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Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 3rd November 2009.

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(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. A valid petition of concern in relation to the motion was presented on Monday 2 November. The effect of the petition is that any vote on the motion will be decided on a cross-community basis.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP 3:45 pm, 3rd November 2009

I beg to move

That this Assembly considers the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State ‘A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’ incompatible with the provisions of the Belfast Agreement; notes with concern that the proposals would undermine the democratic role and authority of this Assembly and the Parliament of the United Kingdom; and urges the Secretary of State not to implement the report’s recommendations.

I wish to inform the House that, almost immediately after I make my speech, I will have to leave the Chamber to meet the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on a matter concerning jobs in my constituency. I intend no discourtesy to the House.

I wish to thank Members who signed the petition of concern, because they have, by their actions, made it explicit that there is no consensus in this House on a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. They have also confirmed their belief that a majority in the House opposes the recommendations made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I am almost tempted to resume my seat at this stage —

Some Members:

Go on.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am tempted, but not fully so.

The petition of concern demonstrates in the clearest possible terms that any attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to act on the basis of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report would be to reject the democratically expressed will of the majority in this Assembly.

This is not the first time that this matter has been considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. On 8 April 2008, a majority in the House supported a motion that expressed concern at the lack of cross-community support for the report of the Bill of Rights Forum and urged the Human Rights Commission to ensure that it had cross-community support for its recommendations to the Secretary of State. It is obvious that the situation with the Human Rights Commission report is the same as that with the report of the Bill of Rights Forum.

Perhaps unsurprisingly and most disappointingly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission arrogantly decided to ignore the views of the House and the need for cross-community support. That leaves me wondering where exactly the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the political parties that support its report think we are now and what, precisely, has changed since 8 April 2008. Here we have another report that lacks cross-community support and cross-party support in the House. Nothing has changed.

That is why Members on the Benches opposite decided to sign a petition of concern. They know all too well that no serious attempt has been made to reach consensus. They know all too well that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report does not have the necessary cross-community or cross-party support, and they know that, without such support, that report will never be acceptable to a majority in the House, hence their reliance on a petition of concern.

The lack of support for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report is not limited to this House; it is found within the commission. It is startling that the chief commissioner allowed a situation to develop in which two commissioners who obviously identified with the unionist political tradition were forced to issue statements distancing themselves from the published report. They were unable to support that report. Clearly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s contempt for the need for cross-party and cross-community support runs very deep. It seems that ideological commitments and partisan agendas are more important to some in the commission than forging a shared future built on consensus and agreement.

What is now a decade-long debate started with an innocuous sentence in the Belfast Agreement:

“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”.

The agreement mandated the commission to engage in a modest task, not one of industrial proportions. The commission was merely invited to consult and advise on the scope for supplementary rights, nothing more. It was not mandated to devise a new bill of rights or to change our socio-economic context through the creation of numerous new rights; it was merely mandated to examine the scope for rights supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Quite how we got from that very modest, realistic task to a 189-page document from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that proposes to hand over significant sections of public policy to the courts — taking them from democratically elected representatives — is something of a mystery.

That said, we should perhaps express our thanks to the chief commissioner and her commission because they have succeeded in producing a report that this Assembly will not support and that no Westminster Government would consider legislating on. That deserves an ironic “Well done”. Together with the Members opposite, the chief commissioner is responsible for the present state of affairs — for the whole process of a bill of rights ending in downright failure. That is what happens when narrow, partisan agendas and ideological dogma prevail over the need for consensus and agreement.

That leaves matters in the hands of the Secretary of State, whose preoccupation, frankly, lies elsewhere. One is almost moved to have some sympathy for him because he is attempting to manage the very delicate process of the possible devolution of policing and justice. On top of that, he has to deal with another flawed and utterly compromised report, namely the Eames/Bradley report. He now has the unwelcome distraction of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report. Of course, he has to go through the motions of welcoming it and consulting on it, although it is somewhat strange that nearly a year has passed and nothing has happened in relation to consultation. We remind ourselves that the Eames/Bradley report was published on 23 January 2009 and the consultation was launched on 24 June, less than six months later. The Northern Human Rights Commission report was published on 10 December 2008, but, nearly a year on, consultation has yet to begin.

One could be forgiven for suggesting that the Northern Ireland Office regards the commission’s report as damaged goods. What should our beleaguered Secretary of State do now? Should he consult on the basis of a report that lacks cross-community and cross-party support? Should he consult on such a report during the final days of his Government? Should he consult on a report that is so provocative and divisive that it has led to a petition of concern being put down in this House? Should he consult on a report that will not lead to legislation from Westminster before the next general election? I am quite sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the views of the likely next Government of the United Kingdom.

My party colleagues will address the other issues that are raised by this motion, including the manner in which the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report undermines the democratic authority of this House and of Parliament by seeking to transfer significant public policy decisions to the courts. My focus, at the beginning of this debate, has been to emphasise that the commission has entirely disregarded the very modest mandate that was given to it by the Belfast Agreement. In so doing, it has abandoned any pretence of seeking cross-community or cross-party support for its proposals.

The commission’s report is, therefore, unacceptable. It should not be regarded in any other way by the Secretary of State. I urge Members to support the motion.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after “Assembly” and insert

“notes the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State, ‘A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland,’ and calls on the Secretary of State to publish the consultation document as soon as possible.”

My amendment would modify the motion to encourage the Secretary of State to move forward with the public consultation, which is the next stage in determining the need and scope for a bill of rights specific to Northern Ireland.

The amendment is intended to ensure that the public have a chance to participate in the bill of rights process. This has been a long process, and there are important reasons for that. Defining the terms of a possible bill of rights for Northern Ireland is a massive undertaking and is not one without disagreement or conflicting views, as the motion illustrates clearly. However, that commitment is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement and in the St Andrews Agreement, and it is a process that the parties in the Chamber have not only endorsed and participated in: it is one that they have created.

A rights instrument has been a fundamental part of the peace settlement here throughout. To seek now to derail that process, particularly at the stage at which the public have the chance to give their views, is unhelpful and unfair. Several arguments raised here in opposition to the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations assert that they would shift policymaking powers on a number of social and economic issues from the legislature to the courts. Indeed, that is the assumption at the heart of the motion.

