The battle for rights

Progressives are taking an inclusive approach towards drafting an enforceable Bill of Rights in the North. But their focus on giving the legislation a robust social and economic dimension has irked reactionary unionism and alarmed the NIO, writes Deasúin Ó Donghaile

YOU COULDN'T make this stuff up.

"We do not agree with the right of children to be entitled to adult working conditions. Does the Commission foresee a paperboy's union? Should paperboys receive the minimum wage? This is again a preposterous proposal."

These comments form part of the DUP's official response to a basic paragraph inserted into a draft Bill of Rights, produced by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which intended to prevent the exploitation of children in employment

Unionisation of paperboys aside, what really irks the DUP is the inclusive approach to a Bill of Rights, which almost everyone, excepting the business lobby and mainstream political unionism, has been promoting.

While the process to establish such a bill limped like an injured dog post-Belfast agreement, the St Andrew's negotiations have managed to impose a timetable on the process. This process emerged from the Belfast agreement and was supposed to be informed by the "particular circumstances" of a state emerging from armed conflict. The newly NIHRC was charged with bringing proposals to the British secretary of state following widespread consultation.

As a result of St Andrew's, a Bill of Rights Forum had its first meeting in December 2006. This body, consisting of 27 members -- 14 politicians and the 13 members of civic society (see note below). While the chairperson is yet to be decided, the forum's role will be to inform the work of the NIHRC, who is due to bring proposals to the secretary of state in September 2007.

The crux of the debate around the Bill focuses on whether the document will be minimalist in scope and application, or robust and enforceable, drawing from international human rights standards.

The two sides of the debate have a particular interpretation of the "particular circumstances" phrase encompassed in the Belfast agreement, which the Bill is supposed to reflect.

Arguing for a minimalist approach, the DUP contend that any proposed Bill should simply apply the European Convention on Human Rights (which is scant on social and economic rights, mostly focusing on the liberal norms of civil and political rights). The party wants it to have a particular emphasis on culture and identity.

The DUP holds that the Freedom of Thought, Expression, Information and Association section of the proposed Bill are "the rights which impact most on the unionist community…" The unionist electorate, according to the DUP, do not require social and economic rights protections.

Oddly enough, the DUP are not alone in this analysis. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) express "major concern that the proposals being brought forward by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission go much beyond the mandate of the Belfast agreement".

According to this logic, social and economic rights, including provisions for the private sector to be pro-active in its promotion of equality, have no place in a Bill. "Intercommunity tensions" and inequality are neither caused nor exacerbated by the workplace or supposed investment discrimination. The effectiveness of the MacBride principles would tell us different. But profit, not truth, is the goal of capital.

On the other side of the debate is a strong lobby that emerged in the wake of the Belfast Agreement, in the form of the Human Rights Consortium. This group, building on the work of the Equality Coalition, brings together trade unions, NGOs, and community groups representing minority and marginalised groups in the north. The grouping argues that the "particular circumstances" of the north refers to the legacy of social and economic deprivation and inequality, that caused a war and which were exacerbated by it.

Such an interpretation offers the opportunity to protect and promote the rights of all communities across the north, providing a perfect tool for building a post-conflict society with a positive agenda.

The gross inequalities at the heart of the state have not gone away. Thousands of people have passed through the prison system as a result of the conflict and now experience systematic exclusion.

Society's concentration on the political conflict has also meant that issues which would have been better addressed in states without the presence of open armed conflict, such as the rights of people with mental illness, physical disability, issues concerning carers, gay and lesbian people, migrant workers facing racist attacks and exploitation and other issues affecting marginalized groups, have left a legacy of deep discrimination. A Bill could begin to address this legacy.

In terms of political analysis, both the SDLP and Sinn Fein support the inclusion of social and economic rights in the Bill with enforcement mechanisms. Based on the Alliance Party's submission they seem to stand somewhere in between supporting social and economic rights and worried about the restrictions this will place on political decision making.

The UUP during a recent meeting with the secretary of state seemed to echo the DUP and business lobby, by crying that some groups "persistently go beyond what was originally envisioned" for the Bill.

It is also worth noting that, while the DUP clearly rails against the inclusion of social and economic rights with enforcement mechanisms, representatives in loyalist working class areas may not be so forthright. For example Nigel Dodds, DUP representative from north Belfast, stated in 2001:

"I fully agree with the need for social and economic rights to be included in the forthcoming Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland…My own constituency experiences high levels of unemployment and social disadvantage…"

So perhaps room for movement, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

The identity of the Forum's chairperson is undecided. This person will play a crucial role in how the debate develops. While human rights groups push for a chairperson of international stature, with expertise in international human rights, the DUP are opting for someone local.

Hopefully the recent court indictment of the NIO and Peter Hain over the blatantly political appointment of Bertha McDougal as Interim Victims and Survivors Commissioner may force them to tread carefully as they attempt to appease the DUP. One sign of promise is that Monica McWilliams, Human Rights Commissioner, is publicly supporting the appointment of an international chairperson.

Regarding the remit of the Forum, it is unclear how they will make recommendations to the NIHRC. Or even, how much weight the NIHRC will place on these recommendations. Or even, how much attention the British secretary of state, and senior civil servants, will pay towards the recommendations he receives from the NIHRC. Such is the nature of democratic accountability in the north.

What is clear is that there needs to be movement from community groups, constituents, and influential individuals in working-class loyalist areas to publicly support and campaign for a strong and robust Bill that will protect social and economic rights. To proceed with a Bill on this basis may not require the full support of political unionism, but it does need the support of unionist communities.

As for the paperboys, the DUP should read their history on the important role played by unionised newsboys during the 1913 Dublin Lock-out. That's a fight we lost. In order to win this one, the debate needs to be brought into areas traditionally hostile to the concept of 'rights'. This is in all of our interests.


Establishment of the Bill of Rights Forum, and the timeframe for it to convene its inaugural meeting was announced following discussions at St Andrews in 2006.

The DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP each have 3 seats on the Forum and the Alliance Party has 2 seats. Civic Society is represented by employers, trade unions, and churches which each have 2 seats, as well as 1 representative from each of the following sectors: children and young people; people with disabilities; ethnic minorities; older people; people of different sexual orientations; women; and the community / voluntary sector as a whole.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-01-31 15:15:39.
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