Joint Committee on Human Rights Written Evidence

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 years—the view of political parties").[45] 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 1998—Commitment in Good Friday/Belfast Agreement to discussion of a Bill of Rights.

    —  April 2000—Bill of Rights consultation process formally launched by NIHRC with numerous seminars, working groups, public events, hundreds of detailed written submissions.

    —  September 2001—NIHRC issues and consults on first draft text.

    —  2002/2003—NIHRC resignations, some associated with BoR; stasis.

    —  April 2003—Commitment in Joint Declaration to establish a Round Table Forum of political parties and civil society representatives to move the Bill of Rights ahead.

    —  October 2006—St Andrews Agreement establishes the Forum.

    —  December 2006—inaugural meeting of Forum.

    —  March 2007—Chair 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 here—and indeed potentially also for study in Britain—in 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),[46] 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 use.

  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, our—admittedly inexpert—view 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 ahead quickly;

    —  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

46   Annex A. Back

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