Many of the same objections were raised around the Human Rights Act 1998 and have proved unfounded. The courts can find that the provision of a law is incompatible with human rights standards, but the effect of such a finding is that Parliament is notified and encouraged to amend or repeal the law in question. Whether a Parliament acts is an entirely different matter, and responsibility for that remains wholly with the legislature.

There are protections in the recommendations for a Northern Ireland bill of rights to ensure that the Assembly and Westminster retain the primary role in legislating and policymaking in the Province. For example, amendments to a bill of rights would have to be approved by the Assembly, and the Human Rights Commission has recommended that cross-community approval be required to validate any amendments.

The commission has also recommended the establish­ment of an Assembly Standing Committee on human rights and equality, which would review the compatibility of all legislation against relevant human rights and equality standards. Such a Committee would also be empowered to conduct inquiries into human rights issues, and that would go a long way to ensuring the primacy and pre-eminence of the Assembly in legislation for devolved matters.

A public consultation —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I welcome the commitment in the proposals that amendments should require cross-community support in the Assembly. However, surely one of the things lacking is that the bill itself, rather than simply the amendments to it, should require cross-community support in the Assembly.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

That is why I am arguing for a public consultation to hear what the public have to say and to establish whether there is cross-community support for a bill of rights. A public consultation is the next step in the process, and it would allow for comments on those protections.

Concerns have also been expressed that the Human Rights Commission has exceeded its mandate — its intended scope of work — and engaged in a form of human rights expansion. That puzzles me. The purpose of the forum and the commission’s work was to produce recommendations for a bill of rights that addressed the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland. Clearly, more than just the right to private ownership and the right to privacy have come up in that process.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

No; the Member will have his chance to speak.

The commission cannot deny or ignore the fact that more issues have arisen. It is obliged to consider and to include all the issues that came before it. This was never to be just a meaningless paper exercise; all the commission’s work has been about making specific recommendations for implementation.

As legislators, our job is to ensure that that process reaches its final stages. We need to support a public consultation to see whether the people of Northern Ireland think that the rights that are contained in the proposals need more recognition and protection.

It is no secret that my unionist colleagues have not been as enthusiastic as other parties in the Chamber in their approach to human rights. Conspiracy theorists may find a convenient link between the new political alliance of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservative Party and their recent more visceral distaste for the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

The Member will have an opportunity to speak later. I want to develop my argument. I hope that those parties’ response is sincerely based on policy issues and that it is not an exercise in alignment for the sake of political housekeeping and elections preparation. That would not only be unfortunate but misguided, because, as some of our unionist and Conservative brethren may have been interested to learn at the Tory Party conference, the foundations for the Human Rights Act 1998 were laid by none other than Sir Winston Churchill.

Unionists’ relationship with human rights is worthy of further examination. It can be a confused and slightly duplicitous relationship. I understand that the DUP and its leader, the First Minister, have had a recent conversion and that, when it comes to marches and parades, they are looking for recognition for the rights of unionists. That is certainly an important step; the Protestant people of Northern Ireland have a right to enjoy a full and rich culture. However, human rights do not stop there. We have a right to much more than that.

The role that social and economic inequalities played in bringing about the Troubles and keeping them alive for more than 40 years is undeniable, and those enduring and remaining inequalities, including sectarianism, are the fault lines along which the potential for a return to violence sits. They are at the heart of the discontent, deprivation, anger and isolation that led to the conflict in the Province, and if they are not addressed with honesty and sincerity, they could be so again.

The lack of honesty from the other unionist parties in the Chamber is disheartening. Are they afraid that if the Protestant working class fully understand and recognise their rights that they will have expectations of a more equitable society? Are they afraid that they could not deliver such a society, or do they just not want to deliver such a society?

The duplicity continues. Every week, those parties come to the Chamber and wax lyrical about how hard they are working on the issues that they encounter in their constituency offices, including problems with housing, access to medication, inadequate care, mental-health services, post-primary transfer and the guarantee of a decent education. What exactly do they think those requirements are? They are rights for which people are seeking protection and assistance, so that they can exercise and enjoy them in full. They are rights that belong to nationalists, unionists and everyone else who lives in the Province.

Why do we respond to those rights when we think that it could help us to get re-elected, but, otherwise, we refuse to recognise them? This is a critical conversation for unionism, and it is one that public consultation on the recommendation for a bill of rights could facilitate. Therefore, I encourage all Members to support the amendment. Let the public consultation process commence and proceed as outlined. Let us hear what the people have to say about the commission’s recommendations.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

When the Belfast Agreement was put to the people of Northern Ireland, I am not ashamed to say that I voted against it. I voted against it for a number of reasons, not because I did not want peace for Northern Ireland — despite the emotional blackmail of the “Yes” campaign that a vote for the agreement was a vote for peace, which in some way implied that those of us who voted against it were somehow against peace — but because of its content and the ramifications of that content. Should we really be surprised when people seek to push to their absolute maximum the boundaries of the terms of reference of something that was created under such vague terms and expressed in a hotchpotch agreement? I do not think so.

When I compare the words in the Agreement that were meant to guide the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission with those in the document that it submitted to the Secretary of State, I have no hesitation in supporting the motion.

In essence, as the proposer has so aptly stated, matters turn on the definition of the phrase “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”. Some have used that phrase as carte blanche to dismantle and rebuild as they wish and to introduce socio-economic and cultural rights to the fray.

However, that interpretation is wrong in a number of ways. First, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is essentially a civil- and political-rights document. Socio-economic rights flow from the sister document of the ECHR: the European Social Charter. If the Belfast Agreement mentions the Social Charter, I am at a loss to find it in the text. The agreement specifically states that the Commission will:

“advise on the scope for defining … rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights”.

That means that it will be added to those rights contained in the ECHR and, as I have said, since the ECHR is a civil- and political-rights document, rights supplementary to it should also be civil and political. I understand that the SDLP is keen to have socio-economic rights attached to any Northern Ireland bill of rights, so perhaps the absence of a reference to the Social Charter is a piece of poor negotiation on its part.

Secondly, the Belfast Agreement offers further guidance on the types of rights that the Commission should consider. It states:

“These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem”.

Those are the words that should be used to interpret the phrase “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”. They do not open the door to economic, social and cultural rights. Sadly, the Commission and, to an even greater extent, the Bill of Rights Forum seem to believe that, in regard to the drafting of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, the agreement mentions nothing after “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.

A further thing that I noted in the advice given by the Commission is that it is largely a cut-and-paste job, made up from various international instruments. Granted, the agreement allows the Commission to draw on international instruments, but does it not attach the caveat that that should be “as appropriate”? The implication is that it should always be done in relation to the “particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.

