Thursday, 28 May 2009

NIHRC - as a good teacher says, 'always read the question'. No Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland under Tories.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently intimated that no Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, based on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice, is likely to be drafted. David Cameron has reiterated his party’s commitment not to advance rights legislation specifically for this part of the United Kingdom. Instead he foresees any special provision being included in a subsection of a UK wide bill, which the Conservatives will draft during their first term in government. The problems with the NIHRC’s recommendations are clear. The Commission did not stick to its remit and it made an enormous and undeliverable set of proposals. Indeed, under Monica McWilliams chairmanship, and despite the best intentions of its unionist members, the body has assumed the worst characteristics of Quango-tude. It has become an autonomous pressure group, advancing its own agenda with scant regard for elected political opinion, and far too mindful of a host of unelected NGOs.

Examine, for instance, the statement through which the commission responded to David Cameron’s rejection of a specific Human Rights bill for Northern Ireland.

“We were given our mandate under the terms of the Belfast Agreement and have adhered to that mandate in full. The Agreement was quite clear, that additional rights reflecting our particular circumstances, taken together with the European Convention on Human Rights, should constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. If the Conservative Party wishes to deviate from the content of the Agreement that is a matter for them.”

Leaving aside the attack on a political party, it is an instructive exercise to examine the specific provision, contained in the Belfast Agreement, which set up the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It undertook to establish a body,

“to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

There is a vast chasm dividing the meaning of ‘to consult and to advise on the scope’ and clearly stating that a Bill of Rights ‘should be constituted’. ‘Supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights’ patently means something very different from ‘together with the European Convention on Human Rights’. That the NIHRC can provide such a loose interpretation of the very document through which it was established tells us all we need to know about its impartiality. Even by the commission’s own construction, after the European Convention on Human Rights was subsumed into British law, courtesy of the UK wide Human Rights Act, its task became even clearer. Define rights ‘reflecting our particular circumstances’.

The British government at no point undertook to enact a Bill of Rights, even if the NIHRC had stuck to the criteria which the Belfast Agreement outlined. There might have been a weighty moral argument in its favour if it had, but instead it blithely ignored ‘particular circumstances’ and produced a document which contained badly drafted provisions on contested social policy, applicable to most jurisdictions throughout the world, never mind particular to Northern Ireland! Ironically there were circumstances peculiar to Northern Ireland which the commission might have examined, as O’Neill observes.

“The right to live free from paramilitary influence, or women's reproductive rights are however two areas which do reflect the particular circumstances existing in Northern Ireland- the NIHRC should have restricted itself to such topics. If it had, then their present, desperate, backs to the wall, defence wouldn't have been necessary and we might well have been on our way to a more specific and appropriate Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland.”

It is an extremely fair point. The NIHRC was invited to make a case for rights, additional to the European Convention, which are specifically required in Northern Ireland. It instead chose to outline a series of aspirational rights which are pertinent throughout the United Kingdom. Therefore it is only fitting that both main Westminster parties should examine ways to enact any further human rights legislation on a United Kingdom wide basis, with specific provisions to reflect any relevant local circumstances. The argument for social policy to be framed in human rights law is just as relevant on the national stage, and the contention which is its antidote; that parliament should determine policy in legitimate areas of political contention, rather than judges, remains relevant on the national level too.


Gary said...

Extremely good news. Not against a Bill of Rights per se just not one for Northern Ireland only. It was a nationalist pet project in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Of course, as Patrick at Amnesty has already pointed out, the Government has already corrected Shaun Woodward in this suggestion, that you repeat, that the NIHRC has somehow gone 'beyond its remit':

You may, for your own perfectly sound ideological reasons, wish to put forward your own interpretation on the Agreement's wording or express your own opinion on the advice of the Commission, but that doesn't make your opinion correct. But, it certainly seems to mark you as out of touch with ordinary unionist voters, as evidenced by a decade's worth of independently-carried out opinion polls.

