Belfast Telegraph

Declan Kearney: Bill of Rights is only platform on which to build sustainable government

 

By Declan Kearney

Fifty years ago the civil rights campaign was launched in the North of Ireland. Its modest demands to secure equal rights for all citizens were met with violence and political opposition.

The continued denial of equality and rights was addressed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and subsequent agreements.

The GFA set down fundamental benchmarks for political progress which included the need for a power-sharing and partnership government, equality provisions, parity of esteem for all political and cultural identities, and recognition of the rights for all citizens to live free from sectarian harassment.

The GFA also required the British government to legislate for a Bill of Rights to enshrine rights supplementary to those in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), in recognition of the particular circumstances of the North.

However, the full transformative potential of the GFA has been systematically frustrated due to opposition from political unionism and repeated failures by the British government to fulfil its obligations, such as implementation of a Bill of Rights.

The refusal to legislate for a Bill of Rights, an Irish Language Act and marriage equality has now made these into totemic issues in this denial of democracy.

The undermining of the GFA by successive British governments, and particularly by the Tories since 2010, has contributed directly to the current political crisis.

The DUP's rejection of the rights and equality agenda led directly to the collapse of the political institutions in January this year.

That has now been compounded by the anti-equality alliance formalised by the Tory/DUP deal struck after the Westminster election and their joint support for the reckless Brexit agenda, against the wishes of the majority of voters in the North.

Language rights, marriage rights and the rights of families to have coroner's inquests are protected in England, Scotland, Wales, and the rest of Ireland.

Implementation of these, and a Bill of Rights itself, are key to resolving our political crisis.

They represent the essential requirements of a rights-based society and for re-establishing the political institutions on a credible and sustainable basis.

A Bill of Rights would be premised upon the ECHR and underpin existing legislation and enshrine all of the protections and mechanisms proposed by the GFA into a cohesive legislative framework.

It would build important legislative protections for all citizens and sections of society in the North, regardless of creed, culture, class, political opinion or sexual orientation.

This would extend to the language, marriage and other rights being denied here, and which are taken for granted elsewhere in other parts of these islands.

Establishment of a Bill of Rights would guarantee workers' and employment protections, maternity, paternity and gender rights.

The ethos of a Bill of Rights would entrench democratic and cultural rights, civil and religious liberties, and protect the rights of citizens with disabilities, women, young and elderly people, ethnic minority groups, and others within our society.

Sinn Fein believes that anti-sectarianism must be central to a rights-based society in the North.

We have proposed there should be a clear legal definition of sectarianism as a hate crime enshrined within legislation. This should also be given expression within a Bill of Rights.

The assault on democratic rights from the British Tory government's intention to dismantle the Human Rights Act in Britain underscores the urgency of a free-standing Bill of Rights being implemented in the North as a fire wall to protect the rights of citizens here.

Rights and equality belong to everyone in our society.

A Bill of Rights is essential to ensure no citizen or section of our society is ever again put to the back of the bus.

It is crucial to completing the process of democratic transformation envisaged by the GFA.

All of us have a stake in realising that ambition.

With a fourth round of talks on re-establishing the political institutions planned, it is vital that all sections and sectors of society intensify our efforts to ensure a Bill of Rights is finally achieved.

  • Declan Kearney is Sinn Fein's national chairperson

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