Instead, we have a list of rights which are not contained in and are not supplementary to the ECHR, such as: the right to work; environmental rights; social security rights; the right to accommodation; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to health; language rights; and the right to identity and culture. It truly says something when one of the main advocates of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, Professor Brice Dickson, states that critics of the proposals for a bill of rights for Northern Ireland have a point.

Unfortunately, we do not have time to go into the intricacies of whether we should have a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, or indeed a UK bill of rights, or whether Northern Ireland or the UK needs one. Some of the countries with the most wonderfully worded human-rights-centred constitutions are the greatest abusers of international human rights. I invite everyone in the Chamber to read the constitution of Zimbabwe.

However, to involve ourselves in such discussions serves only to distract from what is an extremely pertinent motion. I am happy to support it.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé ag labhairt in éadan an rúin agus ar son an leasaithe.

I support the motion, but I wish to speak in favour of the amendment. Sorry, I mean that I oppose the motion and wish to speak in favour of the amendment. Got it all wrong there.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

We are so disappointed.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I know, I know. I was just giving you some hope where there is none.

As a former member of the Bill of Rights Forum, I welcomed the handover document from the Human Rights Commission and the advice to the British Secretary of State last December. I want to see the consultation document published as soon as possible. Therefore, I agree with the amendment.

After many long years of waiting, the document represents considerable progress. Although I do not necessarily agree with everything that the Commission says, for example, on the issue of national security limitations, the advice constitutes a genuine and rigorous approach to the mandate it was given, despite what was said by the proposer of the motion.

The commission is to be commended for the work that it has done. The United Nations, Amnesty International and many other domestic and international human rights organisations have called on the British Government to enact the bill of rights. Unfortunately, it seems that there are still some people who do not want to extend permanent rights and superior protection to the most vulnerable in our society.

Of course, rights can be protected through ordinary law. There is nothing to prevent any Government from introducing protections in legislation that are additional to those that are enshrined in any bill of rights. However, the purpose of a bill of rights is to set down the limits for guaranteed minimum standards, below which legislation and legislative rights protection may fall. A further purpose of a bill of rights is to shield in many ways the particular subset of rights in ordinary legislation from the political whims and rulings at any time by any Government or Executive, regardless of whether they are unionist, nationalist or other. Therefore, the purpose of the bill of rights is to set the floor, not the ceiling, for the guaranteed rights in our society for future generations. Can Members imagine sending out that message and setting that context for the next generation?

The extent of the bill of rights does not stop any Government from introducing ordinary legislation or ordinary legislative protection. Those rights can be extended to make the ceiling as high as possible. However, at the same time, if proposals do not violate or otherwise undermine any of the rights that are subjected to a bill of rights guarantee, ordinary legislation will also be necessary. In so far as ordinary legislation is supple­mentary to a bill of rights, it serves an entirely different purpose. It is important to remember that the rights that are set out in ordinary law are not guaranteed, as we all know and as we have been subjected to. As such, they can be reversed at any time and be removed by a ruling party or coalition that is opposed to them.

Those who oppose the concept of the protection of fundamental rights consider the ability to reverse ordinary law as one of its most attractive features. Those people will prefer to use ordinary law, rather than permanent, law to set the rights.

Those who argue that we do not need a bill of rights are out of step with ordinary people, and I hope that the consultation will prove that. They are out of step with the ordinary people who remain convinced that it will help cement the peace. For example, they are out of step with the young people in the lower Shankill who mounted a highly successful campaign recently on the right to play, as well as the many marginalised groups supported by the community foundation who are arguing that they are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.

The fact that growing numbers of disadvantaged people from across the community feel more comfortable with the language of rights is, arguably, one of the greatest achievements of the peace process. It is also striking that there is such a high level of support across the community for the inclusion of social and economic rights. Do we not care that so many of our older population die every year because there is no bill of rights?

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I am sure that the unionists will explain to their electorate why they rejected all the bill of rights protections that were discussed in the Bill of Rights Forum. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

The SDLP will support the amendment and oppose the motion.

I have three substantive points to make. I am trying to look at this debate in a positive light. During yesterday’s debate on the rights of Christians in India, I talked about the visit to Belfast in December 2000 of the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. She said that the part of the Good Friday Agreement in which the world was most interested was our human rights provision. Given the conflict from which we were emerging and the abuses of rights by those who were opposed to the rights of individuals and those who were opposed to a democratic culture on our island, she said that the steps that we took to recognise those and to guarantee rights in the future could be shared with the rest of the world, especially those in areas that are in conflict or coming out of conflict.

It is in community minority rights and parity of esteem that this could shine through, more than in any other aspect of our rights experience. Therefore, I was surprised by Michelle McIlveen’s comments, which were contradictory. On one hand, she and her party have beaten up on the Human Rights Commission because it has proposed rights on language, identity and culture. However, one minute earlier in her speech, she quoted favourably from the Good Friday Agreement, which specifically signposts issues of identity, ethos and parity of esteem. Michelle, you cannot have it both ways: you cannot rely on the Good Friday Agreement’s promotion of identity, ethos and parity of esteem and then beat up on the Human Rights Commission for doing precisely what the Good Friday Agreement signposted it and others to do. It was a very revealing inconsistency, and I look forward to other Members from the DUP reconciling that inconsistency.

The second broader point is that we cannot bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the intentions of those who framed the Good Friday Agreement. Virtually every aspect of that agreement, which was endorsed by the people of Ireland, outlined proposals that were particular to the individual circumstances of Northern Ireland. For example, the part of the Good Friday Agreement that dealt with the commission on policing and justice highlighted that policing had had such a particular impact in the North that proposals dealing with our particular circumstances were required. Furthermore, when the Good Friday Agreement dealt with arrangements between the North and South of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland, it proposed the political architecture that would be required to fit the particular circumstances of our experience. Moreover, when the Good Friday Agreement addressed the principle of inclusion, which is now to be abandoned, it did so because of the particular circumstances that affected this part of Ireland. In every other aspect of the Good Friday Agreement, models were proposed that reflected our particular experience and circumstances to ensure that we did not do to ourselves what had been done to us over the previous 40 years. Given that we threw the rulebook out —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 4:15 pm, 3rd November 2009

The Good Friday Agreement and, indeed, all of the other arrangements that have been set up in relation to the Assembly, are based on the notion of cross-community support for governance. Where is the community support for the proposals on the bill of rights for Northern Ireland?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will come back to that.

