Monica McWilliams’s challenge to progress an NI Human Rights Bill unlikely to be met any time soon

Monica McWilliams the Human Rights Commissioner delivers a riposte to David Adams’s scathing dismissal of the commission’s recommendations for a NI Human Rights Act. On the formidable main obstacles, she bites her lip as a public official who is no longer a party politician. David Cameron wants to incorporate any NI specific clauses in a new general UK Bill. Labour is cool on the scope of the Bill and is dragging its feet on a response. What happens next in the present state of constitutional ferment is anybody’s guess. The main objection to an “ all singing, all dancing Bill” with a long list of economic and social rights, is that most of the political establishment on both sides of the water insist that these “rights” are mainly matters of democratic choice – that is, their business and not matters for the courts.
Monica says
It would have been extraordinary if any national human rights institution making proposals for a Bill of rights today ignored the right to education and health, welfare and environmental protection… Many people need and want clear provision for social and economic rights.
Perhaps, but any such proposals are likely to be advisory and declaratory.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recently presented evidence to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and was encouraged by the recognition that a Bill of rights remains an integral part of the implementation of the agreement.

She may get a rougher ride at Westminster which has to pass the legislation. Yet Westminster must implement whatever is agreed through the Agreement framework. This remains the political case against scrapping the idea of a Bill or incorporating NI specific measures within the proposed UK Bill. Slugger comments reflect the hostility to any idea of a unilateral switch of policy by a future Conservative government.

We look forward to the UK government’s consultation on the Bill of rights for Northern Ireland, when the people, once again, can have their say.

Unlikely anytime soon, however, even aside from the Westminster political crisis. Executive deadlock reigns and the UK government isn’t keen. Monica’s best chance of progressing elements of her Advice may lie with Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Renewal programme or David Cameron’s equivalent. Something is likely to happen in this area but in the present firestorm, God knows what. Whatever happens would need special NI handling and endorsement within the Agreement framework. How does Monica suppose cross community agreement can be won for all or any of this? Nor have I detected any signs of the governments being willing to act as persuaders. I’d love to hear her ideas. I suspect the long grass won’t be disturbed for quite some time.

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