Weekend work-in on a Bill of Rights

Before heading over to Mark Devenport’s blog to see the draft Bill of Rights, delivered by Chris Sidoti for discussion at the Bill of Rights Forum, it is worth reminding people what the remit given the Forum was in the first place:

“To advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and – taken together with the ECHR – to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”

Now, before anyone panics, there is still most of a weekend of discussions (and presumably a lot of horse trading) before this gets passed on to the Human Rights Commission. Thence, it will pass through various hands (the most brutal of which is likely to be the NIO) before showing up at Stormont. But some of the stuff that’s in there bears little relationship to enactable law. More importantly, much of seems to have flagrantly ignored the remit and/or has gone way beyond matters that are under the control of the devolved institutions.

One slightly bemused delegate told Slugger:

The Unionists are largely opposed as most new rights are outwith the remit, excepted (UK) matters, programmatic, party political issues or uncosted as well as frequently repeating what is in the ECHR and thus the Human Rights Act.

The ‘voluntary’ sector has no concept of compromise and are almost religious in their certainties. Zealotry is one description or silent solidarity. CoSO could be described as the mute sector.

Most of its proposals are worthy but to the left of the left of the Labour Party. The SDLP is in favour of anything and everything except abortion and won’t oppose any SF proposal. DUP were somewhat intermittent in their attendance but have become more rigorous of late.

Another source agreed to an extent there was an air of unreality to some of the proposals coming from the voluntary sectors, but that some of the critical players, like the Unions, had experience of bargaining and was confident that the final draft can be whittled down to something more likely to get enacted.

There has been no voting mechanism agreed, so the Forum is in for an intense weekend of horse trading bit by bit until it’s offering due to be delivered on Monday at 2pm at the Hilton Hotel. A rally called by the Human Rights Consortium for Monday afternoon has been cancelled due to “ongoing workloads and time restrictions in the build up to the end of the Forum’s work”.

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  • steve48

    or was the rally cancelled due to a complete lack of interest

  • Observer

    Sounds like the Alliance Party is the source here – or perhaps the “Yes, but no but” sector in terms of the Bill of Rights. These are the people who tend to talk through what anyone else says so it’s interesting they’ve even paid enough attention to notice how it’s going. And some of these are the same people who were very down on the notion of a Forum, so they have to consider any success in the worst terms possible.

    SDLP have opposed a number of SF proposals, so that’s just false. The voluntary sector hasn’t shown the uniformity that was expected. So it’s odd to say that proposals are coming from the sector at this late stage – more is being whittled than added to from anywhere. The DUP hasn’t been as intractable as expected either.

    There won’t be a voting mechanism so there is no horse trading to be done. All the proposals are written down, with various levels of support or opposition recorded. This seems to be a realistic way to ensure that everyone gets their input and it’s up to someone else who has the expertise to draft up a Bill of Rights.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    “nonsense on stilts” the entire thing is collection of do gooder political zealotry. They have not paid even the slightest bit of attention to the actual remit. The bill or rights is not a new document to be created by adding in every conceivable inter4est groups pet projects it’s supposed to be the ECHR as its core with a small number of additional “rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”. There is not one of these so called rights that are defined in this way and none of them appear to me to have anything to do with being particular to Northern Ireland. This is the exact same problems that occurred 7 years ago. I wrote to Brice Dickenson on numerous occasions pointing out the remit and I never even got an answer. The rights community have utterly ignored the wording of the Belfast Agreement and the Statutory remit and simply gone about creating their utopian vision of a bill of rights.

    What’s so much worse is that the rights they have espoused are nonsense and are simply repeats of rights already enshrined in other documents. So we need a Northern Ireland Bill of rights to state that we have a rights to life because the fact that its already stated in Art II of the ECHR and made enforceable in Uk law by the Human Rights Act 1998 is seemingly irrelevant. Any number of the other rights are victim to the same nonsense, right that are already in UK legislation under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act or the Education Acts or any number of other pieces of legislation. What exactly is the point of stating them again in this new Bill of Rights?

    I sincerely hope that the UUP and DUP representatives will knock this crap on the head and ensure that not one bit of it is supported by the unionist community. Its needs to be comprehensively rejected and the secretary of state left in no doubt that any attempt to legislate on this basis is done without the consent of the majority of the community. I hope that’s what happens by judging by the supine way the DUP now seems to conduct itself I am left worried. Where’s Jim Allister when you need him?

  • steve48

    Marks blog does not include the minority view (or the view of the majority in Northern Ireland)and is likely that their views will drop off the table as the process ends.