At the heart of Human Rights Commission’s proposals is the principle contained in the Good Friday Agreement that our particular circumstances mean that we have unique proposals and measures to guarantee the rights and identities of the people in this part of Ireland. However, the DUP and the UUP are telling us that that model does not fit when it comes to a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.

If we are to learn one thing from our experience it must be that denial of civil and political rights; denial of economic and social rights; and denial of cultural and community rights brought us into the situation where conflict, which had existed for decades, became a violent conflict that others imposed on our country against our will. If we do not learn from the fabric that gave rise to that and all the issues of rights that were at its heart, for all our people, we will not be fulfilling our duty to the people of Ireland.

The DUP Member for North Down Peter Weir made a point about consensus. I say to him that I seek consensus: it is clearly the preferred model. However, he should not reinterpret the will of the people of Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement and he should not reinterpret what particular circumstances mean, and say that one cannot make progress without consensus.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Will the Member please bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sometimes, one has to aim high and dream big so as not to return to the past.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I have some sympathy for the Ulster Unionist Party’s motion, given the content of the Human Rights Commission’s draft report and the process that has led us to this point. However, the Alliance Party will not be supporting the motion, and I will explain why shortly. My party will be supporting the amendment, which is a neutral amendment, in that it reflects the fact that a draft bill of rights has been published and asks the NIO to follow through on a consultation. Despite differences over content, we should be able to unite around that.

The Alliance Party has always supported enhanced human rights protections for Northern Ireland. We believe that rights are inherent and universal, but different jurisdictions have the right to reflect different aspects of rights in their domestic law or to domesticate international conventions. Indeed, the debate on a bill of rights in this Chamber goes back to 1962 when one of my predecessors, the Liberal MP for Queen’s University, Sheelagh Murnaghan, first proposed a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. To an extent, that was met by the Human Rights Act 1998, which brings into domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights. Of course, the Good Friday Agreement predates that Westminster Parliament Act. However, we recognise that the European Convention on Human Rights is deficient in a number of respects — two notably. The first is in dealing with the realities of a divided society, and the second relates to social and economic rights.

We also respect the right of the —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member not accept that the fact that there is such division in the attitude of political parties and in communities to a consultation represents a flawed start and, therefore, means that any public consultation will be a complete waste of funding. Those who came up with a set of words should have put consensus at the heart of a bill of rights: we have to reach consensus in order to reach agreement. The Human Rights Commission’s advice is flawed, so let us not waste any more public funding on the exercise.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Many contentious issues have been consulted on, but I have some sympathy for Mr Beggs’s comments. It is true in one sense that both unionist parties failed to engage in the process, going back to the foundation of the Human Rights Commission. Equally, those who drafted and are lobbying —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Does the Member not accept as a matter of factual record that the Ulster Unionist Party and other parties engaged positively in the Bill of Rights Forum? We worked very hard to find consensus but were unable to do so because others were obstructive or had a particular, narrow agenda.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Mr Kennedy is a wee bit premature, and I may have some comfort for him in what I am about to say.

Equally, it is important to note that those who drafted and are now lobbying for a bill of rights have done so without considering the political reality of achieving cross-community support. In particular, I think that the Bill of Rights Forum was a complete waste of time, and people ploughed on, regardless of the need to ensure political buy-in from all quarters. That document was dead on arrival, because parties rejected it. It was not a neutral waste of time. We have, in some senses, missed a window of opportunity, given that we may be in the last days of a Labour Government. Even if the NIO publishes a consultation document, the prospects of any legislation in the lifetime of this Parliament are nil, so we are looking to the future.

However, I respect the right of the Human Rights Commission to produce a draft bill of rights. Doing so is consistent with the mandate given in the Good Friday Agreement. It is an enabling mandate, not one that is prescriptive in exactly how the advice is to come forward. Nevertheless, my party has major difficulties with the mandate for the terms of reference for a bill of rights, as we find it contradictory and sectarian.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am afraid that I am running out of time.

The Alliance Party voted for the Good Friday Agreement, but we did so despite that element, rather than because of it. We are apprehensive about what a future Conservative Government would mean for a bill of rights. In one sense, we are open-minded about a UK bill of rights — one, perhaps, with a Northern Ireland chapter. Indeed, we in Northern Ireland are not a place apart but part of a wider UK and all-Ireland framework.

However, my concerns are twofold. First, I do not think that the Conservative Party appreciates the subtleties of Northern Ireland, and, secondly, I am extremely wary of any attempt to unpick the Human Rights Act 1998. That has to be the platform on which we build, and any attempt to undermine that would be extremely destructive. I urge caution in that regard.

In my last few seconds I will set out some of our concerns about the current draft bill of rights. The Alliance Party certainly respects the right to have a debate and for a consultation to occur, but, as a liberal party, we are concerned about the focus on collective rights at the expense of individual rights, and we see the potential for further sectarian divisions to be institutionalised in this society. We also have some concerns about how far socio-economic rights will go. We support them in principle, but we support rights based on equality of access and equality of treatment, and we are wary of measures that go towards equality of outcome and actually interfere with the rights of the Assembly.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am glad that Dr Farry corrected his comments about contributions to the Bill of Rights Forum, because, having spent a year on that body alongside him, I still bear the mental scars of trying to make a contribution to that.

I join Mr Kennedy in thanking those who have submitted a petition of concern for the way in which they have clearly illustrated the lack of cross-community support for the proposals put forward by the Human Rights Commission. I noted Mr Attwood’s comments with some concern, though not surprise, and I think the cat is out of the bag. There is regular preaching from the Benches opposite about consensus and the need for cross-community support for everything, but he has let the cat out of the bag by hinting that, on the issue of a bill of rights, it does not matter what those of us on this side of the Chamber think, or what the people who we represent think: it will be forced on us anyway. That is an unfortunate line to take.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Yes, I will; perhaps you can tidy up the mess your colleague has made.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

You said that it does not matter what the people who you represent think, but, as Ms Purvis said, we should allow the public to have their say by having the consultation. Do you not agree with that?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I have no doubt that, if the public were consulted, the views expressed by my party and the Ulster Unionist Party would be prevalent within my community. I would not say that if I did not believe it. There is clear concern on this side of the House — indeed, there should be concern right across the House — about the lack of cross-community support for the proposals that have been put forward, but that does not seem to concern those who are desperate for a bill of rights to push their own political agenda.

“There is no pressing need for a Bill of Rights to supplement the European Convention in far-reaching ways in Northern Ireland. The human rights situation in Northern Ireland is not so bad, or so precarious, as to require a Bill of Rights that is more penetrative than any other such document in the world.”

Those are not my words, but the words of Professor Brice Dickson. I do not know whether he or I should be more worried that I am quoting his remarks so favourably, but he certainly encapsulated many of the concerns that there are about the draft proposals and advice that have been put forward by the Human Rights Commission.

I am concerned about the misrepresentation of the mandate of the Human Rights Commission. Mr Kennedy talked about the issue of scope, and other Members have referred to the fact that the mandate of the commission is to give advice on:

“the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.

It is not to give advice on the “specific” circumstances, as Dawn Purvis said. There is a distinct difference between the words “specific” and “particular”. “Specific circumstances” would allow for this wide over-extension of the mandate, but “particular circumstances” does not.

Many of us engaged positively in the process because we did not rule out the idea of a bill of rights per se. There may be scope for additional rights relating to particular circumstances for Northern Ireland. When thinking of particular circumstances, some of us might think of issues like parading, yet there is absolutely nothing in the advice about parading. We might think of things like the strong feeling in Northern Ireland about the right to life, particularly in relation to abortion, but there is nothing about that whatsoever.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Does the Member not agree that there is specific reference to parading? People have a right to live free from sectarian harassment; that is quite specific.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP 4:30 pm, 3rd November 2009

The Member misses the point that I am making. We would all agree that parading is a circumstance that is particular to Northern Ireland, certainly in the fashion in which we do it, yet the advice that the Human Rights Commission submitted makes no reference to it in any regard from one side of the argument or the other. It contains many references to issues such as how elections are to be run, which are not relevant or important to people, but it completely dismisses things that are important to many people in Northern Ireland. It also argues for provisions that are well catered for by existing laws in Northern Ireland.

Page 16 of the document contains a section entitled:

“Freedom from violence, exploitation and harassment”.

That section says that people should be free from all forms of violence or harassment, including domestic violence, sexual violence, gender-related violence, sectarian violence and violence or harassment motivated by hate. All those are abhorrent, and everyone opposes them, but every one of them is already outlawed by existing legislation in this country. There is no need to introduce additional rights just for the sake of it.

I will finish by talking about social and economic rights. It should be in the domain of the Assembly, not the courts, to direct where our limited resources go. At times, I might have an argument with the Health Minister about his use of resources, but neither he nor any other Member would disagree that we all want the highest attainable standard of health for the citizens of Northern Ireland. However, I believe passionately that the decisions on where limited resources should go should lie with the Assembly and with other elected institutions; it should not be in the domain of unelected judges to make up laws and spend resources from the bench. I would oppose that very strongly.

If a bill of rights were put into the whole raft of health, environment, education, social security and accommodation policy —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member must bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Some accommodation rights might be contrary to immigration law. As Lady Trimble said, a bill of rights would create the possibility of rights tourists travelling to Northern Ireland. There is much for us to be worried about, and a lack of cross-community support is the death knell for the commission’s advice.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ní nach ionadh, tá mé ag labhairt in éadan an rúin agus i bhfabhar an leasaithe a thairg Dawn Purvis dúinn.

Sinn Féin opposes the motion and supports the amendment. It is difficult to comprehend how any Member or any political party could oppose the enshrinement of a bill of rights.

A bill of rights should be the cornerstone of this society as we emerge from conflict. It should be a charter of all that we wish for the future and a crucial building block for remaking and reshaping society for future generations so that everyone can be treated equally in a society where there are strong and effective mechanisms to protect against the discrimination upon which this state was founded. It would be a society that recognises the right to housing, adequate healthcare, education, freedom from sectarian violence and fear and equality before the law.

DUP and Ulster Unionist Party spokespersons in the Chamber often speak exclusively about the rights and entitlements of the unionist community, yet a bill of rights could be the very mechanism that guarantees the rights of the entire community and all traditions. Is any Member of the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party prepared to admit that they do not want a future that is based on equality? Is one Member from either of those parties prepared to admit that they do not want to provide people with equal access to healthcare or a future that is based on the rights of every man, woman and child to freedom, prosperity and happiness?

This is the time for our society to equip itself for the future, and, surely, that entails the institution of a strong and effective bill of rights. A strong and effective bill of rights will help to deliver and guarantee for everyone a decent standard of living, the highest possible standard of healthcare and social care, a decent home, jobs with fair wages and proper working conditions and a healthy and safe environment for people to live in. Surely, a bill of rights would enshrine that for everyone.

Hitherto in the debate, neither the DUP nor the UUP have been persuasive or convincing in their arguments for opposing those values. Members from those parties who remain to speak have the unenviable task of persuading the rest of the Assembly that there is something wrong with creating a legal framework to protect rights. That will do me.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will, perhaps, start from where the previous Member left off. He said that my party said nothing to persuade him of its case. I suspect that he and many Members on the opposite Benches are utterly unpersuadable. Before a word was even spoken in the debate, a petition of concern was presented to ensure that the motion would not be passed. Although the Member complains about the failure of members of my party to persuade him, he has, in fact, no interest in listening to our comments.

I also want to deal with a point that was made about ordinary people. I have no doubt that, if there were to be some level of consultation, synthetic concerns would be produced, and lobby groups would engineer responses. During the summer, I, in common with many other Members, spent several weeks knocking on ordinary people’s doors to canvass for the European election. Many issues were raised with me, not least of which was a constant complaint about politicians’ expenses. Despite the vast range of issues that were raised, not a single person that I canvassed in North Down or, indeed, in any of the other constituencies that I visited asked why there was not a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. I suspect that my experience was not unique

Let us, therefore, kill the myth that there is an outcry from ordinary people. Synthetic concerns may be produced, and lobby groups may come forward. However, that does not reflect what people are saying on the doorsteps. I am sure that other Members share that experience.

The Assembly and structures of governance in Northern Ireland are based on the concept of cross-community votes, as outlined by the Members who oppose the motion. It is their right to call for a cross-community vote on the motion. The debate is presided over by a Deputy Speaker who was elected by a cross-community vote. With respect to the Deputy Speaker, if his position in the Assembly is important enough to be decided in that way, why would a bill of rights that has the potential to be the most important piece of legislation for decades not be decided by a cross-community vote? Is it to provide for the imposition of a bill of rights on unionists, should they oppose it? That is how it comes across.

