Bill of Rights: politicians out of touch with ordinary people?

It's not a great time to be a politician (although, of course, there are compensations). The daily (Telegraph) revelations of politicians 'fiddling' while the economy burns have left people feeling understandably angry.

Questions are now being asked of how representative MPs and other elected politicians truly are, when they lead such cushioned lifestyles that they can claim as work expenses everything from designer interior decorating to moat cleaning. Do some of these people really share the concerns and priorities of their voters who can't rely on the taxpayer to meet their next mortgage payment?

As the Irish Times reports, a new opinion poll out today shows that some 70% of people in Northern Ireland back a Bill of Rights and think it very or quite important for their future. Over 90% want to see a Bill contain social and economic rights offering basic standard protections for healthcare, housing and education.

A 'no brainer', one would think, especially in these times of economic stress. Yet, not all politicians agree.

Take Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Shaun 'seven houses' Woodward, for instance. Despite getting the taxpaper to fork out 100,000 pounds in mortgage payments for his so-called second house, it looks like the Cabinet's richest member (and that takes some doing) may want to deny housing rights to people at risk of homelessness in Northern Ireland by excluding them from proposals for the Bill of Rights.

In his recent testimony to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Minister appeared to suggest that the NI Human Rights Commission had gone beyond its remit, presumably by recommending that the NI Bill should include rights reflecting the everyday concerns of ordinary people, not just those issues related to the historic green-orange conflict, as preferred by some parties here.

It's not just the homeless who could suffer, if the Bill of Rights is restricted narrowly in this way. It's also the carers, older people, those with disabilities and others who would like to see a rights safety net which helps them to preserve dignity in the face of sometimes desparate circumstances. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of public submissions to the NI Human Rights Commission called for these sorts of rights to be protected.

The poll, carried out by independent polling company, Millward Brown Ulster, was commissioned by campaign group, the Human Rights Consortium (of which Amnesty is a member).

Among other things, it shows that the Bill is backed strongly, in roughly equal numbers by people from both sides of Northern Ireland's traditional religious-political divide. 69% of Protestants think the Bill important; 72% of Catholics. This somewhat undermines claims from the two main unionist parties, the DUP and UUP/Conservatives (the smaller PUP backs a strong Bill), that the Bill does not attract cross-community support.

So, will the sceptical politicians at Westminster and Stormont stay trapped inside their ideological and expenses-cushioned bubble, or will they listen to the will of the people?

Only time will tell, but the sooner the millionaire Secretary of State launches the long-awaited public consultation in Northern Ireland on the Bill, the better.

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