Following the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the Conservative’s plans both to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, this is an opportunity to re-open the debate on how best to address the current political stalemate on a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, an unfulfilled element of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement . We argue that at a time when there is so much uncertainty about the protection and safeguarding of rights with a real risk of lesser rights for fewer people in the UK, more than ever is there a need to provide an alternative to progress the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
We provide an alternative in our report, Political Capacity Building: Advancing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland published in September 2014. The report was funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and provides an update on the political parties’ as well as the Irish and British Governments’ positions on the Bill of Rights. We conducted twenty-one interviews with the main political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, representatives of the UK and Irish governments, civil society and key stakeholders involved in the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. As the co-guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, we argue that the British and Irish governments need to establish a coherent approach to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland by developing a joint policy framework. The framework should clarify how the governments see their respective roles in implementing their obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements and agree how best to take forward the work on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The importance of moving forward on a Bill of Rights is particularly important in divided societies emerging from decades of violent political conflict. The two governments need to adopt a consistent approach to the implementation of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Whilst the Irish government regards a separate Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as an integral part of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the British government believes that a UK Bill of Rights could serve all devolved regions including Northern Ireland. Clarification is therefore necessary to reconcile the current differences in both governments’ approach to this issue.
Our report concludes that the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights is, and should continue to be seen as, a separate process, independent of and unfettered by the UK debate about a British Bill of Rights. Indeed, this was one of the findings by the UK Bill of Rights Commission’s report in December 2012. This argument has also been endorsed at the international level as several United Nations bodies have recently called upon the British government to ‘expedite the enactment’ of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights ‘without delay’. The Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice and reparation also urges all stakeholders to re-engage immediately with work on adopting a Bill of Rights.
On December 14, 2015 a roundtable discussion on a Bill of Rights was held in Belfast in advance of the referendum on remaining in the EU. The British and Irish governments were represented at the roundtable, as were the main political parties and representatives from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and civil society. The participants felt that the roundtable provided an opportunity for constructive engagement on an issue that had been parked for too long and was now taking on a significance that no-one had anticipated when the peace agreement was being negotiated. One politician noted that if the Human Rights Act is repealed, a ‘double argument’ exists for Northern Ireland to have its own Bill of Rights incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights. The general consensus was that the initiative needed to be continued in order to assess the potential of advancing this outstanding issue from the Agreement.
The authors of the earlier report have recently been awarded further funding from Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to hold a series of roundtable discussions over the next eighteen months in Parliament Buildings with members of political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as the two governments and key stakeholders in Northern Ireland. At the roundtable discussions the parties will be asked about Brexit and the potential withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, the parties will be asked questions about what these recent political developments mean for the Assembly and their impact on a potential Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The workshops will also ascertain the extent of agreement and/or disagreement on the proposals put forward by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The findings of our earlier report showed a misunderstanding amongst some political parties of the aims and objectives of a Bill of Rights and what it can and cannot deliver, so the parties will also be asked to address their understanding of the role of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. Following the roundtables, a report will be formally submitted to the two governments in Dublin and Westminster.
Dr Anne Smith is a lecturer, Transitional Justice Institute/School of Law, Ulster University; Monica McWilliams is an Emeritus Professor of Women’s Studies at the Transitional Justice Institute/ School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy, Ulster University.
(Suggested citation: A. Smith and M. McWilliams, ‘Now Is the Time to Re-open the Debate about Progressing the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (13th Jan 2017) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))