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Day 9: Whither Human Rights in Northern Ireland?

Updated: Aug 28, 2019



Truly, 2018 is a year crammed with important anniversaries and commemorations for Northern Ireland. These anniversaries are more than just an opportunity to tweet an emoji-infused hashtag, or collect a shiny new badge (and trust me, I am guilty on both charges). They provide a moment to pause, to reflect on the past and understand the present, and speculate on the future. 2018 is a year to consider the standard of human rights in Northern Ireland, twenty years since the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement - and is a year for we as citizens to ask ourselves what does ‘human rights’ mean for us.

When we talk of the Good Friday Agreement, we tend to consider the three-stranded approach, whereby the Agreement redefined the triangular relationship between Belfast, Dublin and London. We think about how the Agreement provided a pathway for both peace and political stability through a system of devolved government, adhering to the principle of consociationalism. We think about - and argue - over the enshrined principle of ‘community designation’ in the Assembly, the requirement of a power-sharing Executive, the infamous Petition of Concern. (And if you are certain Brexiteers, you may ponder whether the Agreement itself is dead and gone - but that’s another story.)

We tend not to consider the landmark provision for human rights and equality within the text of the Agreement - a startling oversight, given that there is a whole chapter specifically for these areas. Chapter Six of the Agreement, Rights, Safeguards, and Equality of Opportunity is a fundamental pillar of the Agreement, and indeed the peace process, as it states signatories to the Agreement reaffirm their ‘commitment to the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community’. After decades of protracted bloody conflict, sectarianism, discrimination, and divided communities, this chapter sets out the ways and means to recognise and protect the rights of all citizens. It created constitutional rights as part of the transition from conflict to peace. It created a national human rights institution to monitor and uphold rights, and it decreed that the Republic of Ireland must ensure at least an equivalent level of protection of human rights as in existence in Northern Ireland. It provided for the establishment of a joint committee of representatives of the two Human Rights Commissions, North and South, as a forum for consideration of human rights issues in the island of Ireland. The Agreement was indeed bold in its human rights objectives - yet this is rarely discussed outside of the legal/academic realm. So, how have the ambitions of this chapter fared since 1998?

S6(4) of the Agreement established the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) , a national human rights institution an independent public body that operates in full accordance with the UN Paris Principles. The NIHRC’s statutory functions include: advising the Westminster government, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, and key agencies on legislation and compliance with human rights frameworks, bringing court proceedings or providing assistance to individuals doing so, and undertaking monitoring work of the UK Government’s compliance with international treaties.

Yet, the NIHRC has another important role: the NIHRC was to advise the British government on the drafting of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland rights supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), reflecting particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments. The NIHRC produced a comprehensive advice document, for the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward in 2008. The NIHRC emphasised the advice was not a draft bill; rather it set out clear guidance on what was needed for Northern Ireland and the issues that should be addressed. Unfortunately, much of the Advice document was met with contention and misinterpretation by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), 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.

December 2018 will mark ten years since the NIHRC provided the Advice to the NIO. There has been no further progress on the development of a draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland since the NIO’s response. As the text of the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that the UK Government is to legislate on a Bill of Rights, the Assembly cannot introduce such a Bill. We are left then to wonder what might have been if a Bill of Rights had been introduced in the past ten years, given the contemporary rights campaigns. For example, would Gaeilgeoirí, (speakers of the Irish Language) have legal recognition of their right to use Irish? The 2008 Advice document seems to think so: ‘Everyone belonging to a national, ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural minority in Northern Ireland has the right, individually and in community… to use their own language, in private and in public’ (NIHRC 2008, p41). Would pregnant persons seeking reproductive healthcare be able to seek a termination through exercising a right to health? The NIHRC in 2008 felt it would be inappropriate for termination of pregnancy to be resolved via a Bill of Rights, but did suggest a provision supplementary to the ECHR: ‘Women and girls have the right to access gender-sensitive and appropriate healthcare services and information’ (NIHRC 2008, p45). Would the existence of a Bill of Rights have prevented the collapse of the Assembly, and perhaps avoided the current political stalemate? We can only wonder.

Yet, the collapse of the Assembly, for all that it cannot legislate for a Bill of Rights, is deeply concerning. The NIHRC annually conducts a review of government and public authorities’ progress within the area of human rights laws and standards, and the completed review is published as the Annual Statement on Human Rights in Northern Ireland. Progress is categorised using a traffic light system, with ‘green’ denoting progress, ‘amber’ conveying action needs to be taken by the governments and/or public authorities, and ‘red’ denotes a subject requiring immediate attention, as it may be an ongoing human rights violation. The most recent Annual Statement did not contain a single ‘green’ light - a worrying sign of human rights standards in Northern Ireland, twenty years since since 1998. It is a sign that action is required to prevent ongoing human rights abuses - difficult to achieve with the absence of a local legislature.

The Good Friday Agreement is recognised as the foundation for the peace paradigm and the basis for the new legal regime of Northern Ireland, with a sharp focus on rights and equality. Whilst its content has largely been realised, there is a significant lacuna: an established legal rights provision in the form of a Bill of Rights. In 2018, this great year of important anniversaries, we appear no closer to achieving constitutional provision and protection for rights in Northern Ireland than we were in 1998, that seminal year of earnest hope and ambition. With the uncertainty we face in the wake of Brexit, the political impasse at Stormont, the growth of grassroots movement and contemporary rights campaigns led by the people, not politicians, we are at the ideal juncture to revisit this issue and ensure improved, stronger protection of human rights in Northern Ireland - for all in Northern Ireland.

The recognition, protection and promotion of human rights is one of the fundamentally important features of any democratic society. In the case of a society which has emerged from protracted conflict and division, like Northern Ireland, it is vital that all citizens can have confidence that their human rights will be recognised and protected. Enhanced human rights protection, as envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement, should move us onwards from our contentious, painful past, marking a point of reference for future generations - the moment when Northern Ireland provided proof of equivalency of rights for all citizens, not just the majority. No one should feel defensive, or infringed, by the enactment of human rights. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, adhering to the text of the Good Friday Agreement, must be applicable to everyone and should therefore belong to all of us.

I leave you with one more anniversary for 2018: the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We would do well to recall and consider the words of its opening statement: ‘the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. Human rights and our peace process are entwined, and it is time we recognised that.

Leah is a postgraduate student and rights activist studying a MA in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at the Sen George Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast. She is researching the progression of human rights recognition and protections in transition from conflict to peace through the comparative examination of the civil rights movement and the contemporary rights campaigns in Northern Ireland. She was previously part of a student working group at QUB, researching the need for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

#LeahRea #20Years20Days