Belfast Telegraph

Warning over risk to bill of rights

A decade-long effort to create a bill of rights for Northern Ireland could be wasted if the Government does not make speedy progress, an academic and member of the Human Rights Commission has said.

There is cross-community support for legislation despite some areas of disagreement, Professor Colin Harvey added.

He called on Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson to outline clearly how the process will be brought to a conclusion. The Northern Ireland Office published responses to its consultation document on December 16.

Queen's University professor of law Mr Harvey said: "There is a real risk that the good work completed over the last decade will be lost, and it is for the Secretary of State to outline clearly how the Northern Ireland process will progress and be brought to a conclusion.

"It must not remain an undelivered outworking of our peace agreement. Credible and authoritative ideas are there which point the way to a bill of rights that we could all be proud of. Let us not waste this opportunity to embrace a positive agenda for the future." He said he was speaking in a personal capacity distinct from the commission.

The commission supported the right to liberty and security of the person and the right to a fair trial. It said the bill should include social and economic rights like health, adequate standard of living, accommodation, work, and social security rights. The advice also includes environmental rights and a section of children's rights.

Many nationalists support a similarly extensive definition of rights while unionists would like to limit it and believe issues like accommodation and standards of living are down to personal industry. Areas of dispute also include the rights of the unborn child. The Government has highlighted the lack of public consensus on what should be in a bill.

The commission has raised concerns about the amount of time it has taken to secure a bill before. It submitted advice on the legislation to the Northern Ireland Secretary in December 2008.

The consultation document, A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland: Next Steps, did not appear until the end of November 2009. This meant that there was insufficient time for government to summarise the responses before Parliament was suspended six weeks before the general election. The possible creation of a UK bill of rights has also been considered in Great Britain.

Prof Harvey added the Northern Ireland process had uncovered the true extent of cross-community support for a bill. "That means a bill which recognises the responsibilities we owe to each other, by endorsing and achieving a bill of rights for Northern Ireland that can stand proudly with the best in the world," he said.

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