NI Bill of Rights – the next steps

Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, MP, has announced the launch of a public consultation document on the troubled NI Bill of Rights. Consultation period to end March 1, 2010. From the summary of proposals in the document [pdf file] there seems to be a [sensible] distinction between what is proposed to be included in the Bill and what is proposed to be “considered” for inclusion – either by himself, with the Irish Government, or with the Executive… Good luck with that last one, Shaun.From the Summary of Proposals [Appendix 1 of pdf file]


On equality, representation and participation in public life, the Government proposes to:

· CONSIDER with the Executive additional equality protections (either in the form of a general declaratory provision that everyone in Northern Ireland is equal before the law and has equal rights, or by broadening the existing protections to cover more groups).
· INCLUDE a right freely to vote in and be elected at genuine periodic elections held by secret ballot (subject to reasonable restrictions).
· INCLUDE a general principle could be that any electoral system should provide for both main communities to be fairly represented.
· INCLUDE a general principle of inclusive and equitable representation in the Assembly.
· CONSIDER with the Executive a general principle of inclusive and equitable representation at local government level.
· CONSIDER with the Executive a requirement that the membership of public bodies should, as far as practicable, be representative of the
community in Northern Ireland.

On identity, culture and language, the Government proposes to:

· INCLUDE the right of the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both.
· CONSIDER with the Irish Government associated rights for the people of Northern Ireland to hold British and Irish nationality.
· CONSIDER with the Executive extending the existing duty on public authorities around promoting good relations, so that public authorities would also have regard to the need to promote a spirit of tolerance, dialogue and mutual respect; and to the need to respect the identity and ethos of the two main communities.
· CONSIDER a right not to swear an oath that is contrary to a person’s religion or belief. (The consultation paper asks whether such protection is already sufficiently provided by the ECHR).
· CONSIDER with the Executive whether there are additional language protections that could be included.

On sectarianism and segregation the Government proposes to:

· INCLUDE a duty on public authorities to prevent sectarian violence and harassment.
· CONSIDER where there is a need for additional protections to prevent individuals from being forced out of their home by sectarian intimidation or harassment.

On victims and the legacy of the conflict the Government proposes to:

· CONSIDER a provision about the ongoing investigation of deaths attributable to the conflict.
· CONSIDER with the Executive provision to ensure the needs of victims and survivors of the conflict are addressed. This would need to take account of existing work by the Commissioners for Victims and Survivors on the needs of victims.

On criminal justice the Government proposes to:

· CONSIDER whether there is any provision that might be made about the treatment of suspects and access to lawyers and medical practitioners, to help allay concerns arising from the past.
· CONSIDER whether any further measures are needed to provide support and protection to witnesses, jurors, judges and lawyers.

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