Dr Anne Smith and Prof Colin Harvey: Northern Ireland still needs a Bill of Rights

Dr Anne Smith and Professor Colin Harvey
Dr Anne Smith and
Prof Colin Harvey

Dr Anne Smith and Professor Colin Harvey consider the case for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland in our current Brexit-dominated landscape.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland remains part of the unfinished work of the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement (the B/GFA). It is still needed, and its absence is felt in the mess that this society is currently in.

Reflecting the B/GFA’s mandate, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) launched the Bill of Rights process on 1 March 2000, and submitted its advice on 10 December 2008. The advice includes recommendations which advance new substantive rights, in addition to proposals relating to enforcement and implementation. The recommendations comprise a range of rights embracing economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights.

Much of the NIHRC’s advice remains persuasive and holds, and the extent to which it includes a full range of rights is impressive. As with many such initiatives, it was also the subject of disagreement. Often forgotten is the fact that it is a compromise document and there are areas where further thought is needed, including for example, marriage equality, children’s rights and women’s rights. Although we note that there is much public comment about the extent of the advice, we believe this has clouded and obscured the voices of those who still believe the advice never went far enough. Our project – funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust – created a space for some of those voices to be heard.

As is well known, eleven years on, the British Government has yet to legislate for a Bill of Rights, and the process is stalled. To assist in making progress, our project produced a draft model Bill of Rights based on the NIHRC’s original 2008 advice. The idea was to turn the NIHRC’s recommendations into something that looked like draft model legislation. Our aim was not to rehearse tired arguments about the pros and cons. Instead the objective was to move the debate forward by looking at the content and how this might be taken forward now. One of the tragedies of the Northern Irish process is precisely this absence of focused discussion on substance and next steps.

Another tragedy is the number of solutions and mechanisms that could address the political crises that prompted the collapse of the power-sharing institutions. There remains a general sense of a rights and equality crisis that needs to be addressed. Unsurprisingly, Brexit dominated the responses to our project. It was a firmly expressed view throughout that the Bill of Rights should now be revisited as a potential solution to the rights and equality challenges that it presents.

In relation to Brexit, the following rights/issues were highlighted: citizenship equality; freedom of movement; equivalence of rights on the island of Ireland; EU citizenship rights; and voting rights. We also observed an increasing discussion about the constitutional future, and what place rights would have in any reconfigured arrangements on the island of Ireland or across these islands. For example, the extent to which unionism may view a Bill of Rights as an instrument of protection in the face of future constitutional change is still surprisingly neglected.

In the midst of this growing conversation about constitutional change, we argue that a Bill of Rights will become increasingly essential. This society needs the sort of common framework of guarantees and assurances that is so absent at present. It is a framework that must speak to the core aspects of the conflict and address them convincingly, but should be wrapped within the inclusive embrace of a culture of respect for human rights that protects everyone. The NIHRC’s advice from 2008 went a long way towards doing precisely that. We could usefully return to it at this time.