Long haul and squabbles ahead for Rights Bills

The basic problem with a new Bill of Rights for a well established political system like the UK’s is that only government can push it through and government will always be in two minds about being high principled on the one hand and creating a rod for its own back on the other. Both minds are present in a Cabinet split and in the long delay in producing this mouse. Once party politicians get their hands on a Bill of Rights, their best intentions give way too easily to party politics. The basic problem applies no less to the responses of the fledging NI Assembly and the compulsory cross community executive to the HR Commission’s recommendations for an NI Bill of Rights. The extra dimension beyond the defining majority/minority split is that here, local politicians have been bossed around and hedged around so much for years they are resisting the idea of sharing any more of their new fairly meagre powers with the courts.

Rights are best legislated for at the start of major political change. For NI, the national governments might have been better to have imposed a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights as part of the GFA agenda, but that’s all water under the Lagan bridges now. The UK Green Paper (government discussion document) is a predictable damp squib and comment has been fairly scathing., particularly on the right. The Independent partly ascribes delay to the need to consult the devolved governments. If so, that hasn’t worked well either. The Scottish minority government is opposed to the UK Bill and the recommendations for an NI Bill are lost in long grass. Westminster has to legislate for both Bills. Nothing will happen with either until after a UK general election – and then the UK themes will be caught up in controversy over Europe. Any NI Bill is unlikely to emerge until after quite a lot of nudging from the national governments – just imagine the row over language rights as the locals fight the identity power battle all over again! The main consolation over delay is that all the enforceable rights are pretty well in place anyway. But the case remains for basic codification particularly for the era of new NI legislation by a functioning Assembly with its own share of justice and policing powers.

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