Unionists should engage in the conversation around the proposal for a Bill of Rights, recognising that it can help protect their interests and human rights, says former Progressive Unionist Party councillor Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston. She was talking in the latest Forward Together podcast from the Holywell Trust.
“I think human rights themselves are important because they help protect against abuse by those who are more powerful”, says Julie-Anne. A Bill of Rights can also be used as a means of fighting corruption, she suggests.
“No society is perfect, not least Northern Ireland. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland in my opinion is important for a number of reasons. First, the primary reason, is that it was mandated for by the people of Northern Ireland via the Belfast Agreement referendum and all the subsequent agreements that came on the back of that. The objective was to entrench those human rights that we all enjoy. It built on a rights-based society that was emerging from conflict and which was one with a history of political bias and discrimination.”
She stresses that the Progressive Unionist Party – she is a former member – has for a long period “been very strongly supportive of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights – and we have engaged on that subject. We had various engagements with the Human Rights Commission, with the Equality Commission, and we support the work that they do within Northern Ireland.”
Yet there is a strong perception in parts of unionism that a Bill of Rights is a demand of republicans and nationalists and therefore not in the interests of loyalists and unionists. This is a mistake, Julie-Anne believes.
“It hasn’t always been seen through the lens of sectarian divisions,” she insists. “The very concept of a Bill of Rights pre-dates the Good Friday Agreement / the Belfast Agreement and was lobbied for at one point by unionist parties, going back to the 1970s I think. It has had over the years had intermittent support. But [unionism] has moved towards a position of being in favour of a UK-wide Bill of Rights, rather than Northern Ireland-specific. I think that is largely the result of the psychological and physical barriers that have emerged post-Good Friday Agreement.”
For many unionists it was comments by Gerry Adams about using demands for equality to “break” unionism that made the call for a Bill of Rights so contentious. Yet the reality is that many working class loyalist communities are seriously deprived and might be among the very people most likely to benefit from a recognition of socio-economic rights, access of high quality healthcare and housing and equality in education provision.
Describing herself as a “pragmatic unionist”, Julie-Anne rejects the idea that a Bill of Rights could advance the cause of Irish unity, suggesting instead that the absence of one weakens the Union. The words of Adams created the psychological barrier to engagement by many unionists in discussions around a Bill of Rights, while “institutionalised sectarianism” in Northern Ireland society provides the physical barrier to engagement.
“Every election in Northern Ireland is a constitutional show of strength, rather than a mandate for social-economic change. I think that for unionists like myself who measure the strength of the Union not by any political party’s electoral strength, but by the social-economic wealth and the quality of life that citizens here enjoy, it is paramount to securing the future of the Union that we move to bring into play a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.”
Julie-Anne continues: “Socio-economic inequalities and disadvantages don’t have a nationality or religious background or sexual orientation. They present themselves and their effects across society and that’s a problem for us all. I think that rights-based approaches should be apolitical….That’s the right approach in terms of finding the right balance for us all.”
She continues: “A Bill of Rights transcends that civil liberties, social freedoms, political liberties and security [approach]. It encompasses a rights-based approach to deprivation and social and economic inequality that in my view would strengthen the Union.”
Julie-Anne stresses: “It is well documented that Protestant boys are those most disadvantaged in the education system. And I think that a Bill of Rights would help further advance their cause and place a moral obligation on those who are charged with leading that department and those in the Executive, providing mechanisms for accountability when those standards have been contravened.”
She argues that the Belfast Agreement / Good Friday Agreement was clear that it intended a Bill of Rights to supplement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – yet it has still failed to do so. “I believe that what was proposed was ideal. They have the draft for it.” However, “the Bill of Rights is not going to be a magic wand.” She adds: “There are other international legal obligations that governments have in terms of human rights.”
Julie-Anne asserts: “You can’t rely on a political culture of respect when one doesn’t actually exist. If we had this Bill of Rights it would allow our political parties to deal with issues, rather than negotiate them.” That, along with the proper application of the ministerial code of conduct, might avoid the periodic breakdowns of government here that have characterised our system since the restoration of devolution.
But it would be naïve to ignore the reality that the concept of rights are not always simple and objective. The discussions around single sex marriage and what might either be termed abortion or women’s reproductive rights illustrate that – and place Julie-Anne on a different side of the debate to much of unionism’s mainstream leadership.
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.
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 editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects and is Parliamentary Assistant to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.