I do struggle with constitutional minutiae, so I’m looking for some help on this one from Slugger’s intellectual wing…
When we last left the “Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland” the government, in the form of Hugo Swire, had said:
There remains a clear lack of consensus amongst political representatives in Northern Ireland on proposals for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and the issue of supplementary rights for Northern Ireland more generally. I will continue to consider how best to address this issue but would urge all sides to work together to build consensus on how best to proceed.
I think it’s pretty safe to assume that there hasn’t been any great progress on that building of “consensus” over the last three months, which then makes this reply to a Lord Laird question from another government spokesperson, Baroness Garden of Frognal, intriguing:
The Belfast agreement states that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and these additional rights, together with the ECHR, to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The joint declaration of 2003 also states that, after consultation with the parties, the British Government are committed to bringing forward legislation at Westminster where required to give effect to rights supplementary to the ECHR to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.
That’s not the intriguing bit obviously, just a summary of the legal position but since 2003 (or, more accurately, since Cameron coming to power last year) the UK’s relations with the ECHR have plummeted to such an extent that the UK, post the proposed United Kingdom Bill of Rights, may well opt out of the ECHR in an attempt to force changes that “would then allow Britain to opt back in”. That’s a Baldrickian scenario for another post but the upshot is that a commission has been set up to consider whether the Government should bring in a “British Bill of Rights” and if the Conservative Ultras (helped by some more controversial ECHR-related cases ) have their way, there will indeed be a UK Bill of Rights.
How could that then affect a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights?
Back to Baroness Garden:
Separately, the Government are committed to the establishment of a commission to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. The Government will make a Statement to Parliament on the terms of reference of the commission in due course. The Government believe that a UK Bill of Rights could be an appropriate legislative vehicle for any additional rights specific to Northern Ireland.
It’s on that last sentence where I’m looking for expert interpretation; I read that as meaning the NI Bill of Rights could be a part of a wider UK one, not a separate standalone.
If so, would that still meet the terms of the Belfast Agreement (i.e. “These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and -taken together with the ECHR – to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”)?
I’m not asking whether it would be a commonsense, workable alternative; I would have certain reservations however, on the whole, I think it could be.
The more important question I would like help with here is whether it’s a legally possible alternative?