Before the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission produced its report, it should have listened to the warning signals. The previous commission’s report did not find cross-community support, and it simply ran into the sand.

Many genuine people will have raised genuine concerns at the Bill of Rights Forum. However, the forum did not adopt any cross-community voting procedures. The end result was that it produced a report that unleashed an entire stable of hobby horses. Few, if any, of its recommendations had that level of support.

When it came to the Human Rights Commission’s draft report, two of its members, representing two of the main political parties in Northern Ireland, made it clear they had difficulties with it and could not sign up to it. Those members were Daphne Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and Jonathan Bell of the Democratic Unionist Party. By that stage, in normal circumstances, the alarm bells that were already ringing should have been deafening. Instead, the Human Rights Commission went ahead with its report.

I am no defender of the Belfast Agreement. However, the report drives a coach and horses through the remit given to the Human Rights Commission.

Other Members mentioned the scope to define, rather than simply to produce, a bill of rights. To seek rights that are supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights would be to send out a message that we do not believe in equality. However, that is not the case. There is no blank legislative page: we have equality legislation and a raft of equality provisions. The European convention is part of this country’s domestic laws. Every aspect of the European convention is not being supplemented,; it is being incorporated directly into the bill of rights.

The particular circumstances in Northern Ireland have been mentioned. I acknowledge that accommodation, health, social security rights and a range of additional issues are important. However, are they particular to Northern Ireland? Is housing not an issue for someone in Birmingham? Is health not an important issue for someone in Dublin? Are social security rights not an important issue for someone in Glasgow? The reality is that those issues are not particular to Northern Ireland, and a coach and horses are being driven through them.

If a bill of rights were adopted, it would tie in the Assembly and Executive —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

It would tie in the Assembly and Executive to a range of issues that should ultimately be decided by the Assembly, not by judges. That is why we oppose a bill of rights and support the motion.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Given that Mr Weir started his contribution where Mr McElduff finished, I will start with the point that he finished on about the Government being so tied up in knots by rights that they cannot move. My point is that it would be worse to tie the economy up in knots and thereby ruin the prospect of creating more jobs.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I will give way in a moment. If the Member would let me start, I might have the opportunity to give way.

The difficulty that a bill of rights will present to the entire population of Northern Ireland, not just the Assembly — it is tied up in enough knots — has not been addressed. I am thinking of the wider economy.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member not accept that the rights to which he refers are special in the sense that they deal with social and economic issues but that the law-making facility for them remains with the Assembly? Those rights are progressively realised. In other words, they are in a different category from other rights. That is the international practice. Therefore, there is nothing to fear, and government will not be tied up in knots because of those rights. This is common practice throughout the civilised world.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

It is good to hear Mr Maginness argue against the report that he claims to support.

My colleague Danny Kennedy outlined the abject failure of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to gain the cross-community and cross-party support that are required. Today’s debate underlines that. Can any Member seriously imagine that it would be in the interests of the stability of the devolved institutions for the Secretary of State to even contemplate imposing the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s recommendations and their outworking on the House?

The fact that Members on the Benches opposite felt it necessary to table a petition of concern emphasises the utter lack of consensus and agreement. It would be foolhardy in the extreme for the Secretary of State to proceed in implementing the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s recommendations in any significant way.

I am interested to hear how Mr McElduff thinks that those recommendations would guarantee people good housing, because I cannot figure that out. Perhaps he will explain that to me. Devolution is meant to be about taking decisions at the level of government that is closest to the people, and that is what we in the House are meant to be about. We are accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. Thankfully, that is what democratic governance and accountability are about. However, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s recommendations fundamentally undermine that.

Instead of abiding by the mandate given to the commission in the agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report introduces a whole swathe of socio-economic rights that are unknown to the rest of the United Kingdom. Matters of public policy that spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money are meant to be addressed by the democratically elected representatives of the House, but the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report wants them to be handed over to the courts.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member accept that much of our limited funds will end up being spent on lawyers’ fees and that there will, therefore, be even less money to improve housing, health and education?

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

The Member makes a very valid point. That is just what I was trying to emphasise. It is the hard-working taxpayers of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom who are going to suffer from the outworking of this matter. As my colleague said, the rights to health, an adequate standard of living, accommodation, work and social security would, therefore, be subject to the courts through that provision.

The provision on social security matters poses a very interesting question. Such matters are settled at Westminster, with the House accepting the convention of parity. Social security is inextricably linked to taxation, and it is for Westminster to decide how to achieve the balance between taxation and social security provision. In other words, it is a matter for those elected by the people and not for unelected judges in courtrooms. Judges are meant to interpret the law, not make policy. It is that fundamental principle of the United Kingdom constitution that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has blatantly disregarded. This, after all, is mainstream British politics.

In July 2007, the Government produced ‘The Governance of BritainGreen Paper, which stated:

“some have argued for the incorporation of economic and social rights into British law. But this would involve a significant shift from Parliament to the judiciary in making decisions about public spending and, at least implicitly, levels of taxation.”

The same principle works in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland. Article 45 of that state’s constitution explicitly declares that the socio-economic rights set out in the constitution are merely to guide the Republic’s Parliament and are not a matter for the courts.

Imagine if the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report was implemented here.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 4:45 pm, 3rd November 2009

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

If that happened, not only would it be the case that one part of the United Kingdom — Northern Ireland — would labour under a regime of economic rights that applied nowhere else in the United Kingdom, but what would the Republic of Ireland do?

I support the motion.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

In his opening speech, Mr Kennedy completely misrepresented the bill of rights and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. In relation to a bill of rights, the agreement is clear that the 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. These 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 ECHR — to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”

That is not, as the Member said, an “innocuous” sentence. It was deliberately designed to bring about a bill of rights in Northern Ireland, because those who signed the agreement were committed to creating a culture of rights here. For so long, rights in this jurisdiction were trampled upon, ignored or abused; we have to remedy that with a culture of rights. That is what a bill of rights is all about.

Members on the opposite side of the House said that those rights were extant. They may be extant in various pieces of legislation; however, the point of a bill of rights is to entrench those rights so that they cannot be taken away from the people of Northern Ireland. That is the important aspect of a bill of rights.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not know who had first call, but I will give way.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way, and I thank my colleague across the way for letting me intervene.

