Although the Bill of Rights Forum is still in consultative mode, they’ve had their first controversial leak (subs locked), with the news of a proposal to push the age of criminal responsibility from ten up to 16, with a further view of raising it to 18. That would push NI out of line with England ad Wales and the island. According to the Irish News, no child in the Netherlands can be prosecuted for a crime under the age of 16. But in the Republic the age is 12 and in Scotland 8 years. Beyond all the concerns about youth violence that are prevalent at the moment (the brutal slaying of one Polish man and the serious injury against his friend in west Dublin) about youth violence, such a proposal would have massive implications in terms of deployment of resources to compensate for the fact that no criminal action could be taken against anyone under 16.
It also raises interesting questions as to how the various working groups are coming to their conclusions. The fact that Sinn Fein, by far the most pro a formalised Human Rights agenda has said that it only wants the age raised to 14 (as does Allliance) and not 16, begs the question, how did the group settle upon 16?
There’s some suggestion that the NGOs on the Working Group wanted a maximal 18, and there may have been a splitting of the difference between the two. Even so, any political party proposing 16 or 18 would likely find its electoral support drying up very quickly.
And it doesn’t just have to find clear approval from the Northern Irish parties – ie the people would be charged with finding non criminal systems and approaches to deal with youth theft, burglary and violence against the person. To be viable any bill of rights (as outlined in the Belfast Agreement) must be broadly enactable in the Republic as well, where, if anything, the antipathy towards a Bill of Rights is even more pronounced amongst politicians than it is in Northern Ireland.
When a consultation document outlining the possible role of an all island Charter of Human Rights, was distributed to over 100 organisations, just three submissions were returned (two of them from SF and the Alliance Party). Maurice Manning warned then, in no uncertain terms, that for any draft legislation to have the least chance of success, it must appeal to politicians.
On the face of it, that appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty