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.