Charter debate: four questions from Cork

The following is a condensed summary of some of the main points from Saturday’s seminar in Cork. It contains four questions that I thought might useful to address in the comments. It would be useful if you could structure your contributions around them.There’s degree of sensitivity around establishing a bilateral charter. Rachel Murray from the University of Bristol emphasised that the two commissions had an option to say no, and they shouldn’t shirk from recommending no further action. Any future charter, she argued, consider “the concerns of Unionists in Northern Ireland and consider the wider context the UK.” One speaker from the floor suggested that Unionists might be further deterred by the inclusion of socio-economic rights, with pre-emptively implying an eventual transition into a united polity.

Question: what positive role can a bilateral charter play a) in Northern Ireland and b) in the Republic?

There was also the question of what makes good rights law. There are no guarantees or hard and fast rules, although Canada provides an interesting case study. Canada’s 1960 bill of rights was obscure and dropped out of use almost immediately. By contrast the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was immediately provided the judiciary with a prolonged ‘white knuckle ride’, when it became enforceable three years later. It was agreed that the key difference was effective political sponsorship from Canadian premier Pierre Trudeau at the time.

Question: what arguments might persuade political parties to champion a Charter of Rights? And what’s blocking it?

A number of speakers spoke strongly in favour of the need to engage political parties. There is much to catch up on. The pre-consultation paper sent to all political parties, and a limited number of bodies in civil society. Only three political parties responded, and none of the trade unions. Maurice Manning argued the central importance of the parties in any movement, suggesting that they have to “concentrate on the things they can do and votes they can win. It may be that they see this as a largely academic exercise”. He argued a that definite time frame would ensure action was meaningless.

Question: what are the opportunities and dangers of Charter legislation?

But others believe that more time is required rather than less, particularly the different levels of debate north and south. Aisling Reidy, Director, Irish Council of Civil Liberties argued the has as yet been little public debate of the nature and implications of the Human Rights debate, even amongst NGOs. Though there may be a problem that the process may become an end in itself, and consequent danger of encouraging a ‘something for everyone’ approach which could something far from the ideal “laconic, open textured and general as suggested by Lord Justice Stephen Sedley. Lord Justice Sedley also questioned what real effects rights legislation might have; citing Michael Douglas and Zeta Jones action to protect the privacy of their wedding as one of the first and highest profile cases using the UK’s Human Rights Act.

Question: is it possible to have a generally worded Charter without the danger of slipping into unpopular use?