Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

17. Memorandum from the Church and Government Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland


Submission to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on a proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland January 2001


  1.1  "The new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. The additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and—taken together with the European Convention on Human Rights—to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

  Among the issues for consideration by the Commission will be:

    The formulation of a general obligation on government and public bodies fully to respect, on the basis of equality of treatment, the identity and ethos of both communities in Northern Ireland; and

    A clear formulation of the rights not to be discriminated against and to equality of opportunity in both the public and private sectors".

  1.2  The Church and the Government Committee notes that any recommendations concern "rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".

  1.3  The Convention on Human Rights, which has been incorporated into British Law in the Human Rights Act of 1998, is a comprehensive document incorporating 18 articles, some of them containing considerable detail.

  1.4  The issues surrounding Human Rights are of enormous importance and we welcome the concerns which underlie the European Convention and the proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. However we recognise that there are some dangers which need to be avoided if the Bill of Rights is to enhance freedom and overcome division.


  2.1  The dignity of the human person arises from the fact that we are made in the image of God, which is a prior consideration to issues of class, race, religion or sexual orientation.

  2.2  The God in whose image we are made has existed from the beginning in the unity and community of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

  2.3  We believe that human rights proceed from the social nature of humanity (God combines unity and relationship within himself). Everyone is a person-in-relationship whose well being cannot be attained alone. To be human is to have rights which are to be respected and to have responsibilities which are to be freely undertaken.

  2.4  The individual's dignity and worth, and consequent rights and responsibilities, derive from such a basis.

  2.5  We believe that individuals are to be located within communities where rights are to be recognised and responsibilities accepted. We are very suspicious of reasoning which detaches individuals or groups from wider communities or which detaches rights from responsiblities or elevates rights above responsibilities. For example the perceived rights for individuals to engage in serial sexual relationships, all, or some, of which may produce children, may militate against the rights of children to be raised in secure and loving families where they are cared for by both of their parents.

  2.6  Christian concern about human rights also proceeds from the reality that human dignity and our social relationships are frequently violated, and that restraints of law are necessary to prevent this from happening. In this perspective human rights are about necessary protection human beings need from each other: both in the individual and corporate sense. Christian faith, however, warns us against any utopianism in regard to human rights' concerns being able to cure all social ills.

  2.7  Minorities need to be protected from the tyranny of the majority, even if democratically elected. For example, many Presbyterians resisted Home Rule in the early part of the last century because they believed that a democratically elected government for the whole of Ireland would not necessarily respect the rights of dissenting non-conformist minorities. Majoritarian rule can be experienced as exclusive and excluding to minorities.

  2.8  We also know of the failure in communist dominated Romania to respect the religious, cultural and linguistic rights of the Hungarian speaking, and largely Reformed, people of Transylvania.


  3.1  A Bill of Rights ought to be inspirational and forward looking and therefore be briefly stated. Rights of freedoms conferred by a Bill of Rights should maximise and not minimise the liberty of citizens.

  3.2  The problem with a Bill of Rights specifically tailored to the current needs of Northern Ireland may result in entrenching division, rather than overcoming it. Is this the time to enact a very comprehensive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, additional to the Human Rights Act of 1998, when it is not deemed appropriate to do so for the rest of the United Kingdom or for the Republic of Ireland?

  3.3  Since the rights of an idividual or a group are seldom absolute and must be balanced against the rights of other individuals or groups, should a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland seek to be too specific, it will be necessary within the Bill of Rights to protect the rights of the other individuals or groups. Is this what a Bill of Rights is intended to do?

  3.4  Rights are sometimes defined over against the activities of other individuals or groups who may well claim an inherent right for their activities. Care needs to be exercised in formulating a Bill of Rights which so highlights individual and group rights that the overall well-being of the community is further fractured. The rights of particuar groups and individuals need to be balanced and judged with proportionality, taking account of the rights of other groups and individuals. An important and cotentious example of this lies in the area of Parades and Protests. Will the Bill of Rights alleviate the problem in the absence of the contending parties reaching an acceptable compromise?

  3.5  Any recommendations should enhance the overall concept of a single community marked by diversity, rather than a fractured community hell bent on asserting diverse rights regardless of the need to foster relationships based on matuality and respect.

  3.6  Discourse which is dominated by rights to the subordination of all else can result in a society marked by continuous conflict, resolved not by love, respect and mutual accommodation but by power struggles or endless litigation.

  3.7  In Christian thinking it is sometimes better not to insist on the exercise of a perceived right in the interests of the overall well being of a society. If God had not set aside his rights, humanity could not be redeemed. To voluntarily set aside one's rights is not the same as having them denied.

  3.8  It is important to distinguish between what is desirable in an imperfect world from what might be a right in a perfect world. What is desirable may not necessarily be a right.

  3.9  Perceived rights may sometimes have to be balanced against a realistic assessment of available resources. Two current examples are:

    (a)  The right to have a minority language officially accommodated, as distinct from permitting its use or not outlawing its use, may rightly depend upon the numbers of people involved and the expense incurred in implementing the policy.

    (b)  The right to have government support for a particular form of education may rightly depend upon the numbers of people seeking such an educational facility and the amount of money available in a finite overall budget. If one group is granted such a privilege—or is it a right?—others may demand the same right—or is it a privilege?


  4.1  The post-reformation concern of protestant churches focussed on the right to freedom of religion. To claim this for oneself imposes a moral obligation to defend religious freedom for others, including the rights of people who choose not to identify with any religion.

