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Does Northern Ireland need a Bill of Rights?

By Claire McNeilly

Does Northern Ireland need a Bill of Rights? And if so, how far should its provisions go beyond ensuring our fundamental civil and political liberties?

Human rights activists believe the more rights that are enshrined in law the happier the population will be — but it really does depend on who you ask.

For instance, nationalist political parties tend to voice their support for the expanded model, while unionists are more cautiously inclined towards a mere acceptance of the basic premise.

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has already rejected the social and economic rights recommended by the Human Rights Commission for inclusion in the Bill.

So, as it currently stands, the public consultation document contains just two enforceable rights — the right to vote and be elected, and the right to identify as British, Irish or both.

Meanwhile, the results of a recent poll by the Human Rights Consortium, published in the Belfast Telegraph today, indicate strong public support for the inclusion of additional social and economic rights in current Government proposals.

Support for the right to vote or be elected was deemed either “important” or “very important” by 97% of those polled, while 86% supported the right to be identified as British, Irish or both.

The findings also show that a minority of people, some 40%, felt that having just the two rights were sufficient, while 44% argued they were not.

When polled on socio-economic rights, however — such as the right to adequate accommodation or an adequate standard of living — up to 95% of respondents felt that this was very important.

In summary, 83% of people felt that there should be more than just the two rights recommended by Government included in the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Human Rights Consortium campaigns manager Kevin Hanratty said the results of the poll, undertaken by Millward Brown Ulster, were “strikingly clear”.

“The latest figures show huge public support for a Bill of Rights, which contains meaningful rights on those everyday issues that matter here such as healthcare, housing and jobs,” he said. “These results should send a powerful message to the the Secretary of State as he decides the next step in for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland.

“The majority of people here want a strong and meaningful Bill of Rights that protects bread and butter issues — and it’s time to deliver.”

It has been a rocky road for the Bill — which entrenches civil and political rights — since its conception back in 1998.

Not to be confused with the Human Rights Act, this legislation would apply to citizens of Northern Ireland only, and not the rest of the UK.

The deadline for submissions to the public consultation process is at the end of this month, after which the Government would aim to produce draft legislation destined for Westminster.

A more pessimistic view, though, is that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland — which was part of the Good Friday Agreement's wishlist — may not be introduced for several more years – if ever.

With Mr Woodward effectively pouring cold water on the proposals from the Human Rights Commission, as well as the potential for a change of Government come May, this Bill seems as far away as ever from becoming reality.

Some experts believe it could get lost in the dissolution of one parliament and the recovening of another.

A real stumbling block to further progress is that our politicians differ greatly as to what they see as the “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”, the phrase in the Good Friday Agreement.

And, in any case, the Government is unlikely to push a bill through the Commons division lobbies without cross-party support here.

Brice Dickson, a law professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and a former NIHRC chief commissioner, is in favour of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, provided it has cross-party support in the Assembly and doesn’t give excessive powers to unelected judges.

Professor Dickson added: “Reforms that cannot be agreed through a Bill of Rights can instead be campaigned for through ordinary legislation, as in the past with anti-discrimination laws and the Freedom of Information Act.”

The consultation paper is available on the Northern Ireland Office website. Responses should be sent by March 31

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