Leading human rights expert challenges Sinn Fein on “rights” stance

Brice Dickson, normally a sober sounding academic lawyer and a former head of the NI Human Rights Commission  was first famous  for recanting on his recommendation for an  “all singing,  all dancing”  NI  Bill of Rights.  In the Newsletter today Brice has boldly entered the fray of the all party talks at Stormont to point out flaws in Sinn Fein’s starting position.  

Sinn Fein has abused the concept of human rights by setting up such rights as pre-conditions for the return of Stormont, an expert says today.

Professor Brice Dickson, former chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), criticises republicans for refusing to re-establish devolution until the conferment of gay marriage and Irish language rights is guaranteed first.

“The party seemingly won’t even agree to establish the Executive and Assembly on a time-limited basis to see if those rights can be agreed therein by a certain deadline,” he writes in today’s News Letter. “To me this is an increasingly indefensible position, and for three reasons.  First, it is counter-productive to be demanding those rights while denying people a much more basic right — the right to government. The absence of government in Northern Ireland during the last 28 months has had a hugely more deleterious effect on people’s well-being than the absence of same-sex marriage or an Irish language act.

Second, of all my friends and acquaintances who are gay and/or speak Irish … resent those rights being used as bargaining chips in some larger political game.”

He also points out that Sinn Fein supported NIHRC advice to government on a Bill of Rights in 2008, which “included neither” a right to gay marriage nor a right to use Irish.

This drew the rejoinder on Twitter from Slugger contributor and  key Sinn Fein supporting analyst Chris Donnelly.  

Day Two of the News Letter’s campaign against a deal is a gem. SF apparently abuse rights by supporting rights. A stretch for students of logic, but the target audience are those in audible reach of the drumbeat.

Chris is wrong to associate Brice Dickson with pandering to populist unionist opinion. It doesn’t help his case  when  he generally acquits  Sinn Fein of doing the same thing. There’s a rich irony in SF the pure republican party demanding that Westminster legislate for their rights, claiming – wrongly – that they’re obliged to do so  under the GFA. The GFA and subsequent reports by HR bodies are clear about this.

But it’s also true  that the GFA does indeed envisage Assembly agreement on a special rights regime to implement identity, ethos and parity of esteem rather than continuous blocking. A joint north-south committee of the two HR Commissions set up under the GFA, itemises the rights and freedoms under British, Irish EU and non EU European law.  Respect for cultural and linguistic diversity can be derived but not required under the Agreement.  But  the foundation documents look forward – over optimistically as we can see – to agreement on any extension of rights special to Northern Ireland.


So Sinn Fein have a case but not one that can be resolved by continuing boycott.

The abortive deal almost struck last year has much to commend it but a face saver is needed for the DUP. Purely on the language stand off, there’s a genuine difficulty over the natural imbalance between Irish culture and Ulster Scots that can only be resolved by both sides de-weaponising the issue and calling in Irish,  Welsh and Scots experts on how to handle it politically. The talks should prepare a fresh audit of compliance with the substantial sub-section of the  GFA  on language and other cultural rights.

  1. All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.
  2. In the context of active consideration currently being given to the UK signing the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the British Government will in particular in relation to the Irish language, where appropriate and where people so desire it:
  • take resolute action to promote the language;
  • facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand;
  • seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the language;
  • make provision for liaising with the Irish language community, representing their views to public authorities and investigating complaints;
  • place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education;
  • explore urgently with the relevant British authorities, and in co-operation with the Irish broadcasting authorities, the scope for achieving more widespread availability of Teilifis na Gaeilige in Northern Ireland;
  • seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland; and
  • encourage the parties to secure agreement that this commitment will be sustained by a new Assembly in a way which takes account of the desires and sensitivities of the community.
  1. All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division. Arrangements will be made to monitor this issue and consider what action might be required.            

Sinn Fein  might defend their boycott by pointing out that even if they won 51% of the total vote they could be blocked by  cross community voting by designation as well as the petition of concern.  So why not join the DUP in calling for their reform rather than continuing to behave unconstitutionally?

Sara Canning has added her powerful voice to the calls heard already at Westminster to legislate over the heads of unionists on the argument that fundamental human rights transcend devolution.  Briefly, this is not an argument that would appeal to the courts, the main parties in Parliament even in normal times and equality -loving Nicola Sturgeon. It just isn’t a runner under anything other than the permanent abandonment of the GFA. Lest any party be tempted however, there’s always Plan B. Persuasion and pressure from the two governments lie waiting in the wings.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.