The Bill of Rights just got interesting

The Bill of Rights debate just got interesting this last week ... or at least a lot more people seemed to start to take an interest now that, at last, the hitherto slow pace of progress is quickening.

First up was professional cynic and media pundit Newton Emerson in his Irish News column. Now, I've been reading Newton's satirical commentary for a long time, back to the early days of the now defunct (and wonderfully politically incorrect) Portadown News. Newton is almost always worth reading, usually funny and often pretty accurate in his aim.

This time, though, Newton wasn't on top form and shot well off the mark. He described the early proposals for a Bill of Rights as a "left wing wish list", but came across as being rather confused, basing his conclusions on six year-old reports to the NI Human Rights Commission of 2001, rather than the current work of the Bill of Rights Forum, on which he claimed to reporting.

Nevertheless, despite his confusion (I'll let him off - despite myself, I like him and, well, it's been a long and tortuous process over the years, even for those of us more closely acquainted with the debate than Newton), he sort of makes two interesting points:

1) that he doesn't think enforceable social and economic rights should be contained in the Bill;2) that granting 'group' rights (e.g. to Catholics or Protestants, say) runs the risk of trumping the rights of people as individuals.

Needless to say, I don't agree with him on point one. I still haven't heard a convincing argument for why people in Northern Ireland shouldn't have access to enforceable social and economic rights, which are a mainstay of many modern Bill of Rights documents in other countries and which might help us tackle some of our 'legacy' social and economic inequalities.

However, I have a lot more sympathy with Newton on point two, particularly given our bloody past and our local tendency to be easily divided into monolithic sectarian blocs - in the design of the Assembly's power structures for instance. An individual rights-based Bill could be a useful counter to forces which practically oblige people to be on one side or other of  the 'community divide'.

The second interesting episode of the last week was the ill-tempered DUP-led debate in the Assembly on Monday, which saw Nelson McCausland MLA and colleagues lead the charge against the Bill of Rights Forum (of which he is a member), demanding greater unionist representation.

Hidden beneath the unpleasant and uncalled for personal attacks on a range of individuals and organisations from civil society (presumably based on the intelligence files / newspaper clippings which Nelson is rumoured to compile on those who don't share his world view!), were some reasonable points.

Basically, Nelson and co were outlining the degree of alienation from and lack of engagement with the Bill of Rights process, felt by many in the unionist community. The DUP largely blamed those of us involved in civil society (rather than the failure of their political leaders to understand and effectively use human rights law) and thought the solution was more seats at the Forum for representatives of unionist political parties (obviously, primarily the DUP) or community proxies, such as the Orange Order.

While I have a degree of sympathy with some of the underying sentiments expressed in the debate (it has to be said, expressed much better by the UUP Assembly members, who spoke without the DUP members' personal vitriol), it's worth making a few contextual points.

It is surely too late (with work well underway and only 5 months left of the Bill of Rights Forum) to start meddling with the membership of the Forum.

The Forum's make-up and membership was decided by the UK Government, but signed up to by all (including the unionist parties) by virtue of their agreement to participate on that basis from as long ago as December 2006.

If the Govt started to add extra seats for, say, the Orange Order, then there would be cries from 'the other side' for seats for, say, nationalist resident groups or the GAA.

Ultimately the Forum is not primarily a party political forum or an elected legislative body, nor does it pretend to be so. But, rather it is an attempt, via the participation of political parties and a broad range of civil society groups, to have input from a broad cross-section of Northern Ireland society.

If there are voices missing from around the table (and there are - for instance Amnesty International, Northern Ireland's largest membership-based human rights organisation, is only represented by proxy via our human rights colleagues in the CAJ), then those groups should work to communicate their views through others who do have seats, whether civil society of party political. We do.

Notwithstanding the detail of Monday's debate, there must be a real worry for those of us who do wish to see a broadly agreed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland - and one worthy of that name - that the DUP motion in the Assembly (coming after their near walk-out of the Forum in July) is a shot across all our bows. In short, perhaps Monday was a very public signal that, if they don't get their way in March 2008 when the Bill of Rights Forum reports, then DUP toys will quickly exit the pram and they will set about blocking the wishes of other Forum members.

Of course, at that point, it will be all eyes to the NI Human Rights Commission, whose turn it will be to pick up the baton (if not the toys).

Anyway, this was the week when the Bill of Rights debate finally took off - now it's up to the advocates of a strong Bill, to make the case to the public and their elected representatives. Ironically, that job has just been made a whole lot easier by the sceptics. Now, at least, people are starting to pay attention.

Thanks, Newton and Nelson!

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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