The Stephen Livingstone lecture: on the Bill of Rights

Continuing my review (link to the complete series) of Martin O'Brien's speech on 'Human rights and the Agreement: how far have we come?', the 2009 Stephen Livingstone memorial lecture.

Here he reflects on the campaign to secure a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, as proposed by the 1998 Agreement.

O'Brien strongly backs efforts to secure a strong Bill to protect the most vulnerable and notes that the NI Human Rights Commission has come under attack from some quarters "precisely because [they] did their job" in advising the Government to draft such a Bill.

Like Amnesty, O'Brien commits himself to staying the course in the campaign for an effective Bill to protect the rights of all

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"I want now to consider the development of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. 

So, where are we in terms of this? 

Well, still a long way from having an agreed Bill of Rights.

The handover of advice from the Human Rights Commission to the Secretary of State last December represented considerable progress. 

The advice constituted a genuine and rigorous approach to the mandate given to the Commission. 

They are to be commended for the work they have done. 

It was particularly welcome that this Commission resisted any attempt to use the Bill of Rights debate as a vehicle to undermine existing human rights protections.

As one might expect, they saw their brief as building on what already exists and adapting that to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.

Of course it’s precisely because the Commission and its Chief Commissioner did their job that they have been subject to attack. 

Some of the attacks have been of a particularly low nature, personally directed and falling into the category, in my opinion, of sectarian and / or sexist. 

It seems there are still some who do not want to extend rights and protections to the most vulnerable and some who also want to remove some of the protections people already have. 

In my opinion, this is entirely incompatible with a commitment to human rights, and is profoundly irresponsible at this point in Northern Ireland’s history. 

Those who argue now that we don’t need a Bill of Rights are, I believe, out of step with ordinary people who remain convinced that it will help to cement the peace. 

They are out of step for example with young people in the Lower Shankill who have recently mounted a highly successful campaign on the right to play. 

They are out of step with the many marginalised groups supported by the Community Foundation who are arguing that they are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. 

The fact that growing numbers of disadvantaged people from across the community feel much more comfortable with the language of rights is itself arguably one of the great achievements of the peace process.

Of course it should come as no surprise that those who most need the rights are asking for a Bill of Rights. 

I feel strongly that those of us who have least need of human rights protections, because of our relative privilege, must think  twice before undercutting the efforts of others.

It’s also striking that there are such high levels of support across the community for the inclusion of social and economic rights in any Bill of Rights. 

In the context of a divided society, government and politicians should be building on this kind of agreement rather than trying to ignore or undermine it.  

Is protecting the rights of the many people who have been disabled through the conflict really such a frightening and impossible task? 

Do we really not care that so many of our older population die every year because they cannot afford to heat their homes? 

Are we saying that the physical and mental health problems of our society – many of which can be linked directly to the conflict and thus embody “the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland” – don’t warrant attention in a Bill of Rights?

I believe this project is about ensuring that those who are most vulnerable and most in need in our society are not ignored. 

It’s about transforming our society and making good on the commitment in the Agreement to the “protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”  

I for one will be sticking with it."

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