Will the Member explain how those rights will be entrenched, given the fact that, presumably, a bill of rights would be included in a piece of Westminster legislation and, therefore, Westminster would be perfectly entitled to overturn it?

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

Of course Parliament is sovereign. However, the point is that Parliament is committed to the process.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

A Parliament.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

A Parliament is committed to the process. Means of entrenchment, which have been identified in the advice to the Government, would be contained in the bill of rights. If the bill of rights were to be changed, the process for doing so would be very difficult. Therefore, it would be very difficult to remove those rights.

Given our past, the entrenchment of rights is important. For example, some Members said that housing should not be included in a bill of rights. Housing is one of the most important rights to be included, as the Troubles stemmed from the fact that people could not get houses. People who were destitute or homeless were deprived because of political patronage and prejudice. Therefore, it is important that we entrench people’s right to accommodation.

In that same way, the Parliament that pre-existed this institution took away people’s right to proportional representation. Had that right remained, the future of this jurisdiction could have been quite different. However, its removal destroyed proper representation in the House that preceded this one and meant that political change was frustrated.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. I am sorry; my time is running out.

Taking away the right to proportional representation meant that unionist hegemony was preserved in this jurisdiction. I believe that that was wrong. Had the right to proportional representation been entrenched, the history of this place might have been different. Some Members may say that rights are unimportant, but they are very important in our historical context.

Those who signed the agreement were committed to a bill of rights. Therefore, it is not right for those who signed it to try and change it. There is a mandate for a bill of rights. We can argue about its content, but we should not argue about the concept. That concept has been agreed, and the Government should therefore implement a bill of rights. The Government received advice on the matter some time ago, and it is unreasonable and quite wrong for them to have delayed acting on that advice for so long.

There is popular support for a bill of rights. Surveys have been conducted among the public, and I believe that unionist politicians are out of step with public opinion. Millward Brown Ulster, which is an independent market research company, conducted a poll of people across Northern Ireland and found that 83% of people regarded a bill of rights as quite important or very important. That was an increase from the 70% who answered the same question previously. Therefore, there has been a substantial increase in popular support for a bill of rights.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the amendment and oppose the motion.

Contrary to what the motion suggests, a bill of rights will not stop any Government from introducing legislation that is necessary to protect people’s rights. The distinct difference between ordinary legislation and a bill of rights is that the former can be removed or overturned, depending on the party that is in power at any given time.

As other Members said, one only has to look at recent history in the North of Ireland to see how one ruling party denied civil rights to a substantial section of the community for years and how that resulted in conflict. That shows that the protection of everyone’s rights is essential if we are to go forward. People listening to the debate must be concerned, because it has shown that there are still some people who do not want to extend rights and protections to everyone in society, including the most vulnerable. The debate has also shown that there are people who want to remove existing protections.

The motion is an attempt to cloud the issue by claiming that a bill of rights will negate the role and authority of the Assembly. That is not the case, because primary responsibility for the enforcement of a bill of rights will lie with elected representatives. If we had a bill of rights, laws that are introduced to Parliament would be assessed to see whether they were compatible with the bill.

What counts today is what we do next. We have built a peace process, we have built power-sharing institutions, and we are forging ahead with the new policing dispensation. We still have to undo some of the damage of the past. A bill of rights, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, to protect everybody’s political, civil, economic and social rights is the way forward. It is not only possible but necessary.

It is essential to build economic growth on a new foundation of justice and equality. In a transitional society that is emerging from conflict, such as we have in Ireland today, economic growth that does not systematically promote equality is not sustainable in the long term. To make progress, all Governments must write the need to meet the social and economic needs of people into their economic and social objectives.

The bill of rights contains a number of protections: the right to live free from sectarianism and racism; the right to a decent standard of living; the right to the highest possible standard of health and social care; the right to a decent home that is safe and affordable; and the right to work for a decent wage in proper working conditions. It contains other safeguards, including the right to a sustainable, healthy and safe environment and the right to adequate social security and pensions. It is worth remembering that those basic human rights are not directed at one or other section of the community; they are the rights of everyone in the community. Moreover, it is a fundamental commitment of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, and it offers an opportunity to make real change and a positive difference to the quality of life of everyone here.

As other Members said, it is important to consider the feelings of people in the local community whom we represent. We do not represent ourselves in the House; we represent people in the community. Alban Maginness outlined some figures. I want to repeat those figures and provide others. A survey asked people how important they consider a bill of rights to be for the North of Ireland: 83% believed it to be “quite important” or “very important”. Support was almost equally split: 85% of Catholics and 81% of Protestants supported the notion. Those figures illustrate that support exists for a bill of rights.

I listened to today’s contributions, and it is important to protect those who are most vulnerable in society. A bill of rights should not frighten anyone, because it is set out for all people in society, and we require public consultation on the matter now.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member should draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I oppose the motion and support the amendment.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

The heart of today’s debate can be summed up in a few words: to reflect the circumstances in Northern Ireland. That is the cause of most of the disagreement among parties in the Chamber, and it is the cause of conflict in Northern Ireland. What came first: stinking, polluted politics or bloody, awful violence?

I have some sympathy with the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives, because they pose an ideological argument on the justiciability of social and economic rights. However, there are absolutely no grounds for that argument, because responsibility for those rights and for law-making lies with the Assembly. As Alban Maginness said, social and economic rights are progressively realised over a period of time and according to available resources. What will change if they are restricted in any way? The autonomy of this parliament, not the courts, is responsible for those rights.

The DUP supports some human rights. During a debate at Westminster on 27 October 2009, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, spoke about parading in Northern Ireland. He said:

“The strategic review stressed, and we agree, that if progress is to be made on parading, it is imperative to address the existing lack of cultural understanding through an effective education programme that includes reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust, and the protection and vindication of human rights for all.”

Members can read more about the DUP’s advocation of human rights in that Westminster debate.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is when they are at Westminster.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP 5:00 pm, 3rd November 2009

Yes; that is when they have their Westminster hats on. The DUP’s arguments, and the basis of its opposition to human rights, rely on its blinkered view of the causes of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It denies that discrimination existed and that all working-class people, particularly Catholics, endured slums, squalor, poverty and unemployment to preserve the power of the political elite. That view is best summed up by the words of my colleague Gusty Spence, who said:

“You’d neither in you nor on you, but we were in power.”

