Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and goes on to say that this includes the right to "manifest one's religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.
The right to attend your place of worship on a Sunday is, therefore, recognised as a fundamental human right.
Yet this week the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a Bill at consideration stage which endangers that right.
The Road Races (Amendment) Bill is a piece of legislation which has received little attention from the press. In fact, it has received little attention from anyone as it is going through the Assembly by way of accelerated passage which means the Bill is not scrutinised.
On the face of it, the legislation appears logical and non-controversial. It allows for road racing to take place, with 24 hours’ notice, on a “contingency day”. So, for example, if a race is washed out one day it can take place the following day. Sounds reasonable – until one considers the impact of that on other road users and on fundamental human rights if the “contingency day” happens to be a Sunday.
Nowhere is more synonymous with road racing than the Isle of Man, yet they specifically limit racing on a Sunday to between 1.30pm and 6pm to protect the rights of church goers.
Yet when Jim Allister moved an amendment to do the same when it came to contingency days in Northern Ireland, and thereby salvage some protection for Sunday, the amendment was defeated by 77 votes to three. Jim was joined by NI21 while all other MLAs who voted - including DUP MLAs - opposed this statutory protection for churchgoers.
As Jim observed during the debate:
“Tomorrow in the House of Commons, the Democratic Unionist Party has an Opposition day debate on the persecution of Christians. That is very good, but let us also think about the approach that would say to Christians in this community that their rights to worship on a Sunday can be and may have to be trumped by the rights of racegoers on those various circuits. If that is not the attitude, vote for that which would protect them.”
Personally I agree with Linfield manager David Jeffrey who has said that Sunday is not a day for sport. Others will disagree with that position. I suspect those who disagree with me are in a large majority. But surely it’s not unreasonable to argue that majority opinion should not be allowed to trump the fundamental rights of those who wish to attend their place of worship on a Sunday?
That principle was recognised on the Isle of Man. It is a great shame that it will not be in Northern Ireland.