8. Memorandum from Committee on the
Administration of Justice
The Committee on the Administration of Justice
(CAJ) is an independent cross community group affiliated to the
International Federation of Human Rights, working to uphold and
promote human rights in Northern Ireland. Since its establishment
in 1981, the organisation has campaigned for a Bill of Rights
for Northern Ireland, and attached is a list of the key submissions
and publications we have issued on this topic over that period.
Of particular interest to the Joint Committee on Human Rights
may be a publication we issued in 2003 which brought together
in one place the stance taken by the various Northern Ireland
political parties over the years regarding the value of developing
a Bill of Rights ("A Bill of Rights: through the yearsthe
view of political parties").
The publication reaffirms our long-held belief that there has
often been wide cross-community and cross-party support in Northern
Ireland for some kind of "constitutionalising" of rights.
As the Joint Committee is no doubt aware, the
Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (1998) determined that there should
be a consultation process, undertaken by the to-be-established
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), "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 NIHRC subsequently
engaged in an extended period of consultation but for a number
of reasons was unable to conclude its work and submit advice to
the Secretary of State.
The Northern Ireland move towards developing
a Bill of Rights has been "intermittent" with short
bursts of great energy and long periods of apparent inactivity.
Disregarding the years of debate throughout the height of the
conflict, the recent chronology can be summed up as follows:
April 1998Commitment in Good
Friday/Belfast Agreement to discussion of a Bill of Rights.
April 2000Bill of Rights consultation
process formally launched by NIHRC with numerous seminars, working
groups, public events, hundreds of detailed written submissions.
September 2001NIHRC issues
and consults on first draft text.
some associated with BoR; stasis.
April 2003Commitment in Joint
Declaration to establish a Round Table Forum of political parties
and civil society representatives to move the Bill of Rights ahead.
October 2006St Andrews Agreement
establishes the Forum.
December 2006inaugural meeting
March 2007Chair appointed
and Forum work begins.
One of the reasons for the failure to progress
the debate about a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was the
lack of active engagement by political parties in the process,
and the belief by all concerned that this was a pre-requisite
to a successful product.
Accordingly, in 2003 the Joint Declaration by
the British and Irish governments determined that the former would
work with political parties to facilitate the response to the
proposal for a "round table forum on the Bill of Rights,
involving the parties and civic society... it is envisaged that
the round table forum will have an independent chair and its own
secretariat, will be as inclusive as possible of Assembly parties
and civic society, will appropriately involve the Human Rights
Commission, mindful of its statutory role, and will be adequately
supported and resourced". As outlined above, this Forum was
eventually established in December 2006 and is currently in full
session, with its work expected to be completed by March 2007.
Despite this very protracted discussion, CAJ
believes that Northern Ireland is now very firmly on the road
of deliberating and hopefully agreeing on a Bill of Rights that
would both reflect its particular needs and reflect best international
practice to date. If this is the case, Northern Ireland can expect
to have a draft text available for consideration hereand
indeed potentially also for study in Britainin a period
of six to nine months.
Therefore, rather than respond to the detailed
questions raised in your Call for Evidence (which have been discussed
and debated in the Northern Ireland context, and which are addressed
in much of the background material noted in attachment),
CAJ would like to address in this short note the specific issue
of the TIMING of a debate about a British Bill of Rights. In particular,
we would urge the JCHR to consider deferring serious debate until
the experiences to date of Northern Ireland can be put to best
CAJ's remit is limited to Northern Ireland,
and as such we have no strong views about the best way forward
in terms of the protection of rights in neighbouring jurisdictions.
At the same time, we believe that the particular experiences of
Northern Ireland in terms of human rights violations, and the
deep roots for this debate here, are likely to mean that IF we
secure a Bill of Rights, it is likely to be a valuable role-model
(in process and content) for elsewhere.
Accordingly, CAJ would caution the Joint Committee
on Human Rights in its timing of any move to launch a debate of
a British Bill of Rights. Clearly there are genuinely positive
experiences that could be transferred between the different legal
jurisdictions if the Bill of Rights Forum proves successful. However,
the primary concern for CAJ in any immediate move to debate of
a British Bill of Rights is the negative impact this could have
on the discussion in Northern Ireland. Politicians across the
unionist and nationalist divide are currently engaged in developing
a shared vision of how we might live in a human rights respecting
society. If there is a proposal for a British Bill of Rights,
it might polarise people again along political lines, and will
certainly risk having all the work to date put on the back-burner
until the British product can be assessed. At the very time that
nationalist and unionist politicians are being encouraged to see
a Bill of Rights as something that could unite rather than divide
them, it could become divisive once again.
On the other hand, in the best case scenario
where Northern Ireland arrives at a consensus text, subscribed
to by its very diverse political parties and civic society, the
agreed text would be an invaluable starting point for debate in
Britain about its own needs. A lot of the work would already have
been done, and lots of lessons would be available as to how, and
how not, to go about developing a British/UK equivalent.
In the worst case scenario where the effort
in Northern Ireland is unsuccessful, and the Bill of Rights Forum
does not arrive at consensus, or for some other reason the eventual
conclusions are considered unsatisfactory, the debate about a
British/UK Bill of Rights will only have been delayed by a relatively
few months. In the intervening period, some useful lessons may
have been learnt from the failures here, and could be put to good
effect in the process of securing a better British product.
Accordingly, we believe that from a purely British
campaigning point of view, there would be value in allowing the
work here to proceed apace, with a view to benefiting from the
final product. We have not consulted directly with our British
colleagues, so would hesitate to get too drawn into the nitty-gritty
details of the debate without learning of their views. However,
ouradmittedly inexpertview of the current debate
in Britain is that there is limited public support for such an
endeavour, and that some of the impetus (though obviously not
all) derives from those who may want to restrict rather than extend
the protection of rights (moving away from incorporation of the
European Convention etc).
In sum, therefore CAJ urges the Joint Committee
on Human Rights to:
Welcome the current debate about
a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and the importance of moving
Endorse the fact that it could set
an important role model for Britain, or the UK generally, and
indicate a desire to follow the debate closely; and
Agree that the launch of a wider
public debate about a British Bill of Rights would be best done
in summer/autumn 2008 when the lessons and experience of Northern
Ireland will prove an invaluable reference point.
We hope you find these views useful in your
deliberations, and we are happy to provide any further information
you might require.
20 August 2007
45 Not published here. Back
Annex A. Back