  • DK

    So the NI bill of rights has… th prohibition of slavery. Wasn’t this settle in the early 19th century? Personally, if the remit is things specific to NI, you’d expect the following:

    1. The rights and responsibilities of marches
    2. The right to be a minority in NI. And that especially includes those that are neither unionist or nationalist.
    3. Display of emblems – the right to display your flag, and the responsibility to respect your neighbour.
    4. A clear definition of what constitutes sectarianism, so it can be classified as a hate crime.
    5. Language rights. Yes, there should be the right to ask for documents and legal/other state proceedings in Irish, but that should be tempered with the responsibility not to force it on others (e.g. road signs, refusing to speak english).
    6. Protection of religious orders from attack (hate crimes), but also the protection from religious orders: The state should have no religion in it, and that includes education.

    Top of my head, but the NI rights group have gone way too far into existing rights.

  • Garibaldy

    Dk,

    Disagree on rights to be a minority. People have rights as individuals. Not as members of groups.

  • Mick Fealty

    Group rights. We should probably have a thread devoted to that one subject. One of the major functional problems with the first draft was its inability to resolve the problem of which rights would take priority over another when two rights come into conflict with one another.

    I’m told that somewhere amongst all the suggestions (and lets remember this is all this is) there is a reference to the capacity to use Freedom of Information obligations against private individuals suspected of breaching the Bill of Rights.

    Leaving aside the fact that it will not pass muster in Stormont, that’s a highly discomfiting thought. Age of Criminality comes up tomorrow. We’ll see then if some of the political parties move to regularise their responses with their own party’s official policies.

  • Garibaldy

    We should indeed Mick. A major danger to the rights of citizens. Especially those of us who stand outside either of the two main groups. Bad enough the Assembly rules make some votes worth more than others without it being enshrined in something supposed to guarantee equality. The more I think of it the more outraged I am.

    On the point about conflicting rights – that is something to be resolved on a case by case basis. An effective court with the ability to rule on these matters and enforce the Bill of Rights is essential.

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘…..but that should be tempered with the responsibility not to force it on others (e.g. road signs, refusing to speak english).’

    how do you enforce this responsibility? if it is to be enforced then you are therefore forcing them to speak it. What was it Franco done to the basque language again?

  • Pete Baker

    An example of the wrong-headedness of some of those suggestions.. or rather the wrong-headedness of those suggesting those suggestions..

    From Mark’s noting of the draft Bill

    3. Public authorities may not unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against anyone on one or more grounds, or a combination of grounds, including race, ethnic origin, colour, sex, marital or family status, nationality, immigration status, pregnancy, gender identity, national or social origin, economic status, status as carer, nomadism, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, belief, political or other opinion, possession of a criminal or political conviction, culture, language, health status, birth or other status. [added emphasis]

    Where is the political conviction defined?

  • Garibaldy

    Fair point Peter.

  • Aargh

    Political conviction is only being supported by a small number of delegates – the draft Mark Devenport has says at the top 18 March – this is the trouble with looking at things before they’ve been discussed.

    Another point Pete – this is not a draft Bill, they are draft proposals for discussion, and the end product will not even be a draft bill, only advice.

    The bit on private individuals was a late addition and is not really being supported. So you can all sleep easily in your beds on that one.

  • Alan

    This is an agenda paper, rather than a Bill.

    Some of you are deliberately missing the point here as well – for your own political ends. The particular circumstances of Northern Ireland mean that we have to develop our own Bill of Rights in order to settle once and for all our appalling legacy of discrimination and inequality. That is why it was in the agreement.

    Had there been no contest over sovereignty and legitimacy, there might be no need for a Bill. But we all know that the contest happened.

    The strength of any Bill of Rights is in the general consent of the people, not in the ability of one political class to lord it over another – on either side. There has been too much lording over this Bill of Rights.

    There can be little on the existing agenda that should be controversial. We all know that there are many issues in this society that require remedies. The question is how do we recognise these issues and ensure that they are on the political agenda, yet allow politicians to make decisions on how the remedies are enacted.

    You don’t do that by refusing to recognise the issues. The balance in all this is to agree the level by which individual rights are justiciable or subject to monitoring.

    I admit that I’m not neutral on the Bill of Rights either. I want to see stronger rights for Trade Unions and for Disabled people. The current agenda is not strong enough on either.

    I also want to see the age of criminal responsibility increased. Here it is currently 10, the UN says that it should be 14. It’s interesting that key members of the judiciary also say it should be 14. We need to give young people the Right to get it Right, not subject them to institutional abuse when they get it wrong.

    I agree that group rights are amathema. All rights should be individual rights. It should be individual disabled people or individual employees etc who are protected.

  • BonarLaw

    ” the Right to get it Right, not subject them to institutional abuse when they get it wrong”

    Or to put it another away, remove the right of society to protect itself by jailing, after due process, those who pose a threat regardless of age.

