A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland: an interim statement - Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland


  1.1  The Evangelical Alliance,[76] formed in 1846, is the largest body serving evangelical Christians in the UK and has a membership which includes denominations, churches, organisations and individuals. The mission of the Evangelical Alliance is to unite evangelicals to present Christ credibly as good news for spiritual and social transformation. There are around two million evangelical Christians in the UK.[77]

  1.2  The Evangelical Alliance endeavours to maintain a strong voice in the Human Rights & Responsibilities debate and to date has made significant contributions to the discussion on rights in the UK as a whole and in Northern Ireland. Submissions have been made to key government consultation papers on the topic, most recently those from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (2006)[78] and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) (2007 & 2008).[79] A response was also made to the NIHRC's advice to the Secretary of State (2009).

  1.3  Furthermore the Revd Joel Edwards, former General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, has recently been appointed as a Commissioner to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In taking up such an important role, Revd Edwards believes that one of his primary responsibilities will be to ensure that Christian values, including respect and tolerance, will play an effective role in the commission.[80]


  2.1  The Christian motive and theological justification for engaging in the Human Rights debate is found primarily in the concept of imago dei, in effect, that all humans are created in God's image.[81] Among Christians the manner and degree to which this informs our understanding may vary slightly. However there is general consensus that the concept forges the foundation for our belief in a God who desires us to be in relationship to him, each other and creation, ultimately requiring of us to respect and value that which God has made. It is in terms of this latter point that the dignity of humans—so widely quoted as the source of all human rights—is understood by most evangelical Christians.

  2.2  In light of this Christians broadly support attempts to protect human beings from being de-valued or treated with a lack of respect. The Bible further states that we are created equal in God's eyes[82] and therefore one individual does not deserve any more or less respect than another "…irrespective of any additional quality such as nationality, intelligence, age or social status."[83]

  2.3  In addition, the deeply relational nature of God and His creation is an integral part of Christians' daily interactions with others. Where wrongs are committed, as they undoubtedly will be, Christians believe that rather than focusing on an infringement of rights we would be better to recognise the breakdown and violation of human relationships and where possible make appropriate steps towards reconciliation. Indeed, rights and freedoms flourish most clearly in an environment where a focus on the responsibilities intrinsic to successful relationships exists. This is most explicitly encouraged by Jesus when He "delves into the heart of the Torah to define what must surely be a universal moral code—the so-called 'Golden Rule'".[84]

  2.4  The "Golden Rule" is part of Jesus' response to the question "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"[85] He simply re-affirms two existing Old Testament laws, with which his listeners would have been familiar, and explains that we must love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. This strong emphasis on respecting others and treating them as we would wish to be treated can be seen through out Jesus' teachings.

  2.5  Alongside the biblical and theological precedence for a Christian involvement in the Human Rights debate there is a strong historical association with the World Council of Churches being key contributors to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights document.[86] Having established these precedents it is, however, important to highlight a few areas where evangelicals find themselves in conflict with the current popular discourse.

  2.6  Major concerns have been raised over the current trend towards fierce individuality[87] at the expense of the relational vision which God has laid down for his creation and how it is repositioning the human rights debate firmly within a liberal humanistic arena. Focusing too exclusively on "rights" does nothing to enrich our understanding of society. Indeed, it can lead one to appreciate humankind merely in terms of the sum of those rights, thus grossly under-valuing the individuals whom the system seeks to protect.

  2.7  Liberal individualism holds great faith in humanity suggesting that education and protected freedoms (ie human rights) can produce individuals who together make up a healthy society. History gives us a less optimistic view, however, with many well educated "tyrants" and wars/war crimes persisting despite international human rights laws being in place to protect victims from such brutality. The Bible foresees such a tendency towards disorder and injustice whilst humankind's relationship with God and each other is broken.[88] This relational component to society, as created by God, is therefore critical to any understanding of a free and healthy society. A relational society does not allow for the possibility of isolation from responsibility towards others.[89]

  2.8  Indeed this link has been evident since the conception of the debate on rights and appears, without negative effect, in both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights[90] and the European Convention on Human Rights.[91] Christians are not against the protection of a person's God given value, in essence their "human rights". However, individual Christians motivated by their beliefs aim to hold their personal responsibilities above that of their personal rights.[92] The positive outcomes associated with such behaviour can only benefit society and hence we would strongly call for responsibilities to be more widely acknowledged and encouraged in the current rights discourse.

