Human rights: the Union’s best friend

A version of this article first appeared in Perspectives Magazine, edited by Jonathan Hodge.

As Northern Ireland looks ahead to its centenary in 2021, its continued existence remains under threat.

It’s only a snapshot, but Lord Ashcroft’s September 2019 poll showed 46% of Northern Ireland respondents would vote for a united Ireland, while 45% favoured remaining in the UK, with the rest saying they were unsure or that they wouldn’t vote.

That means whether or not Northern Ireland continues to exist for long beyond its 100th birthday may well rest with swing or ‘persuadable’ voters in any future border poll. As such, the constitutional future of Northern Ireland may well come down to those voters who do not particularly identify as nationalists or unionists – but instead will take a cold, hard look at the issues of economics, identity, and their rights before casting their ballot.

Traditionally, the Republic of Ireland was seen by many north of the border as both economically weak and with laws excessively influenced by the Catholic Church. Both were true. But today? Not so much. The Republic’s economy is booming, with income levels significantly higher than in Northern Ireland and inward investment bringing well-paid jobs in technology and finance. New arrivals from around the world have resulted in an increasingly diverse and multicultural society.

Meanwhile, the clerical abuse scandal has cast a long shadow. The Church has lost much of its previous moral authority. Twice in the space of three years – in referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion – the electorate has rejected the bishops’ advice. At the same time, despite numerous opinion polls showing majority support for abortion law and marriage law reform, political institutions at Stormont proved unable or unwilling to deliver change.

It was not just the actual denial of rights – equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, women’s reproductive rights, language rights, rights of families to inquests, opposition to the proposed Bill of Rights – which contributed to Stormont’s demise, but the sense that it would forever be incapable of protecting rights that are taken for granted in England, Wales, Scotland and indeed in the Republic of Ireland.

The system of mutual vetoes at both the Executive table and in the Assembly led to deadlock on any issue of political contention. While others pressed for reforms, the staunchest defenders of both the union and a conservative status quo simply said ‘no’. While the rest of the UK and Ireland moved on, Northern Ireland stood still.

Activists, unable to secure changes to the law via normal politics, were forced into the courts. Often, these were individuals who found their lives restricted by the law – and they were just as likely to be unionist voters as of any other political persuasion. People like Sarah Ewart who, having been given a fatal foetal diagnosis, knocked on every political door available – only to see them slammed shut – before she sought relief via the courts for herself and for women like her. Or the first two same-sex couples to have civil partnerships in the UK – Christopher and Henry Kane-Flanagan and Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles, both in Belfast City Hall – who took their fight for marriage equality to the courts.

Ultimately, it was the demise of Stormont which has led to belated changes to the law on both abortion and same-sex marriage, as Amnesty International and others brought our human rights campaigns to Westminster following the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive. It was not a benign UK Government which looked kindly on our appeals, but backbenchers in both Houses of Parliament won over to the need to legislate. At first, neither MPs nor Peers were keen to “interfere in a devolved matter”. But ultimately, Westminster parliamentarians did not need to be persuaded of the merits of either abortion healthcare or same-sex marriage, having settled those debates years previously for the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, long-overdue legacy inquests have been unblocked through a combination of Stormont’s absence and successful litigation. In 2018, Judge Sir Paul Girvan ruled that Arlene Foster’s decision not to consider bidding for funding for legacy inquests, as requested by the Lord Chief Justice, was unlawful. This decision in the courts led to a new inquests unit being established to get through a backlog of cases. Another victory for ordinary folk, this time bereaved relatives on all sides – but again only possible by circumventing political efforts, this time by a DUP First Minister, to frustrate access to their human rights.

With progress secured on abortion, same-sex marriage and inquests, it hardly seems too fanciful to think that improved protection and promotion of Irish and Ulster-Scots language and culture could also be delivered, perhaps also via Westminster. With these rights issues – the sort of things mostly taken for granted in other places – addressed, Northern Ireland could have a chance to become a little bit less “a place apart”, and a little bit more like the rest of the UK or Ireland.

The resolution of these matters could help pave the way for a return of devolved government in 2020. What needs to be faced – by unionist parties above all others – is that Northern Ireland only has a long-term future if it can become a society that people of all backgrounds are happy to call home, knowing they and their rights will be respected.

Those in favour of Northern Ireland having another 100 years, should start looking for ways to make it a beacon for human rights.