This is not a green-orange issue, even if some people are determined to try to make it appear so.

Dinamo said...

Silly! Opinions polls are easily manipulated by those seeking particular answers. It's a well known phenomenon, anonymous.

e.g do you want human rights? are human rights a good thing?

Chekov said...


Whether the government (of which Woodward is a part) universally recognises that the NIHRC has gone beyond its remit or not is not relevant. It has. The remit is there, in the Belfast Agreement, in black and white. At no point have I read Patrick, or anyone else, outlining why any right in the NIHRC's document is particular to Northern Ireland.

I'm not the one putting forward an interpretation of the agreement's wording. I'm sticking to the actual words which the agreement used.

As for these polls, were they predicated on the actual suggestions made by the NIHRC? Ask people if they are for or against rights and naturally they will say that they are for. I would say the same myself. And that has been the entire basis of the rights' lobbies argument. If you call anything a right then it becomes incontestable.

So by all means come back and talk specific rights and how they are particularly relevant to Northern Ireland. Otherwise fuck off with woolly minded nonsense.

Anonymous said...

I intended to blog about the poll on Slugger, but the Human Rights Consortium has refused to give it to me. Wonder why.


Gary said...

I love it when non-Unionists can speak out on behalf of Unionists. You get the wind up merchants everywhere these days.

O'Neill said...


Refused to give the poll to you?!

If it's been done by any half decent polling organisation then it would surely be independently on that site?

Anonymous said...


Yes, rather irritating isn't it!

I suspect it's because it's a phone poll, but I was interested in other detail. I suspect it's a rather flawed survey, as the debate has moved on from what the questions actually ask.

I'd love to say more, but the NIHRC doesn't believe I have the right to ask!


Gary said...

Human Rights chief hits back at critics

Published Date: 29 May 2009

CHIEF Human Rights Commissioner Monica McWilliams has hit back at unionists who have continued to attack her Commission's proposals for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
Reacting to a welcome from unionist representatives for Conservative leader David Cameron's rejection of her proposals, Professor McWilliams said that comments from both the DUP and UUP were wrong.

The former Women's Coalition politician said that
she had the support of Secretary of State Shaun Woodward who, she said, did not believe the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had gone beyond its remit with the scope of its Bill of Rights proposals, despite Mr Woodward having said just that two months ago.

Last night unionists said that she was desperately trying to save her Bill of Rights proposals which appear less and less likely to ever make it into law.

In a statement to the News Letter, Prof McWilliams said: "Claims that the Secretary of State had been forced to admit that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had gone well beyond its brief in providing advice on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland are misleading.

"The Secretary of State has written to the Chief Commissioner and stated that he has 'no reason to believe that the commission has exceeded its statutory remit'.

"The assertion that the commission simply adopted proposals put forward by the Bill of Rights Forum is inaccurate.

"The commission as an independent body formulated its own views in accordance with the mandate given to it by Government.

"The claim that the commission's recommendations on social and economic rights will remove power from democratically elected representatives is wrong."

DUP European election candidate Diane Dodds said that it was "regrettable" that Prof McWilliams, "who heads an organisation which is riddled with division, should be launching broadsides not only against local political figures who disagree with her, but also the Secretary of State for pointing out the fact that the recommendations go far beyond the brief provided for a Bill of Rights.

"Such a course of action demonstrates how out of step with wider public opinion she is."

An Ulster Unionist spokesman said: "The somewhat desperate tone of the NIHRC's comments only underlines its utter failure to win support across the political spectrum for its highly divisive proposals.

"Each and every public statement made by the Chief Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, is further proof of this."

Appearing to reject what Mr Woodward told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in April, when he said that the NIHRC had gone "well beyond the brief they were given," an NIO spokesman said: "We do not believe it (the remit) has been exceeded."

Chekov said...

McWilliams won't be sucking on the taxpayers teat much longer. Give it to next May.

I can understand anger about MPs, but at least they're elected. it's people like her, who represent nobody, who really take the biscuit.