  2.9  By engaging with Human Rights, Christians are not trying to highjack a fashionable concept or put a spiritual spin on a secular philosophy. The very theory behind Human Rights has its origins in Judeo-Christian thinking. It is the comparatively recent move away from intrinsic responsibility towards individualism that has put distance between the approaches. Indeed, there is a critical duty to maintain a Christian voice on this issue.


  3.1  The Bill of Rights Forum, set up to prepare detailed recommendations for the NIHRC on which they would base their advice for the Secretary of State, was made up of representatives from the political parties, voluntary/community sector, private sector, and the churches. Nonetheless, given the nature of the voluntary/community sector in Northern Ireland this apparently broad group was in fact characterised by the under-representation of unionist perspectives and a lack of breadth from the Christian community.

  3.2  We also raised questions about the Forum's almost immediate creation of working groups to examine and report on areas of Human Rights including Children and Young People, Women, Criminal Justice and Victims, Economic and Social Rights, Culture, Identity and Language, Civil and Political Rights, and Preamble, Enforcement and Implementation. This highlighted an assumption regarding the scope for the Bill, in our view far in excess of the original remit, right from the outset.

  3.3  Despite an outreach programme being established during the latter stages of the Forum's process, even the Chairperson for the Human Rights Consortium admitted that they had concerns over the effectiveness of engagement with the public.

  3.4  The Forum presented its advice in March which the NIHRC subsequently took as the basis for its recommendations to the Secretary of State on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland which it symbolically handed over on 10 December 2008—60 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However the Forum's lengthy report containing over 200 proposals failed to gain cross-community support even from within the Forum thus placing serious doubts over its suitability to be used in such a way by the NIHRC.

  3.5  Polls have used during the process to endorse a "strong and inclusive" Bill of Rights such as the one carried out by the Human Rights Consortium which documented 75% public support. We believe that caution must be taken when applying such figures as this particular survey merely measured the backing for a Bill of Rights not guidance on what it should contain or how far it should go.


  4.1  As already discussed, responsibilities strengthen rights. Responsibilities have the power to place rights in the most conducive context for creating a free and healthy society. Failure to recognise this will only serve to undermine the effectiveness of the Bill. It is with this in mind that we believe the omission of any reference to responsibility from the NIHRC advice is of grave concern.

  4.2  Once the right foundation has been laid establishing the appropriate scope of such a Bill will be vital in order to gain cross-party and community support. A maximalist approach, like that taken by the NIHRC, embraces with great zeal several issues including: cultural expression and identity, social and economic rights, criminal justice, and rights of victims, women, children, the elderly, disabled people and minority groups. At times, passions have run so high that it is implied that those opposing this broad interpretation of the Bill's remit do not care about inequality, deprivation, the vulnerable and even peace in Northern Ireland. It is crucial to state that this is far from the truth; many objectors to the maximalist interpretation are ardent advocates for peace, equality and social justice in Northern Ireland. Whilst the Belfast Agreement did raise many of these same matters in the context of "rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity"[93] they were not specifically discussed with reference to the Bill of Rights but in terms of other political measures being/to be taken.

  4.3  Despite great efforts on behalf of the NIHRC to argue to the contrary, some of the proposed rights have, at best, tenuous links to the "particular circumstances of Northern Ireland". It is possible (as the NIHRC have demonstrated) to highlight certain current differences in the areas of education, health and the environment between Northern Ireland and England. However, these and similar disparities can be found within and between various regions through out the UK and most could be addressed by a UK wide Bill of Rights, if not already covered by existing legislation.

