Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Bill of Rights is still far away

Alasdair McDonnell MP, the SDLP deputy leader, was quoted as saying at the recent McCloskey Summer School in Carlingford that people who voted for the Belfast Agreement in both parts of Ireland in dual referendums had endorsed the need for an "expansive Bill of Rights".

Well, they didn't. This is important given the debate on the NIO's impending response to the Human Rights Commission's advice on a possible Bill of last December. Hopes and expectations should not be raised, especially on a false prospectus.

NIHRC was tasked by the Belfast Agreement "to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights".

The form of this advice was further qualified in that it was "to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and - taken together with the ECHR - to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland".

The NIO, by asking NIHRC to provide that scoping advice, fulfilled its obligation under the Agreement. Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has said that NIHRC exceeded its brief (but not its statutory remit). That was a matter of serious Agreement-creep which the two dissenting Commissioners pointed out.

The majority voted in the referendums for commissioning advice on a Bill of Rights; not for a Bill; and certainly not for an expansive Bill.

The South Belfast MP and MLA also remarked in his speech that the "SDLP would not stand idly by" if a Bill was deferred or unpicked. We have often been warned that if something was in the Agreement, it had to be implemented. If so, the Agreement's requirements on a Bill of Rights were implemented when NIHRC's advice was handed to Mr Woodward. The rest is now ordinary politics.

JEFFREY DUDGEON

Belfast

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