Belfast Telegraph

Will Orange Order's right to march trip up bid for new Bill of Rights?

By Tony Grew

It is quite unusual to get 80% of people to agree about anything. So it is hard to imagine bringing forward a new piece of legislation and 80% of the voters are in favour of it.

In normal circumstances, ministers would be delighted with such a ringing endorsement. But, when it comes to the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, normal rules don't apply.

MPs have been complaining that, 15 years after just such a bill was promised in the Good Friday Agreement, it still hasn't been legislated for.

At Northern Ireland Questions last week, Labour's Dave Anderson told ministers it is their responsibility "to ensure that this moves forward and should not just pass the buck on to people in Northern Ireland".

He is right. The agreement says "rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland", should be enshrined in Westminster legislation.

Margaret Ritchie told Northern Ireland Office minister Mike Penning that a recent Ipsos/Mori poll showed that "80% of the supporters of the main political parties in Northern Ireland were in favour of the introduction of the Bill of Rights".

"Will the minister outline how the Government will use that level of consensus to bring forward a Bill of Rights to reflect all the protections that are needed and the need for the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement?" she asked.

"80% is not a consensus," Penning replied. "It leaves 20% of the population of Northern Ireland that are not yet in agreement. If they can get together and form an agreement, we can move on."

The Good Friday Agreement itself was only approved by 71% of the people who voted in the 1998 referendum, but for Penning, 80% is not good enough.

The Government says it won't legislate until there is consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon said: "Will the minister explain to me and the House how pursuing a Bill of Rights that does not address the basic right of an unborn child can possibly be value for money and why it should be high on anybody's priority list?"

Lady Hermon was more topical. She asked, as the bill is supposed to deal with issues particular to Northern Ireland, if the right to parade would be guaranteed?

The agreement talks of "additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem".

It is a laudable sentiment, but may prove to be unworkable as legislation.

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