  4.4  In contrast there are a number of issues/rights—very "particular" to Northern Ireland's circumstances—that have been addressed with surprising brevity considering the maximalist approach adopted by the NIHRC. For example, no additional rights or amendments to existing rights were proposed for the areas of "Freedom of thought, conscience and religion", "Freedom of expression" and "Freedom of assembly and association". Religious rights were only added to with reference to minority groups. Further, whilst there is one recommendation regarding assemblies and parades, NIHRC advise that it is not for inclusion in a Bill of Rights.

  4.5  It appears special effort has been made throughout the document to make reference to particular groups who have previously faced discrimination; however this can create problems of its own. Part 2 of "The Right to Equality and Prohibition of Discrimination" lists over thirty specific grounds/status groups and whilst it leaves open the possibility for others it potentially weakens their case due to the lack of inclusion in such an extensive list. Also, in the desire to make reference to some minority groups, unnecessary rights such as those to terminate civil partnerships (and marriages) which already exist in law have been included.

  4.6  The purpose of a Bill of Rights for any country, including Northern Ireland, is to promote and protect the fundamental rights of the people of that country. This applies to all people and should never be limited to a certain group or groups. Caution must be taken to avoid language that suggests a return to "group rights", even when recognising the "two communities" culture present in the Northern Irish population.

  4.7  Some of the advice given by the NIHRC has, in places, much wider implications than is immediately obvious. One example is seen in the significant number of services provided by faith based organisations (eg churches) within our communities. If, in line with the recommendations, all bodies accepting public funding were to come under the legal requirements of official public authorities many faith based organisation may feel compelled to cease their activities due to a perception that such requirements may be incompatible with their ethos.

  4.8  The Evangelical Alliance greatly desires to see the Assembly, currently in its infancy, develop into a robust legislature that sets the agenda for our country. Yet, in giving feedback to the Human Rights Consortium Conference working groups from the Bill of Rights Forum admitted that they found themselves "straying into policy and getting the lines blurred between what were substantive rights and what [they] wanted to do in order to change policy".[94] Social and economic rights are most subject to this confusion. However the difficulty lies not with the actual concepts being suggested but with the medium in which they are being carried forward. The advice from the NIHRC contains many constructive proposals[95] for dealing with problems faced in Northern Ireland, but some are proposals that should be put through the rigours of our democratic political process not enshrined in a Bill of Rights. This has the potential to undermine the newly formed democracy in Northern Ireland and ultimately reduce the trust placed in our elected representatives.

  4.9  Additionally, with major policy changes planned in certain areas, for example education and language, it would be premature for a Bill of Rights to make detailed judgements that might later affect the plans already in progress. If these issues are to be included in a Bill in any detail it would be prudent to, at the very least, wait upon the outcome of political decisions before proceeding. Better still; seek more favourable legislative and strategic planning avenues for dealing with many of these pressing issues.

  4.10  Whilst those supporting a maximalist interpretation would likely favour detailed clauses and prescriptive language leaving very little room for non-compliance and abuse of "loop-holes", the reality has been proposals of the opposite extreme. In an attempt to gain greater support for a document that otherwise would have been an impossible noose around the government's neck, phrases like "progressive realisation" and "margin of discretion" have been included alongside many other qualifying clauses. However this has caused the language to become confusing and hugely subjective, open to multiple interpretations thus weakening the enforceability.[96]

  4.11  In the process of compiling this and preceding documents very little reference has been made to the wider political context in which the debate takes place, including proposed reform to UK Human Rights legislation. The discussion has frequently become an academic m l

e between highly skilled political, legal and ethical minds devoid of true application to the realities in which the Northern Irish political engine functions.

  4.12  A Bill of Rights may help substantiate a commitment to a positive and "just" future for Northern Ireland, however it will not, indeed, can not heal the many problems and hurts of the past. All the iniquities and injustices resulting from the years of conflict cannot be set straight in one piece of legislation—especially a Bill of Rights. Any attempts to achieve such an aim through this Bill will lead only to disappointment and further political disagreement.


