should not have a new Bill of Rights, as envisaged by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
While Brexit has been at the forefront of many debates, the recent elections have also been fought on policy and a desire for positive change and increased equality. This can be seen in the arguments for equal marriage, an Irish language act and the protection of the culture of all communities in Northern Ireland. These issues are not just things to be fought about in campaigns and deliberated over in Stormont, they are important to the people of this region and therefore need be a point of certainty and protection. Within both the Good Friday Agreement and the consultation papers issued by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Office, there has been continuous mention of how the Bill should reflect the ‘particular circumstances’ of Northern Ireland. This notion of Northern Ireland being a special case enhances, in our view, the need for a Bill of Rights. This is not only about empowering and protecting existing rights (of the ECHR and HRA), but creating supplementary rights that are important to the people of Northern Ireland. A Bill of Rights would offer legal certainty and stability at this worrying time.
On the surface, political volatility would appear to create barriers to change, but in fact it should be embraced as a call to establish clear guarantees. A Bill of Rights would ensure the stability of Northern Ireland as Britain leaves the EU, it would address contemporary issues and solidify the peace process. The adoption of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be a fitting way to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It is needed now more than ever, and sooner rather than later.