Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Deliberative democracy and a Bill of Rights

On Forth, I argue that the latest leaflet distributed by the Human Right Consortium is a nonsense and the human rights industry represents a resuscitation of 'deliberative democracy'.

IF YOU cast your mind back to the 1990s when Northern Ireland was edging towards the Belfast Agreement, you might recall something called ‘deliberative democracy’ was rather in vogue.

Essentially its premise ran - whatever evidence the ballot box might show to the contrary, voters are not getting the representation they want or deserve. Politicians are a sorry crowd and they should be cut out of decision making and replaced by a selection of community groups, interested parties, businessmen and plenty of nice reasonable women.

For a while it was actually seriously suggested that any political deal was likely to rest upon principles of deliberative democracy. Luckily wiser heads prevailed and the Good Friday Agreement, for all its faults, handed authority largely to democratically elected politicians.

The people of Northern Ireland, however unfortunate their choice, would get precisely the representatives they wanted and deserved. And the most high profile concession to deliberative democracy would be a toothless ‘Civic Forum’ (currently in disuse).

The concept did not die, however, and its manifestations were not restricted to a benign consultative forum.

We have, in Northern Ireland, an unparalleled range of commissions, government funded busybodies and Quangos. Most notably we have a human rights industry, sponsored by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has taken on a life of its own.

Lately you will have received through your letterbox a leaflet from the ‘Human Rights Consortium’ exhorting you to write to the Secretary of State demanding protection for ’rights like health, housing and education’.

This is part of a high profile campaign, spearheaded by the NIHRC’s Chief Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, to save a Bill of Rights which has been dismissed as unworkable by the government, the Tories and unionist politicians.

The Human Rights Commission, which was itself established by the Belfast accord, spent ten expensive years assembling recommendations for a Bill which entirely ignored the Agreement’s remit. It was an astonishing failure, given the scope for developing rights aimed at achieving equality and tackling the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’s divided society.

Instead the body and its various offshoots, such as the Bill of Rights Forum, chose to replicate existing rights and champion a battery of social and economic entitlements. Following criticism from the Conservatives, the Secretary of State and unionist commissioners, an official government consultation concluded that the NIHRC’s report was unusable. Which should ‘by rights’ have put an end to the whole exercise, you might think! After all, the government does bank roll the Commission.

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