Belfast Telegraph

Dr Amanda Cahill-Ripley: Breaking the silence on human rights within the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community

Leadership from within the PUL community itself is crucial to developing a local, legitimate voice for rights-based advocacy, says Dr Amanda Cahill-Ripley

‘Freedom Corner’ with UDA and UFF murals on Belfast’s Newtownards Road
‘Freedom Corner’ with UDA and UFF murals on Belfast’s Newtownards Road

By Dr Amanda Cahill-Ripley

On Wednesday, I will be taking part in an important discussion on a much-under-explored topic: the knowledge, attitudes and opinions of the Protestant/unionist/loyalist (PUL) community towards human rights. The event is part of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival, which takes place annually across Belfast.

This community event is organised by the Human Rights Consortium and features a panel of speakers giving their own 10-minute reflections on the topic before wider discussion and engagement with the audience.

Speakers include myself, Robin Stewart (Reach), Joe Passmore (Unite), Julie Anne Corr-Johnson (media commentator and former PUP councillor) and the chair, Jonathan Hodge (Perspectives magazine).

Traditionally, the Protestant/unionist community's engagement with human rights has been minimal and wary, if not hostile. But why should it be this way?

The underlying principle of human rights is that they are universal - applicable to all human beings equally. Human rights are for everyone - regardless of their background, religion, or ethnicity.

So, what are the barriers and challenges to the enjoyment and utilisation of rights by those in such communities? And how should they be overcome?

My own recently published research has investigated this very topic. The research was carried out by undertaking interviews with people across the Protestant/unionist communities in the rural borderlands, from Church and community group leaders to those providing frontline assistance, such as food banks and including end-users of support services. A small number of questionnaires were also completed.

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Little research has been carried out with such borderland rural groups and, while there have been opinion polls on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and research on the PUL political parties' attitudes to human rights, there has been very little exploration of the grassroots opinions of constituent communities outside of urban areas.

The small-scale research project also focused on economic and social rights: that is, rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living, including food and housing, the right to work and rights in work and the right to health.

All participants had either experienced difficulty realising their own economic and social rights, or were working in frontline roles where they were helping those who were struggling to realise their rights.

This finding is particularly of note, due to the perception by many that these communities are, in the main, well-off. This perception ignores the impact of austerity measures across the province and especially the high incidence of rural poverty.

Many end-users had been affected by welfare cuts and had experienced difficulties with providing enough food for themselves and their families without assistance.

Faith-based organisations and non-governmental organisations have taken up the mantle, providing food banks and support services.

Further, the state of the health service in Northern Ireland has impacted upon those middle-class and more affluent in the community, highlighting the importance of protecting and promoting human rights for everyone.

Overall, the results of the small-scale study may seem surprising: contrary to many public perceptions of PUL community members' views on human rights, participants did not oppose human rights in theory - in fact, they firmly supported the idea of rights, especially economic and social rights. What was felt to be more problematic was the way such rights were implemented in practice.

Consequently, a number of obstacles and barriers to the use of economic and social rights within these communities were identified: these included how rights have been used and framed in political discourse in the past and having a limited knowledge and understanding of human rights and/or misconceptions around rights.

However, they also included particularities pertaining to the locality: the rural nature of the border, poor transport infrastructure, limited public transport and a lack of central facilities were all noted as obstacles to engaging with human rights initiatives.

These barriers ensured there was a lack of national and international NGOs and advocacy groups operating in the area.

Another barrier was participants' experiences of the Troubles, which contributed to a high level of mistrust of state institutions and city-based human rights NGOs.

Lastly, deeply ingrained cultural and communal norms, such as pride (not asking for help, as this is seen as a weakness), individualism and the strong notion of self and family responsibility, mean there is a lack of a "voice", or leadership, from within the community itself on human rights.

These individuals look to family when it comes to realising basic human needs. Failing that, people look for assistance from the Church, rather than the state.

The lack of "framing" of human rights that has resonance for the communities in question and thus the absence of advocacy also serves to prevent the development of knowledge and understanding around such rights and how they can be utilised to build peace. It also means that misconceptions and apprehension remain unchallenged. The result is overwhelming silence on the question of human rights.

However, all is not lost.

There are opportunities within these communities to put human rights on to the agenda.

Existing barriers to their use need to be identified and mitigated. Dialogue can be enabled through a number of entry points, including using international human rights standards as a starting point for discussion, training and education and focussing discussion on rights which are prioritised by the community themselves through drawing upon personal experiences.

The key is that human rights need to be adapted to make them relevant for local communities and local priorities. Using alternative language that resonates with the PUL community can be a starting point for important conversations, too.

Further, capacity-building, training and education on human rights needs to take place in the locality through outreach programmes.

As such and significantly, leadership from within the community itself is crucial - developing a local legitimate voice for human rights mobilisation and advocacy is key to persuasion.

The event tomorrow will continue to broaden and deepen this discussion and try to "break the silence" on human rights within the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community; to harness participation and gather further ideas from the people themselves on how they can utilise human rights to support their communities.

With the participation of local communities themselves and leadership from within such communities, human rights can be a meaningful and useful tool for protecting and promoting their own human rights and as a tool for peace building within Northern Ireland.

More can be done to ensure that the human rights agenda is inclusive for all those living in Northern Ireland.

Dr Amanda Cahill-Ripley is senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool. A discussion, 'PUL approaches to human rights', takes place on Wednesday at Fitzpatrick Hall, East Belfast Network Centre, 55 Templemore Avenue, Belfast (7pm-9pm). Tickets are available at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/84154110209

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