Belfast Telegraph

Respect for rights is the basis of a shared future

A new poll demonstrates overwhelming support for a strong Bill of Rights, argues Kevin Hanratty

The Bill of Rights polling results published in today's Belfast Telegraph reveal a simple message from the public in Northern Ireland about the type of society they wish to live in.

More than 80% of the public has, in this poll, endorsed a strong Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland containing protections for issues like health, education and standards of living. They have clearly indicated they want to have the strongest human rights protections possible.

The inclusion of a Bill of Rights to reflect our 'particular circumstances' in the Good Friday Agreement was aimed at ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of our past and guarantee rights, that were once violated, are protected.

Social and economic issues were inextricably linked to the causes of our conflict. It stands to reason they should also form part of the solution. After 30 years of conflict, thousands of lives lost, sectarianism, social exclusion, poverty, homes and houses shattered, trauma ingrained, disability, sickness, economic inactivity and lack of investment, it is difficult to understand why the Government would think the only rights that form our 'particular circumstances' are the right to vote/be elected and the right to identify ourselves as British, Irish or both.

Yet these are the only firm proposals for rights protection offered by the Government in their current consultation document on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

We are told health, housing and standards of living do not reflect our 'particular circumstances'. No meaningful explanation is presented as to why not, except that it would be unfair for us to have such rights and the rest of the UK not to have them.

This ignores the fact that the conflict, and its impact, sets Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK. The polls make clear people here support the protection of social and economic rights in a Bill of Rights and the Government must respond. Various arguments are proffered as to why they should not be included - the most common being that they would transfer the power to make decisions on public policy away from government to unelected judges. This is not the case. Primary responsibility for enforcement of these rights lies properly with elected representatives.

When laws are introduced to Parliament, they would be assessed as to whether they are compatible with the Bill of Rights. The role for a Bill of Rights would therefore be one for our elected representatives.

In addition, social and economic rights are progressively implemented, it is only in scenarios in which the Government is clearly not taking steps to realise a specific right, or are taking regressive steps, that they may be held to account, just as they would be in any other area of law or policy-making.

International experience shows this does not shift the balance of power from government to judiciary, as judges will not have the power to decide public policy, or how government spends its resources.

Rather it reinforces the system of checks and balances and dialogue between courts and Parliament. Let us take today's poll as a confirmation of what we already know: cross-community support for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland exists.

The Government needs to hear this and respond with a set of proposals that reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland as a society emerging from conflict and trying to build a peaceful and shared future.

Kevin Hanratty manages campaigns for the Human Rights Consortium

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