Friday, 28 November 2008

Bill of Rights argument remains as vague as ever

In less than a fortnight the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission delivers its recommendations on ‘scope and substance’ for a proposed Bill of Rights. To that end 'Hearts and Minds' invited a panel, consisting of the SDLP’s Alban Maginness, Dermot Nesbitt from the UUP and Mark Kelly from WAVE Trauma Centre, to discuss the need for a Bill of Rights.

Maginness and Kelly contended that a Bill of Rights is necessary and both men couched their arguments in the type of mealy-mouthed platitudes which have characterised this debate from its inception. To distil their case to its essence, if legislation contains the word ‘rights’ in its title it must be good. How could anyone possibly be against rights? As the discussion drew to its close Kelly plopped the juicy cherry atop a bakewell tart of saccharine inanity. People were dying whilst they waited for a NI Human Rights Act, he intoned!

Dermot Nesbitt must have felt like he’d stepped into a parallel universe. ‘What can a Human Rights Bill do to combat poverty?’ he queried. No answer was forthcoming. ‘How would it alleviate the economic crisis?’, ‘in what way would it create more jobs?’ after the inevitable trump card of financial turmoil was invoked. Again, no response was proffered. Nesbitt explained that he is not against rights, nor is he against social and economic entitlements, but this bill could only replicate one and intervene inappropriately in the other.

What the Belfast Agreement required, and what the industry which has grown up around the mooted Bill of Rights has abjectly failed to deliver, is detail of a single so-called ‘right’ which is uniquely required in Northern Ireland. Human rights legislation is already extant in Northern Ireland, in the form of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines in UK law the European Convention. If additional rights are required here, there must be compelling and detailed evidence as to what they might consist in, rather than vague moralising about a ‘rights based society’.

Early indications of what the Commission would suggest were ominous. But that is in some ways the very nature of the beast. Any Bill is likely to entail both replication of existing rights and a set of contended, aspirational economic policies, dressed up as rights. The rest is likely to be so vague as to spawn an entire subculture of litigation.

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