  • DC

    “Bill of Rights in order to settle once and for all our appalling legacy of discrimination and inequality.”

    Oh really, first of all I agreed with Shipley in that it was supplementary to the ECHR; however, there is this complex addition, which is what makes it all the more fun:

    “These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and – taken together with the ECHR – to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”

    It’s about identity and ethos. This is where the key job of work really is particularly for SF and likely to be countered by the DUP. Here is the chance for those such politicians to sit down and work out how to get the appropriate buy-in from all of the elite consociational representatives, getting their views on what is acceptable to them and their apparent communities. It is this that is key to bedding down Northern Ireland at top-end political level because if this could be agreed then perhaps it would allow for moving off into non-identity political issues.

    “agree that group rights are amathema. All rights should be individual rights. It should be individual disabled people or individual employees etc who are protected.”

    You could synsthesise it by stating ‘an individual person who is disabled recognises his group identity as that which belongs to the disabled community is protected…’ This whole Bill IMO is about getting top-down buy-in which if achievable through local politicians sitting down, agreeing together on it, should allow for confidence to grow between those politicians. It would be something if they could actually agree to a new Northern Ireland on suitable terms, without the help of the two governments.

    This is probably the last trap of the now outmoded 1990s peace-system coming into political fruition in the year 2008. Thing is, to those that are sitting around that table it is probably very relevant to them as they were largely party to the agreements of that era, so let’s close the trap.

    The reality is that to Joe Public it will likely not mean that much but will instead create a better chance to take up democracy in peace to change what has been done before.

  • Alan

    ““ the Right to get it Right, not subject them to institutional abuse when they get it wrong”

    Or to put it another away, remove the right of society to protect itself by jailing, after due process, those who pose a threat regardless of age. ”

    At age ten ? They should be lining up for school at age ten, not lining up for adult punishments. If they can be a threat then we need to deal with that in different ways. We need to engage our imagination not our indignation.

    Young people need protecting from ideas like yours.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    [i]“At age ten ? They should be lining up for school at age ten, not lining up for adult punishments.”[/i]

    “Jon Venables and Robert Thompson aged 10. From the facts disclosed at trial, at this location one of the boys threw blue modelling paint on Bulger’s face. They kicked him and hit him with bricks, stones and a 22 lb (10 kg) iron bar. They then placed batteries in his mouth. Before they left him, the boys laid Bulger across the railway tracks and weighted his head down with rubble, in hopes that a passing train would hit him and make his death appear to be an accident.”

    Sometimes children just aren’t what we might hope them to be.

    The fundamental problem with the entire bill of rights and human rights discussion is that it is used as a cover to impose political views upon society in the guise of rights. It may be the case that a sound political argument exists to raise the age of criminal responsibility. I disagree but that’s politics. The point is that because I disagree it does not make me a repressor of individual child rights I just have a different political opinion on the proper age for criminal responsibility, but when it is cloaked in the speech of rights my view is rendered void as in being outside the pale of what anyone should think because it goes against fundamental natural born rights. The power of “rights” is such that only a small group of political rights can really be accepted as fundamental to our society it is those things that a consensus of western nations views as fundamental to the good order of our choice of political framework. The bill of rights is so much nonsense because it is simply those groups who support increased women’s rights or trade union rights or children’s right who now want the power of unassailable “rights” to cloak their favorite pet political project. This is wrong. These areas are for the discussion and decision of our political institutions to decide upon as part of the day to day of normal politics. It may be that a political consensus exists on raising the age of responsibility and in due course the Assembly (once it has Justice powers) could pass legislation to alter this. The fundamentally undemocratic thing about all these groups are so wrapped up in the Bill of Rights is that many of them have no political power in the institutions that govern us and being unable to bring about their pet desires through normal politics they want instead to place them in the realm of rights to circumvent the normal democratic process. This is why the bill of rights project deserves to die a quick death and I hope that it does.

  • Mick Fealty

    Extremes don’t always make good law Duncan. There is clearly a case that 10 might be too low. But the 18th March draft still says 18. 14 should be fine in a peaceful society, but we know that paramilitaries have in some cases been recruiting kids younger than that and forcing/encouraging them to engage in criminal acts before 14.

    And that’s just one significant problem that needs addressing by more practical means than liberalising of the law. Certainly the youth justice system needs to build strong protections for minors, but I’ve also heard criticism that the running down of that system over the last twenty years has made youngsters more vulnerable to the more arbitrary punishments handed out by paramilitaries.

