A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is overdue and would protect the interests and concerns of all the population, insists Colin Harvey, professor of human rights at Queen’s University, Belfast. He was talking in the latest Forward Together podcast from the Holywell Trust.
The Good Friday Agreement provided the expectation that there would be a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that would safeguard citizens’ rights. And a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly is, more than 20 years on, considering this. But what would a Bill of Rights achieve – and which ‘rights’ would be included?
“If you look at what’s driving politics on both parts of the island, it’s real concerns about healthcare and housing and basic social and economic rights,” says Colin. “There’s a real chance to make sure that socio-economic rights on the island are no longer second class rights in the future.”
Colin argues that as well as health and housing, there is also a human right to environmental protection, addressing climate change and climate justice. He insists that what he calls “basic social and economic rights” need legal protection. “In the future, health care is a human right that needs to be solidly underpinned by legal guarantees.”
But does this mean that there should be a legal right for everyone having a job? “I think it’s important to recognize socio-economic rights as human rights, including employment rights. But… there are often balancing exercises that go along with those human rights instruments – not all human rights are absolute.
“I think the starting point has to be better recognition in law of the basic human rights that people need to have. And human rights advocates, equality advocates, social justice advocates on this island – but actually in Europe and globally – need to do a much better job at winning that argument. That’s not to say that human rights protections will deliver a utopia. They won’t. They’re really a starting point.
“But we’ve all got to try and agree that these things are basic human rights that have to be reflected in law. For example, I still think the north needs a Bill of Rights.”
Human rights advocates feel let down by the lack of progress following the Good Friday Agreement. “The Agreement held out a clear promise that it wouldn’t just be a shared society, that it would be a shared and better society,” insists Colin. “And that would include a number of things, including better human rights protection.”
In 2008, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission – whose members included Colin – submitted recommendations to the British government on a Bill of Rights. Yet “we still haven’t had that Bill of Rights delivered”. “What we see at the moment is there’s an ad hoc assembly committee that’s meeting to renew and revisit that conversation. So it’s long overdue that we have a Bill of Rights here. But it’s time for people to join that conversation. A conversation focused on not just having shared institutions and relative stability here, but actually the creation of a better society, a more equal society.”
But Colin warns: “The Agreement is very clear that the Bill of Rights is to be delivered at Westminster by the Westminster government.” And the debate has now been affected by the Brexit decision and the “likely loss of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU”. “So there’s a real anxiety and worry that the UK is planning to go backwards in relation to rights, that there’ll be undercutting of those rights, particularly in those basic areas of equality, employment, socio-economic justice, that people are really concerned about here.”
Colin is determined, though, that rights should not perceived as only being applicable for one section of society, but instead are actually protecting all members of society. “Those rights will protect everyone here.”
He continues: “First of all, it gives people a secure recognition. These are not issues of discretion and when they’re actually basic human rights that people have and guarantees. And I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of that. Secondly, it’s hoped it will be used in practice. And I would underline that it will only make a difference to people’s lives if the Bill of Rights that we adopt is an ambitious Bill of Rights. It isn’t just a tweak to the Human Rights Act.
“It’s something that reflects an ambitious vision for this society, that’s used in practice – that people are able to access justice in an affordable way, that they can use these rights, that public authorities mainstream these protections and the work that they do in a preventative way, that the Executive and the Assembly takes these measures seriously in their work, so that we’re not always going to court to enforce rights.”
He adds: “I wouldn’t be offering a Bill of Rights or human rights protections as the answer to all the problems of this society and the problems that we face. They’re just the starting point.”
This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme. Next week’s podcast will be the second in a two-part consideration of the call for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, featuring an interview with former Progressive Unionist Party councillor Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is author of ‘A New Ireland’, ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and other books. He is part-time policy advisor to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.