David Cameron has driven another nail in the coffin of a Northern Ireland Bill of Human Rights. The Newsletter has got a statement from him saying he would not enact any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as envisaged by the Human Rights Commission.
“It is important the rights of everyone in our society are protected,” he said. But Conservatives and Unionists do not want to take power away on issues such as social and economic policy from democratically-elected representatives and hand it over to unelected judges. That is not good for democracy. We are proposing that any Northern Ireland-specific issues are best dealt with in a sub-section of a UK-wide Bill of Rights and Responsibilities – protecting rights and respecting the role of democratically-elected representatives.”
The Conservative leader has always been clear he wants to limit the scope of rights legislation generally to the basic and the general and to rein in on any consequential extension of the power of judges. Locally though, his move is bound to be seen through the sectarian prism, as another tilt towards Unionism and a further sign that Cameron does not regard every section of the GFA as set in stone. This will worry nationalists, although I very much doubt if Cameron would alter the basic architecture. His next move, scaling back the expenses entitlement from the abstaining Sinn Fein MPs now seems likely as part of the general expenses reform. Note by the way, that Sir Christopher Kellys Committee on Standards in Public Life will take evidence in Belfast on Wednesday 1 July their only out-of-London visit scheduled so far.
Camerons support for unionism in NI diverges from his offer of guarded engagement with the SNP government. Contrast his sparring relationship with Alex Salmond with his awkward alliance with the Ulster Unionists, after failing to achieve a federation in a proposed new ” Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist party.” under his leadership.. This looks like an experiment rather than an election-winning strategy.
As Cameron says, any separate NI provisions would now be a footnote in his UK Bill of Rights. As the Secretary of State has shelved NIHRC’s recent Advice on a comprehensive and detailed NI Bill, how will Labour proceed?. There must be doubts now that any NI specific rights Bill will emerge at all. This would be consistent with the recanting views of the first NIHR Commissioner Brice Dickson in a recent memo to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, rejecting his successor’s advice.
All of Camerons moves in the devolution scene seem designed to create a stronger framework for the evolving relationship between the centre and nations and regions. If he makes any party gains out if it, so much the better, but he knows he starts from a very low base. Not everyone will see the wider horizon beyond the Copeland islands in Cameron’s approach. I doubt if they should have any real cause for concern though, and they should try to control their paranoia.
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