Battle for a Bill of Rights is far from over

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights is due to publish the result of its consultation process early next year.

This may well be just another step in a long, arduous and frequently dishonest journey that has been managing to avoid introducing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland despite the requirement of the Good Friday Agreement to do so.

In fact, the demand of a Bill of Rights goes back much further than that. The Workers Party has been campaigning to have the legislation introduced for over 50 years.

Restating the case

Given recent events this is a timely opportunity to restate the case for a Bill of Rights and raise many serious concerns that, just like the requirement to introduce Integrated Education, the Executive parties will, as they have done in the past, divert and dilute the debate to produce a statement of ‘nationalist rights’, and ‘unionist rights’ in place of a comprehensive Bill of Rights for all citizens in Northern Ireland.

The warning signs are already evident. Marches and rallies for ‘nationalist rights’ have taken place already, civic unionism sets itself up against civic nationalism – each pitching their own ‘rights based ‘agendas – and, before even a single local view had been submitted to it, the Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights stated that “Some of the rights and protections that we have examined are issues around language culture and heritage”.

Direction of travel

Important as these issues are when the committee with the responsibility for the consultation process leads with these identity-based issues at the expense of civil, social, economic and human rights concerns, then the preferred direction of travel becomes all too obvious.

Taken together with the proposals announced this week which would effectively debar civil actions and deny inquests into Troubles killings alongside the end of any legal inquiries into Troubles related incidents, the case needs to be remade for a comprehensive citizen-based Bill of Rights.

Rights for All

When the Workers Party made its submission to the current consultation process we said,

The purpose of a Bill of Rights should be to establish and guarantee the relationship between citizens and the state. It must form the basis for democratic rights as the guarantor of the civil liberties of all citizens and of the political rights of all political parties, groups and individuals.

It must also expressly guarantee that everyone in Northern Ireland is equal before the law and has equal rights”.

That would mean that a Bill of Rights should provide a positive statement of the rights which each citizen can expect, and demand, of the state and also provide the means whereby those rights will be protected and enforced if they are infringed.

Social and economic rights

We also affirmed our belief that the protection of civil and political rights cannot be effectively guaranteed without a full programme of social and economic construction.

We are committed to a political system where the majority of the population, the working class, regardless of communal background, is properly and fairly represented in all aspects of political life. A Bill of Rights must reflect and underpin that ambition

A Bill of Rights must also address the rights of women and, in particular, family planning and reproductive rights, including the right to abortion, and the right of women to full and equal participation in political decision-making and public life. It must address the rights of workers and encompass core international standards of trade union rights.

Citizenship versus Sectarianism  

It is highly unlikely, in fact it is a near certainty, that the outcome of the consultation by the Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights will not produce a citizen-based rights programme.

Two other outcomes are more likely. Either it will kick the can further down the road and beyond the life time of this current Assembly mandate or it will propose a set of rights for ‘the two communities’, removing the concept of citizenship from the debate and further compounding the sectarian division of this society.

The battle for a Bill of Rights is far from over

The demand for equality and democratic rights is not the property or the preserve of any one political party or tribal grouping. Its ownership should rest firmly with citizens as citizens. Only on that basis will progress be made and citizenship flourish.

Workers Party’s submission to the Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights