The Labour government and Westminster as a whole can hardly be blamed for ducking legislation on an NI Bill of Rights. Local divisions and lack of urgency made that inevitable. But it could prove a hot potato for the Conservatives if elected. Sam McBride in the Newsletter rather glided over the differences between a freestanding NI Bill and an NI section in a British Bill to replace the present Human Rights Act as announced by shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve. Grieve may have moved too hastily. An NI component in a British bill could prove to be a Trojan horse to block a British Bill, exposing it to constiutional and legal challenge. The Justice group argues that constitutionally, the devolved areas will have to be satisfied before any British Bill is enacted. Human Rights lawyers would argue that a Bill is unlikely to be based on a unilateral British government decision, probably legally and certainly politically, even for the Conservatives, the party of the Union. For NI, the GFA is intrinsically involved. These are uncharted waters and the arguments are by no means all one way. Peter Weir MLA puts the anti- case cogently if trenchantly. The supporters of an NI Bill will have to take heed of it, just as Mr Weir etc will have to pay due regard of the Justice arguments. The obvious answer is a separate NI Bill limited to NI’s particular circumstances, wholly compatible with the Human Rights Act or a new British Bill – some time after 2014.
Representatives of the SDLP and Sinn Fein who have preached to us for many years the need for inclusiveness and the inadequacy of majoritarianism, seem perfectly happy on this issue to try to impose proposals over the heads of
unionists in a bizarre minority rule scenario.
By including a full buffet of issues that have not unique or peculiar to Northern Ireland, they drive a coach and horses throughout the definition of the remit of “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.
It is no wonder nationalist politicians are so keen to embrace this erroneous interpretation as it helps to distance our laws and policies from the rest of the UK and becomes in effect a badge of difference.
Finally, the effect of these proposals would be to ringfence certain rights and government activities, thus placing crucial democratic decisions in the hands of elected judges rather than the wishes of the people.
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