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

Written evidence from Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance


  1.1 NIPSA is the largest trade union in Northern Ireland representing over 46,000 members employed across the public service including the NI Civil Service and its Agencies, Local Government, Education and Library Boards, the Health and Personal Social Services, the NI Housing Executive as well as a host of Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs). NIPSA also represents a significant number of members in the voluntary and community sector.

1.2 NIPSA has campaigned for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland since some of the most troubled days of the conflict. We therefore welcome the Human Rights Commission's (NIHRC) proposals for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and especially the inclusion of socio-economic rights.

1.3 We therefore call on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to fully endorse the inclusion of these rights to ensure that the rights and needs of the most disadvantaged in our society are not overlooked and that the human rights abuses of the past never re-occur.


  2.1 There is little doubt that Northern Ireland has suffered particularly in economic and social terms as a result of the Troubles over the last 30 years. An obvious way to tackle these inequalities is explicitly to protect economic and social rights in a Bill of Rights. Doing so would reflect a real commitment on the part of Government to ridding Northern Ireland of the serious socio-economic inequalities that have plagued it for so long.

2.2 For NIPSA's part enforceable social and economic rights meet the criteria of being supplementary to the civil and political rights already protected in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA).

  2.3 They also meet the "Particular Circumstances of Northern Ireland" test. We understand that a Bill of Rights which reflect the "particular circumstances" of Northern Ireland implies a Bill that both deals with the legacy of the past and looks to a fair and inclusive future for all our citizens. The path to this future is a process in which all must be included and in which all have a role to play. Work is part of that process.

  2.4 We need a society in which all workers are free from discrimination, a society in which all can access opportunities and win for themselves good jobs at a fair remuneration, a society in which we can be both caring parents and productive workers. The Bill of Rights ensures that fairness, inclusivity and prosperity are everyones, by ensuring that trade unions are in a position to represent those workers in the first place.

  2.5 In Europe and across the globe trade union rights are central to functioning democracies. Societies which seek a healthy and well educated population, that seek to deliver high quality public services, that provide more and better jobs and who share a commitment to use prosperity to tackle disadvantage, all have strong and modernising trade unions at their core. Workers who are in trade unions are better paid and better treated than those who are not. There are no exceptions, anywhere, to this rule. Strong trade unions stabilise democracies and create societies in which a commitment to fairness and inclusion is evidenced in practice.

  2.6 This is why trade union rights and social and economic rights are a vital component in the Bill of Rights; the workplace is where equality and fairness are tested, it is where workers can secure for themselves the fairness and equal treatment that is promised by all sections of civil society, state and government.

  2.7 We have a historic opportunity in Northern Ireland to lead the way, to be a society in which social justice and equality sit alongside prosperity and innovation.

  2.8 The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland cannot be allowed to emerge as a weak and ineffectual covenant that demeans and insults the people of Northern Ireland by denying them their fundamental rights as the world looks on. No party to the Bill of Rights process should have the right to define alone, what is and what isn't a fundamental right of the citizens of Northern Ireland.

  2.9 If a Bill of Rights emerges without the inclusion of social and economic and trade union rights then the working people of Northern Ireland will continue to remain second class bearers of minimal rights in a modern Europe. Northern Ireland and its people want the normality of a modern, fair, inclusive and prosperous Europe. The rights its working people seek are consistent with the European social model.

  2.10 This is evidenced by the widespread support across both main communities for the inclusion of economic and social rights in a Bill of Rights. In a survey carried out for the NI Human Rights Commission in 2004, as many as 72% of respondents in both main communities supported the inclusion of rights in respect of health, housing, education and employment. In the history of our divided society, there have been few issues that have united people. The opportunity to adopt a Bill of Rights which will protect human dignity and equality, and in doing so bring communities together, should not be allowed to slip away amidst arguments that these rights are too difficult to enforce. Countries such as South Africa have been able to implement them and in doing so help to create a better society.

  2.11 In addition to this, rather than replacing the role of MLAs and the Assembly as distributors of finite resources, enforceable social and economic rights in a Bill of Rights could potentially have a complementary role to play in the administration of good governance, perhaps acting in the first instance as a blueprint or road map for the rights that MLAs would have a responsibility to protect in the course of their work.


  3.1 The Government have already gave a clear commitment to carrying out a public consultation. We would impress upon the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the Government respond to the Commission's advice in a comprehensive and urgent fashion and ensure that proper time and resources are allocated to ensure that people of Northern Ireland have the opportunity to absorb and respond effectively to the consultation.


  4.1 Social and economic rights remain firmly at the heart of the Bill of Rights debate and at the centre of what NIPSA and the 46,000 members it represents wishes to see emerge from this process.

April 2009

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