So was it all talk and no substance? Little more than an awkward clash with the 6 Nations? Probably a bit more than that, judging from the early press coverage. Civil liberties offer a welcome respite form recession. Yesterdays Convention on Modern Liberty fielded an impressive line up of speakers on 8 centres including Belfast, from the left to the libertarian right, the former senior law lord and the last English DPP. One of the conference weaknesses was the failure – as usual – to merge regional concerns with the metropolitan – like who in London takes in the NI agenda any more? Perhaps in follow-up they can rectify this, but I’m not holding my breath. I suspect that most significant result of the day-long conference will be to help persuade David Cameron that first the first time ever, there may be votes to be won in slowing the trend towards the centralising, surveillance State. All parties in opposition pay lip-service to freedom of course, only to do a U-turn in office. For the Conservatives to stand for libertarian causes in power would be truly counter-intuitive. I detected signs of Tory wobble when the lawyerly Dominic Grieve was demoted from shadow Home Secretary to Justice and replaced by the more conventionally Tory Chris Grayling. At the Convention Grieve was pressed on Graylings call for “fewer rights and more wrongs.” From the Guardian:
But then Grieve sprung a genuine surprise and said that he wants the Conservative to promise a repeal bill of their own. This would include measures that the party is already pledged to, such as scrapping ID cards and ensuring that the DNA database does not include the samples of the innocent. But he also wants the party to promise that on coming to office they will carry out an audit of all the anti-terror and anti-crime legislation of the past 12 years and beyond. All those things that “are a fetter on liberty and have very few real benefits” would be got rid of.
With the interesting claim “Despite continuing party political division, there is evidence of growing support for a Bill of Rights at a community level in Northern Ireland”, the Belfast session covered human rights and a wide waterfront ( texts welcome ) and featured cross-community debate on policing and justice which looks as if it sprung no surprises.
Each of the panel members also noted the need for restraint, without appeals to populism that may exacerbate the ethno-religious divide in Northern Ireland. Yet a central paradox remains concerning public confidence in the criminal justice system; that adequate public confidence is required to facilitate the transfer of criminal justice, but only the transfer and effective governance of criminal justice shall create adequate public confidence.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London