The proposal to establish in law a Bill of Rights was agreed in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. There are a number of such examples around the world. It should have been a relatively easy matter of looking at international best practice and applying it to the north.
Not so. It has proven to be a torturous process. In part, because unionism is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of equality and of citizens having ‘rights. The British government shares this view.
After 11 years, the British Government several months ago finally published a Consultation Paper on a Bill of Rights which is currently out to public consultation.
This consultative paper ignores the advice of Sinn Féin, but more importantly it ignores the views of the Bill of Rights Forum and the Human Rights Commission.
The Human Rights Commission described the British government documents as not a ‘genuine effort’. The Commission said it ‘demonstrates a lack of understanding of the purpose and function of a Bill of Rights’ and ‘fails to take appropriate account of international human rights standards’.
Worse – the Commission accused the Consultation paper of appearing to suggest the ‘lowering of existing human rights standards.’
Others including leading human rights academic Professor Chris McCrudden warned that the British proposals could do more harm than good and risked blunting existing equality law. He described them as ‘positively dangerous in some of its implications.’
The British also disregarded the clear majority view of the Bill of Rights Forum, which was set up under the St. Andrews Agreement.
They ignored the consensus view expressed by the Human Rights Consortium representing 140 civil society groups across the north.
The reality is the northern state was based on routine violations of civil, political, economic and social rights – the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the denial of housing to Catholics, discrimination in employment, the use of internment and the long term suspension of many rights under so-called emergency provisions.
All of these helped exacerbate and prolong the conflict.
Despite the progress of recent times and the high sounding rhetoric of British politicians, there is still institutional resistance to the equality and human rights elements of the Good Friday Agreement.
In many instances the NIO negotiates on behalf of this tendancy.
And it is precisely because of all of this that those who are intent on building a better future must continue to demand that legally enforceable economic and social rights – which go above and beyond the current inadequate protections - are enshrined in any new Bill of Rights.
A Bill of Rights should set the floor, and not the ceiling for guaranteeing rights in our society for generations to come.
A Bill of Rights should be an expression of hope for a positive future. It should promote reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust, and the protection of the human rights of all the people living here, as well as the values of partnership, equality and mutual respect.
The NIO consultation is an insult to the hard work of many sectors of society that have taken part in the Bill of Rights process over the last 11 years.
The NIO consultation also proposes changes to existing equality duties. This provocative proposal has the potential to undermine the hard won equality gains of recent years.
Sinn Féin will not tolerate - under any circumstances – any move which undermines the existing provisions on the promotion of equality.
The Equality duty placed on the public authority was an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement, and should not be undermined.
The section 75 duty on the public sector should not be weakened under any proposed Bill of Rights.
Sinn Féin will not allow the Good Friday Agreement to be renegotiated downwards through the mechanism of a Bill of Rights. The promise and purpose of this Bill must be to build on existing protections not undermine them.
The deadline for submissions to the NIO consultation has been extended to 31st March 2010.
The north needs a Bill of Rights that is worthy of the aspiration of all in our communities for a rights based society, that offers protections for the most vulnerable, that respects the diversity of our community and has equality at its very core.
In addition to the necessary work in the north there is a need for a Bill of Rights for citizens across this island.
The resistance to this will come from obvious quarters. It isn’t just the unionist political class which is against a rights based society. The political establishment in the south is also against legally based citizens rights.
But that is work for another day.
This Blog would encourage all sections of the community to respond to the consultation paper and reject the approach the NIO has taken.