Bill of Rights for NI: why have one?

I have previously written about the student working group on human rights I am a part of. Our main area of focus is on the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

Our work to date has involved examining the historical context to the proposal of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and considering the provision for a Bill of Rights within the Good Friday Agreement. I personally have examined and summarised the 2008 submission of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the Joint Committee’s 2011 advice on a Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland. Another participate has summarised the response of the Northern Ireland Office to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission 2008 submission. We are currently working on incorporating our research into a report, and we will conclude by submitting our argument that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is necessary, and now is the time to see it realised.

Northern Ireland faces great uncertainty in the wake of Brexit. We are currently experiencing a political vacuum – no agreement was after weeks of talks to form a new Executive after the snap March election, meaning we have no devolved government, and now talks are paused for the snap General Election – with the threat of direct rule looming on the horizon. Given political uncertainty and lack of government, the need to recognise and protect human rights in Northern Ireland is vital.

Many countries have a bill of rights in some form. It has been found that 82% of constitutions drafted between 1788 and 1948 contained some form of human rights protection. This figure increased to 93% between 1949 and 1975. This trend continued throughout the 1980s, and by 1990 onwards, as many countries underwent peace processes and transition towards new constitutional settlements, human rights frameworks became routine. This ‘routine’ was applied to Northern Ireland as it underwent a peace process and constitutional transition in 1998.

A bill of rights is a constitutional document, essentially a list, of the most important rights and freedoms belonging to the citizens of a state. The primary purpose of this document is the provision of rights, and the protection of those rights against infringement, with the bill of rights acting as a type of contract between citizens and the state.

States may opt to enshrine a bill of rights as they recognise there are certain values and principles which are so basic, and so fundamental, they wish to put them beyond the reach of government. Rights such as the right to fair trial are arguably matters to be protected against state interference, irrespective of shifts in the political landscape. Bills of rights therefore aim to separate these fundamental values from politics, and subjective political interpretation.

Adopting a bill of rights also provides for a clearer understanding of the democratic structure of the state, especially with regards to restrictions on political decision-making, and the state’s responsibilities for its citizens. This model emphasises participation, but also ensures a balance between necessary limitation of majority rule – thus preventing any abuses of power – and the encouragement of equal participation of all.

States therefore tend to adopt bills of rights when agreeing upon a new or revised constitution, as part of a peace settlement after a period of internal conflict, and/or as a solution to political, legal or moral pressure to address failures to protect rights.

Bills of rights provide legal recognition and protection of rights to all citizens, but it applies particularly to those within marginalised and vulnerable groups. This is of relevance to Northern Ireland, where human rights issues have been raised in relation to children and women in detention, women accessing reproductive healthcare, equality for the LGBT* community, and the Irish-speaking community. Adopting a Bill of rights would ensure a defense for these communities, and provide legal protection of their rights and redress for violations of same.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is not a new proposition. Since the 1960s, there have been calls from across the political divide for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The common argument is a Bill of Rights would provide for a stable, shared society built on equality and non-discrimination. As part of a constitutional foundation, it would ensure no matter who was in power, human rights would be respected.

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