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Pushing for a Bill of Rights hits all the wrong buttons

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an organisation in disarray.

Established by the Belfast Agreement, it spent more than 10 years compiling recommendations for a Bill of Rights, which the last government quickly concluded were based on unrealistic expectations and wildly exceeded the NIHRC’s remit.

Last week the quango announced that its chief executive post, currently occupied by Peter O’Neill, will be abolished. The NIHRC is reorganising management structures in the teeth of an independent review and its budget is set to be slashed by 25%.

Quite properly, the NIO has forbidden Atlantic Philanthropies, a US charity which funds pressure groups advocating an all-singing, all-dancing Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, from making up the shortfall.

To add to the sense of impending crisis, the NIHRC figurehead, Monica McWilliams, will leave her chief commissioner’s role a year early, in 2011. Her stewardship has been controversial, but there are signs that she is not prepared to go quietly.

One of the leading Northern Irish blogs, A Pint of Unionist Lite, recently highlighted a fresh bout of lobbying to resuscitate the commission’s ailing recommendations.

Last month McWilliams paid a visit to the House of Commons, meeting Scottish Labour MP Michael Connarty, who subsequently raised the moribund Bill of Rights at Prime Minister’s Questions. Following his discussion with the outgoing commissioner, Connarty remarked, it was clear that the Government intends “to breach the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement” by failing to implement the NIHRC‘s advice. That is an assertion borrowed directly from the human rights lobby and it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If anything, it was the NIHRC which disregarded the Belfast Agreement when it concentrated its proposals on rights already secured by existing legislation and socio-economic aspirations, rather than developing rights particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland.

The commission’s work has been rejected by consecutive governments and picked apart by independent experts. Yet the NIHRC has intensified a campaign to force through highly controversial recommendations.

The NIHRC’s politicking has nevertheless won it support in high places. The US Congress heard submissions from rights activists, who asked Barack Obama to lobby on their behalf. And the Dublin Government has openly advocated the commission’s proposals, making several questionable interventions.

Unionist Lite points out that McWilliams’s own Commons visit coincided with another question in the chamber, from Margaret Ritchie, directed at NIO minister Hugo Squire, which asked about the organisation’s resources. The SDLP has persistently championed the NIHRC’s cause, broaching no discussion about its contentious definition of ‘rights’.

Yet the NIO set out, in detail, clear, practical arguments which caused two governments to disregard the commission’s proposals. The NIHRC was asked to develop rights, specific to Northern Ireland, focussed on equality and parity of esteem.

Instead it produced a list of universal entitlements already protected under UK law and the European Convention, supplemented by a wish list of socio-economic aspirations. It wasted a fantastic opportunity to deliver legislation which could make a difference to Northern Ireland. The NIHRC’s proposals have long since been dragged off to the knacker’s yard. It needs to stop flogging that dead horse and start making a realistic contribution to the rights debate.

Belfast Telegraph