  5.1  The Evangelical Alliance is strongly committed to building a positive future for Northern Ireland. We believe in a shared responsibility for achieving a society that is transformed by hope, imagination and active citizenship.[97]

  5.2  If a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is to be part of that future we believe certain points must be considered:

    — The Bill should be set within the context of a relational society where rights are protected and exercised whilst recognising responsibility towards others. Guidance on the relationship between rights and responsibility for Northern Ireland must therefore appear within the Preamble.

    — The current trend to equate only a maximalist Bill of Rights with a commitment to poverty, the vulnerable and peace in Northern Ireland is both distracting and divisive and should be addressed with great urgency.

    — By giving much greater priority to achieving political and cross-community consensus, a natural filter could be placed upon rights with arguably more tenuous links to the "particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".

    — If a Bill of Rights is to be put in place religious freedom for all in Northern Ireland must be emphasised.

    — The shift in Northern Ireland's political and ethnic make-up should be reflected in the wording of the document. Very great care should be taken to avoid exclusive or out-dated language. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland must reflect, but not be confined by, the shift in make-up and circumstances of the population.

    — The boundary between issues that can be dealt with within a Bill of Rights and those that should remain in the domain of the democratic political process must not be ignored. This is especially important given the infancy of shared power for devolved matters in Northern Ireland.

    — More "joined-up" thinking and planning that keeps wider practicalities and political context in mind is essential if this Bill is to leave the realms of isolated intellectual debate and truly benefit the people of Northern Ireland.

    — Clarity should be given to the aims of the Bill, highlighting its potential as an aspirational document for a society committed to change rather than one to deal with the hurts of the past. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland must not be treated as a panacea.

April 2009

76   www.eauk.org Back

77   Statististics from Tearfund's Churchgoing in the UK, April 2007 Back

78   www.eauk.org/public-affairs/humanrights/ Back

79   www.eauk.org/northern-ireland/public-affairs/consultations Back

80   www.eauk.org/media/ehrc-appointment Back

81   Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, 2000, A Shared Vision? Human Rights and the Church, p30 & Evangelical Alliance UK, 2007, Faith and Nation-Report of a Commission of Inquiry to the UK Evangelical Alliance, Appendix 3 p147 Back

82   Luke 10:25-37, Galatians 3:28 Back

83   Matthis de Blois, "The Foundation of Human Rights: A Christian Perspective", in Paul R. Beaumont (ed.), 1998, Christian Perspectives on Human Rights and Legal Philosophy Back

84   Evangelical Alliance UK, 2007, Faith and Nation-Report of a Commission of Inquiry to the UK Evangelical Alliance, Appendix 3 p148 Back

85   Luke 10: 25-37 (NIV) Back

86   www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/assembly/hr-e.html Back

87   Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, 2000, A Shared Vision? Human Rights and the Church, p33 Back

88   Jeremiah 17:9, Proverbs 29:18, Romans 7:18-25 (NIV) Back

89   Jeremy Ive, "Relationships in the Christian Tradition" in Schluter, M. & Ashcroft, J. 2005, Jubilee Manifesto-A frame work, agenda and strategy for Christian social reform, IVP Back

90   UDHR, ticle 1 Back

91   ECHR, Article 10 Back

92   Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, 2000, A Shared Vision? Human Rights and the Church, p31 Back

93   The Agreement, 1998, Section 6 Back

94   Patricia McKeown, "Getting the Bill Right-An Update, Panel 6:Economic & Social Rights" p2 www.billofrightsni.org/documents/members/9_-_Economic__Social_Rights.pdf Back

95   Especially regarding children in the criminal justice system, see The Right to Liberty and Security (pp24-27). Less constructive policy style proposals include ones that either require non-devolved powers (eg p50 part 1) or are simply impossible to establish as a right (eg p 46 part 2). Back

96   For example "Everyone has the right to adequate accommodation appropriate to their needs. Public authorities must take appropriate measures including legislative measures, to the maximum of their available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of this right." (Italics added) from The Right to Accommodation, Part 1 (p47) Back

97   www.renewing-hope.org Back

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