  4.2  Recognition of the right to freedom of religion involves the corollary of the social acceptance of a general duty on the part of the wider society to respect and to act within reason to protect the right.

  4.3  From the code of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

    "Section 111.

    11.  It is the privilege, right and duty of everyone to examine the Scriptures personally, and each individual is bound to submit to their authority.

    13.  . . . the church holds that, although civil rulers are bound to render obedience to Christ in their own province, yet they ought not to attempt in any way to constrain anyone's religious beliefs, or invade rights of conscience."

  4.4  Religious belief and practices are normally exercised corporately in an institutional form involving disciplines, structures, moral norms and ethical instruction. The ability of religious bodies to adopt and maintain these is an essential part of their freedom. This may involve granting them, where necessary, partial exemption from the obligtion to open their corporate life to equal access and equal treatment in respect of employment. This could involve the right of churches to refuse to employ, in certain circumstances, heterosexual people who live together outside marriage or people living in same-sex realationships, or individuals whose moral behaviour on other grounds offends Christian practice. This is a practical manifestation of a religious body exercising its corporate conscience on what might be currently contentious matter.

  4.5  While such an exemption might be deemed appropriate for a religious body, it is not to sanction discrimination in general employment.

  4.6  The Church and Government Committee supports the submission of the four church leaders in their statement

    "There has been an ongoing recognition at a European and international level that churches should have the right to protect the ethos of their various institutions and this would include the recruitment of staff . . .

    The four church leaders consider that it is of fundamental importance to them that the Bill of Rights adopted in Northern Ireland should reflect the international recognition of each denomination's right to practise its religion corporately; to pursue corporate activities and to protect its own individual ethos.

    It is vital that the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland does not provide, and is not preceived to provide, a charter for the secularisation of social witness of churches and church organisations either directly by the courts or indirectly by the imposition of conditions by public bodies charged with funding private sector providers to act on behalf of the state."



  11.  "We want justice" can be a call to take the past seriously or it can be used as a weapon with which to beat people we do not like. "If we acknowlege the God of the Bible, we are committed to struggle for justice in society. Justice means giving to each his due. Our problem (as seen in the light of the gospel) is that each of us over estimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbour . . .. If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent not of justice but of lawless tyranny" (Leslie Newbigin)

  12.  "We want peace" can be a legitimate yearning to leave a troubled past and a difficult present behind, or it may be little more than a desire to be left alone with privilege or guilt.

  13.  "Justice alone" can be one of the most divisive influences, as "peace alone" can be the peace of the graveyard, full of decay and dead men's bones. Justice and peace should walk together down a long road in the service of reconciliation. In God's way, justice is linked with mercy; justice not for its own sake but for the peace of the world and the restoration of relationships, sundered by sin.

  14.  ". . . reconciliation, as a central theological concept, has an inalienable social dimension. . . .. One needs to explicate in social terms the relationship between grace and justice that lies at the heart of reconciliation. As a result, justice would become a subordinate rather than a primary category around which social engagement is organised; or rather, the struggle for justice would be understood as a dimension of the pursuit of reconciliation whose ultimate goal is community of love" (Miroslav Volf).

  15.  The important issues of Equality and Human Rights cannot be severed from the relationships between individuals and between groups of people. As Equality cannot discount distinctiveness neither can Human Rights disregard reponsibilities. Either, or both, can be so relentlessly pursued that relationships may be left in disarray. On the other hand, patience and forbearance may lead us to a degree of empathy for one another where, insight, confession and generosity might be more readily forthcoming. Patient forbearance may be the means of opening space for building relationships, which will facilitate both justice and peace.


  E1.  Since the last meeting of the Board, most of the work of the Committee has been taken up with complex and important issues connected with the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission. By the time the Board meets the Committee will have met with the Chief Commissioners of both bodies at which meetings they will have been joined by representatives of the Board of Finance and Administration.

  E2.  Having previously made a submission to the NI Human Rights Commission, in which the Committee drew attention to the importance of Human Rights, a response has been submitted to the subsequent discussion document "Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland". Copies of the Committee's six-page response will be available at the Board meeting for any member who wishes to have one. Our principal concerns are that the proposals as set forth are maximalist rather than minimalist in their detailed provisions, the result of which may be the encouragement of a litigious society; go far beyond "the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland"; focus to strongly on rights with the barest of references to responsibilities; fail to follow all the exceptions clauses in the European Employment Directive.

  E3.  Discussion will take place with the Equality Commission concerning the details of the "Position Paper—The Single Equality Bill". While being supportive of the concept of equality and the entitlement of individuals to protection from discrimination and the importance of handling difference constructively, faith based communities are entitled to maintain their own ethos and identity. This is part of the valuing of diversity in society. The issue is how these differing claims are to be balanced. We would have concerns about the extension of equality legislation to volunteers. Churches have large numbers of volunteers and the extension of legislation in this area could pose huge difficulties.

  E4.  Both Commissions are dealing with matters which are of importance to the Presbyterian Church. The complexity is compounded by the fact that there are Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster and European Union elements to the issues.


  9.  That the General Assembly affirming that everyone is made in the image of God and the consequent importance of respect for human rights as well as our duties to God and to one another, call upon the Human Rights Commissions in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to give equal weight to Human Rights and our duties to one another.

  10.  That the General Assembly, affirming that everyone is made in the image of God and that the worth of every human being derives from this fact, welcome the increasing awareness of the importance of equality but ask the Equality Commission to have regard to the importance of diversity and the distinctive contribution which faith communities make to society and to recognise that faith communities are entitled to maintain their ethos and identity.

26 November 2002

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