Northern Ireland: time for the 'rights' solution

Over the last six months Northern Ireland has experienced three outbreaks of serious public disorder. In July and September it was over parades. The latest and most prolonged has been, at least on the face of it, over flags.

On neither issue, despite plenty of hastily called meetings, have politicians - whether in Belfast or London - been able to come up with a fair and sustainable solution.

Yet, there is one. But it’s been left sitting on the shelf for years, waiting for politicians of vision to agree its shape.

No, not the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) Strategy - though we’re waiting for that too. I’m talking about the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

It was promised in the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, yet nearly fifteen years on, the people of Northern Ireland are still awaiting its delivery.

For those seeking a way to resolve the current – and all too recurrent - disorder, it is worth recalling that a legal framework, based on an ‘equality of treatment’ duty on public authorities, was intended within our Bill of Rights.

In the words of the Agreement, the Bill was to “reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland” and to provide “additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities.”

In short it was to meant to provide what I like to think of as a ‘Fairness Framework’, within which “conflict of rights” issues, such as parades and flags, could be addressed.

With demographics shifting in Belfast and beyond – as demonstrated by the changing make-up in council chambers and recent census results - the Bill of Rights could provide a long-term fairness framework regardless of which part of the community finds itself in the minority in the overall jurisdiction or in local council areas, whether now or in the future. That should be seen as a hugely important safeguard to every single citizen within our divided community.

The Human Rights Commission recommended the UK Government should include obligations on public authorities in the Bill of Rights to “fully respect, on the basis of equality of treatment, the identity and ethos of both main communities”, and to take actions to “encourage a spirit of tolerance and dialogue”.

A year later the NIO responded indicating an apparent willingness to incorporate an “equality of treatment for identity and ethos” provision in a Bill of Rights. So far, so good. But tragically, despite overwhelming public support for a strong Bill of Rights, the proposals were then left to gather dust, both during the dying days of Shaun Woodward’s reign at the NIO and during Owen Paterson’s subsequent period in charge.

His successor as Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, has been criticised for appearing slow off the mark in responding to the violence of recent weeks but, in her Commons statement on the violence on Thursday she noted “the [peace] process is not finished, and the stability delivered by the Belfast Agreement should never be taken for granted”.

She finished by calling “for bold moves by Northern Ireland’s political leadership”. But, of course, while they carry the devolved responsibilities, government is not their job alone. However much Secretaries of State may now prefer to side-step responsibility, Villiers carries a serious duty - not just for national security matters in Northern Ireland, but for the full delivery of the Agreement to which the UK is co-guarantor.

Indeed, as responsible Minister of the national government, fifteen years on, it falls to the current Secretary of State to steer through to delivery an agreed Bill of Rights.

The potential prize is great. Secure the Bill of Rights and we could have an agreed framework through which to tackle contentious issues like flags, emblems and parades, but also the deeper socio-economic rights problems faced by many across the whole community, including but not just those now taking to the streets.

Published in the Belfast Telegraph print edition, 15.1.13

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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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