    Alan: agree this is not be a draft Bill, but it is a draft report on what a new Bill should contain. It might have been easier had a voting mechanism been agreed upon in the first place. But the reasons there wasn’t seems to have revolved around the fact that a significant number of parties to the consultation wanted to make sure that the unionist political parties had insufficient votes to block aspects of the report they don’t like.

    Someone is going to have get the legislation down to something manageable before it hits Stormont (I’m betting the NIO are the only ones in a position to do the dirty work). The bottom line is that the Executive the ultimate responsibility to see this bill carried into law. If it can’t pass through that needle eye, it ain’t going to fly!

  • Garibaldy

    18 is a ridiculous proposition. People are not treated as children if they can consent to sex, or join the army. And they certainly know the difference between right and wrong, and understand the consequences of their actions. Which seems to me to be a reasonable definition of criminal responsibility as long as it is applied sensibly. So I’d be perfectly happy with a low age limit, but progressive treatment of youth offenders.

  • steve48

    The difficulty in reading this issue as black or white means that much of the background information is missed. The UUP has agreed that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 12 but for the absolutists amongst the forum members it has to be 18 (progressively realised) or nothing. The UUP also pointed out that the entire Youth Justice system needs to be overhauled along with the provision of youth services but that these are issues for the Government in a democracy not the judiciary. While the working group reports do state that a majority of the working group took one position with the UUP and DUP dissenting the reports fail to note that on many occassions the actual vote was 3 – 2.
    One of the issues I asked the legal advisors (who were very proactive in promoting 18) to provide information on was how a case like Craig Price would be dealt with under their proposal, I am still awaiting an answer.

  • Alan

    “It might have been easier had a voting mechanism been agreed upon in the first place. But the reasons there wasn’t seems to have revolved around the fact that a significant number of parties to the consultation wanted to make sure that the unionist political parties had insufficient votes to block aspects of the report they don’t like.”

    Sorry, Mick, but that is a very slanted version of what actually happened. The decision was taken to defer a decision on a voting mechanism because the UUP and DUP refused to accept anything other than a veto. You can imagine the resonance that that had around the table.

    Numbers wise, offers were available to allow 9,8,and 7 votes to deny sufficient consensus ( bearing in mind that there were 28 in total ). The DUP and UUP did not want any of these.

    You also have to take into consideration the “political” spectrum of the forum. Several posts have suggested that there are two sides, the political parties against the Human Rights Lobby. This is simply not the case. The Church reps ( and certainly the RC rep) and the Business reps had no specific interest in maximalist Human Rights positions.

    I would argue, and did at the time, that there was no point in the UUP and DUP attempting to force what was essentially a unionist veto because a wider veto already existed. On that basis I believe that the DUP and UUP demonstrated that they had neither trust in their own arguments nor trust in their fellow Forum members. The Forum process itself was not flawed, but the UUP / DUP approach certainly was.

    As for the ability to put the Bill through the Assembly etc, you’ve left out one serious influence – the Government in the Republic – who will want to restrict the breadth of the Bill in order to restrict any subsequent island-wide development. In such a way do the rights of children, women, trade unionists and disabled people become mere pawns in the games of nations.

  • Mick Fealty

    I had alluded to that problem earlier by quoting Maurice Manning’s feedback on the poor response from all political parties in the Republic (including Labour surprisingly enough) to the consultative document on an all island charter two/three years ago.

    Fair point on the frustrations from both the Catholic Church (I hear that their rep called the process ‘sad, inadequate and unacceptable” on Friday) and the business lobby. Bottom line is that this stuff needs political sponsorship to get it through.

    Given the extreme nature of some of the proposals, I guess Sidoti has done well to get everyone into the same room and keep them there throughout.

  • Animus

    I don’t know that Sidoti managed to keep everyone there, but I agree that one of the most important aspects of the Forum is the inclusive, if not totally representative, nature of the Forum and the fact that it ended without anyone walking away. I would have found it extremely surprising, given the various understandings of what has happened in Northern Ireland and the divergent concepts of rights generally, that a group of 28 people could sort a Bill of Rights in a year. I think there remain frustrations at a number of issues, but I hope the final document will reflect the nature of the discussions. I think most people attended in good faith to have a crack at it and it’s disappointing to see the usual suspects (how many of whom work with the disadvantaged?) lining up to knock it down before they’ve even seen a ‘product.’ It’s very easy to knock the efforts of others, indeed, it’s a national pastime, but I think that the debate on rights has opened up tremendously beyond the usual green/orange nonsense and I think the Forum’s work can usefully be drawn up on for future use.

    One of the business sector representatives was not bound by the CBI so was putting forward views on a personal basis. I feel this was wrong, as the other reps were being held responsible to party lines or to the members of the sectors they represented as well as being ever mindful of international standards.