NI Human Rights Bill in the doldrums

How could a NI Bill of Rights be regarded as meeting the need when key rights are exempted? The project is in the doldrums anyway. An absorbing report of the McCloskey Civil Rights Summer School from Jeff Dudgeon below the fold. The lack of press coverage so far is a comment in itself:

I argued that new rights were inevitably unpopular and had to be fought for almost by their nature, not imposed by statutory bodies. I mentioned that the really difficult “particular circumstances” of Northern Ireland had been tellingly ignored by NIHRC – exporting of abortion; teacher exemption from fair employment law, and marching rights

The McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School in Carlingford – 29 August 2009


A crowd of about a hundred was present despite the slight publicity. No Sinn Fein person was offered up to replace Martin McGuiness who had gone to the Ted Kennedy funeral. Alasdair McDonnell MP stood in for Mark Durkan. Dermot Ahern TD and Equality Minister did not appear.

McDonnell, Dennis Haughey and Bob Collins (Equality Commission chair, from floor) majored on the state of our under-educated Loyalist/Protestant working class males and the loss of middle class Protestat students to Scotland and England. Alasdair McDonnell, almost alone, spoke of the Bill of Rights proposal and said “the SDLP would not stand idly by” if it was deferred or unpicked. Some mention was made of Sinn Fein abandoning the Bill for a policing deal!

Monica McWilliams (chair NIHRC) was under attack from most panel and floor speakers although the mute members of the audience seemed to applaud her and any more nationalist or traditional sentiments. She was deceptive (note: this is Jeff’s claim, not necessarily an objective view) about the Bill of Rights Forum saying, “it agreed on the need for a Bill”. She stated that consensus had been achieved on the NIHRC advice with only two members against which was similar to the 1945 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which some UN states had not signed up to. [e.g. China, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican].

Otherwise she sounded gloomy, reserving most of her attacks for Cameron and the Conservatives should they allow “regressions”. She said the NIO consultation document was promised for October. Brian Garrett said a regional rights bill was entirely inappropriate and that we should address the possibility of a UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

I reminded the audience that the 30 months of the civil rights movement was followed by 30 years of war, revealing the dangers of destabilising ethnically-divided societies with street protest. Being unhistorical had been a hazard then and could be again. Also that NIHRC had treated its Agreement brief with disdain despite the fact that it only received a bare majority of Protestant support so should have been properly adhered to.

I reminded the audience that the Agreement commitment had been fulfilled when Monica’s advice went in and that no Bill was ever promised.

It was Stormont and devolution that had prevented progressive change over the decades and probably would again. I also said that the new Equality Bill would not apply to Northern Ireland and nobody from the relevant voluntary sectors had expressed an iota of concern, while I had single-handedly got the Minister (Wm Hague) to include us in the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 and achieved other reforms through Strasbourg and by lobbying Westminster.

I argued that new rights were inevitably unpopular and had to be fought for almost by their nature, not imposed by statutory bodies. I mentioned that the really difficult “particular circumstances” of Northern Ireland had been tellingly ignored by NIHRC – exporting of abortion; teacher exemption from fair employment law, and marching rights. In response, Monica characterised me as someone who wanted an even bigger Bill.

Dr John Kyle of the PUP said he wanted the Bill but added that all the health aspirational aspects were inappropriate. He described why Unionists and Protestants being more individualistic would not warm to the project. Brian Gormally, a NIHRC adviser and one-time CPI member spoke later about the Charter of Rights. Neither he nor Monica applauded the unionist speakers, Lord Laird and David Adams in the southern session in the afternoon. No parity of esteem there.

Susan McKay praised Monica lavishly although was upset that the abortion question had not even been addressed in the advice. Adams said the same and that he was not Ulster Scots. He remarked that the Agreement-promised, cross-border Charter of Rights was hardly mentioned by the two Commissions. McKay, who had invited herself on to the panel, complained about the southern cuts and the low level of female political representation. Garrett Fitzgerald said complain but offer alternatives.

John Laird spoke strongly on the question of how the Irish Republic approached/neglected its own national minority, the border British/Ulster Scots of Cavan and Donegal. He referred to Gaeltacht prohibition on non-Irish speakers buying land and the Irish language requirements for many educational jobs as areas of discrimination ignored by southern governments.

Willie Frazer was slapped down for alleging discourtesy by Maurice Manning (now NUI Chancellor) who chaired the afternoon session. Pat Rabbitte of the Irish Labour Party (equality spokesperson) said he was from the Hiberno-Norman minority. He droned on without sounding enthused about bills of rights. Catholic Church control of so many southern primary schools was raised repeatedly.

Peter Weir of the DUP spoke well and offered some consolations like an Assembly Human Rights and Equality Committee and a more focussed inter-party approach especially if the project became less ambitious and received political ownership. He mentioned how inter-unionist co-operation and agreement at the Bill of Rights Forum had been both welcome and unusual.

Garrett Fitzgerald (keynote address) shafted the whole human rights agenda by defending internment and broadcasting bans. He added that Ireland had protected human rights around the world diplomatically but this was hardly mentioned by rights advocates. He was very critical of an English Trimble adviser who had replied to a letter by saying that British students invariably wanted to go to universities away from their homes.

Also present was Michael Farrell who spoke tellingly on migrant worker and transgender issues and added that UK was often in advance of Ireland. Lord Justice Turlough O’Donnell and his eponymous son, Johnny McCoy (southern Protestant barrister), and Austin Currie and his half-Japanese grandchild were present and affable. Tim Atwood MLA (SDLP) and Professor Colin Harvey (Head of the School of Law at Queens and NIHRC commissioner) were silent.

Brice Dickson too was silent but took copious notes. Tom Hadden said a Northern Ireland Bill should sing or dance, but not both. Several spoke against compulsory vaccination and electro-magnetic field imposition. Monica cut them off as she did James Dingley.

Time for an equivalent but opposite summer school in Belfast?