A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland Resurfaces

The cuts agenda in the UK continues to cast a particularly deep shadow over Northern Ireland. The gleaming edifice of the Titanic Quarter (pictured left) in Belfast bears witness to the scale of public spending in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, the 15-year and £7 billion development project remains, in an irresistible pun, the tip of a public-spending iceberg. As Henry McDonald flagged-up this week, public spending in Northern Ireland continues to outstrip levels in the remainder of the UK:

The latest Treasury figures show public spending per head in Northern Ireland at £10,564 in 2009-10, against a UK average of £8,766. Its economic output per head stood at £15,795 in 2010, nearly £5,000 less than in England and £4,000 less in Scotland.

Hence the deep concern in Northern Ireland over public spending cuts, especially after a summer of violent disturbances in areas which continue to seem far removed from any “peace dividend”. Two Briefing Papers, published this summer by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Research and Information Service, highlight the budgetary constraints upon the operation of human rights protections within Northern Ireland: Equality and Human Rights Legislation in Northern Ireland: A Review and Equality and Human Rights Institutions.

The first document (released in June) charts the development of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. This body was primarily tasked under the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 with developing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. With its efforts in this direction stalled by the opposition of the Unionist parties in the Assembly, the second document (released in August) explains the human rights protections which do operate in Northern Ireland, recognising the continuing importance of the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 in fulfilling the Agreement’s human rights guarantees. The Commission meanwhile, pursuing its remaining tasks of safeguarding human rights protections in Northern Ireland, has suffered a substantial £300,000 cut in its £1.7 million annual budget.

This raises the issue of why such detailed research documents have been prepared for the benefit of MLAs at this point. Northern Ireland’s human rights arrangements pose serious difficulties for the ongoing UK Bill of Rights Consultation, the subject of yet another Assembly Briefing Paper just two weeks ago. As fellow humanrights.ie blogger Liam Thornton recently made clear in an article on rightsni, the failure to develop a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights in the 13 years since the Agreement vests the HRA 1998 with a significance in the Northern-Ireland context which belies the eagerness of Cabinet ministers such as Theresa May to score points with the Conservative Party’s grassroots by attacking the Act. As Lord Shutt (a UK Government whip) informed the House of Lords in March, the lack of appetite for a Northern Ireland-specific Human Rights document shackles the HRA to the Agreement:

[T]he Government are possessed of the fact of honouring the Belfast agreement. Within that there has to be a human rights element for Northern Ireland. What is not absolutely written in stone is that that has to be very separate.

The Commission assessing the potential for a UK Bill of Rights recently launched a consultation (closing in November) seeking responses on whether such legislation should apply to the UK as a whole. Despite a coy statement in the latest Briefing Paper that ‘[n]either the consultation document nor the Joint Committee makes any suggestion regarding a relationship between the UK Bill of Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’, this question seems to imply that, if Northern Ireland can be persuaded to enact its own Human Rights legislation (applicable to the actions of public bodies in Northern Ireland), then this will facilitate proposals for weakening UK-wide protections (as they will no longer provide the mechanism for fulfilling the Agreement). What remains clear, however, is that the question of a separate Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland has not gone away, and MLAs seem set to face new pressure to put the issue back on Assembly’s agenda.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland Resurfaces

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