By holding on to academic selection, the DUP continues to deny working-class children, Protestants in particular, the right to a decent education. The DUP must stop living in denial; it must examine what happened here and what caused the conflict, because it is doing a great disservice to working-class people — Protestant working-class people in particular — and to the most vulnerable people in society. My party supports the Good Friday Agreement and a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

No, I will not give way.

The purpose of a bill of rights is to entrench a culture of human rights in Northern Ireland. That was reflected in referenda that were held, North and South, and in successive public surveys, which have already been quoted.

It is up to us to support public consultation, not to deny people their right to be heard or to say that public consultation is not the way forward on this issue. It is the way forward; it works for every other policy or piece of legislation that comes out of this place. Let the public have its say; let the Secretary of State publish the consultation so that we can see what the public think about a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. I urge all Members to support the amendment.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

In making the winding-up speech on the motion, I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board for Northern Ireland, and specifically as chairman of its human rights and professional standards committee. I do not speak in that capacity today, but I can inform the House that my membership of the Policing Board has brought certain issues to my attention.

Many Members talk in woolly terms, or in an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ way that has no basis in reality. However, many issues that come up when we talk about human rights, such as attenuated energy projectiles (AEPs), plastic bullets, the use of Taser and the use of detention powers, are the same issues that are raised with members of the Policing Board’s human rights and professional standards committee. Those who argue for public consultation do not understand the complexities involved. It is our role, as elected representatives, to know about and understand the issues.

As I listened to the proposer of the amendment, I was dismayed. I could use stronger language, but it is not appropriate to accuse elected representatives of being dishonest or of not taking into account what their electorate has to say. Unionists were accused of duplicity and of being confused. I say to the Member, who is present in the House, that I am not confused. I do not act in a duplicitous manner, nor do I act with any lack of honesty. The central issue is whether it is right to have a public consultation —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I am sorry, but Members have had their chance to speak.

The issue is about having a public consultation on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice when it is clear that at least two of the major parties in the Assembly do not support the commission’s recommendations. It would, therefore, be a complete and utter waste of public money to go any further with that.

Martina Anderson said that we are out of step; that is not for her to judge. As I have heard her say before, we have a democratic mandate; we have an absolute right to be here. This Chamber has primacy; not some kangaroo court or any other form of court. The Assembly is the basis of democracy. This is where decisions are made, and we will not resile from that position.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

When the issue comes —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Mr Maginness, the Member has said that he will not give way, so please resume your seat.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Mr Attwood mentioned three things for which he thought that we were world-renowned. Those were our human rights position; our not being able to have it both ways; and our not being able to rewrite the Belfast Agreement, about which he challenged us. Although I listened to the arguments put forward by my colleague Miss McIlveen, I make no secret of the fact that I voted “yes”. I may be the only unionist left who will say that they voted “yes”, but I believe in the Belfast Agreement, and I take some cognisance that others on Benches to my left support some of the issues that we have put forward.

On the issue of rewriting things, I believe that the mandate that was given to the Human Rights Commission should not be rewritten. It should not be said that that mandate means something different now when it is quite clear that, as my colleague Mr Kennedy said, the particular circumstances for Northern Ireland and the responsibility in relation to supplementary rights are exactly as was originally outlined.

Simon Hamilton said that he understands and supports human rights, and mentioned specific issues such as parading.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Just one minute, Mr Shannon.

Do Members accept Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relates to freedom of assembly and association?

Some Members:

Yes.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

If that needs to be refined, so be it, but do not be duplicitous in how that is done.

I will now give way to Mr Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I have not had a chance to speak.

Does the Member agree that a great concern is the number of people in the unionist community who are against what is being suggested? Members across the way do not seem to have grasped that. The Church of Ireland has published a document stating that a bill of rights would be divisive and would detract from the union. Legal specialists have also said that a separate bill of rights is not necessary as the rest of the UK is looking into that. That is why the unionist people are against it, and some Members have failed to accept that.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention; I took it because I know that he has not had the chance to speak, unlike others who have had their chance to make their case.

In one way, I can answer the charge levelled at me by Ms Purvis, which was that I am confused; Dr Farry’s argument confused me. He stated that he is sympathetic to our point of view; he talked about political reality not being taken on board; he used terms such as “ploughed on”; and he mentioned that he has major difficulties. In spite of all that, he stated that he would support the amendment and vote against the motion. What sort of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world does he live in? Only four minutes and 45 seconds into his contribution did he mention problems, costs and other issues that his party does not like. He wasted the opportunity to argue his case, and that is why his argument does not convince me.

Barry McElduff challenged us by asking whether there was even one unionist here who was able to stand up and make an argument about why they are not supporting a bill of rights or why they resile from equality arguments that I believe to be spurious. My reply to Mr McElduff is that I question any equality agenda that does not deliver for the very people for whom it should deliver.

Is it the right way forward to enact human rights legislation that will be a paradise for lawyers, bureaucrats and all sorts of jobsworths, enabling them to delay the implementation of measures that are badly needed? Ms Purvis is not the only person on the unionist Benches who cares about the Protestant working classes. How dare she make out that she is.

Our party argues for the social justice that all the people of Northern Ireland demand. We will not be browbeaten by Members, from whatever side of the House, who wish to rewrite history. Those who argue that the source of the Troubles was a socio-economic or housing problem miss the point that the terrorist activity that we experienced over the past 40 years was not about social deprivation but about a political aim for a united Ireland, and the terrorist activity was perpetrated by —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I am sorry, but I have already made it clear that I will not give way.

The terrorist activity was perpetrated by people who believed that violence was the way forward. However, ladies and gentlemen, that is not the way forward. Mr Attwood mentioned moving forward without consensus. However, if we have learnt anything, surely it is that without agreement there cannot be progress. There is no way forward unless we all agree. As a democrat, I believe that this House, and this House alone, should have primacy in ensuring that we do what is right for all the people of Northern Ireland. Of the contributions made by my colleagues on the Benches to my left, I was particularly struck by that of Simon Hamilton, who quoted Brice Dickson.

No one here talks about responsibility or the cost of implementing a bill of rights.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

No one here talks about democracy, and, on that basis, those who support the creation of a bill of rights have failed as elected representatives and as democrats. If those people cannot convince us of their views and win the argument, they cannot win the peace.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The vote on the amendment will be taken on a simple majority basis.

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 46; Noes 39.

AYES

Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr A Maginness and Mr McCarthy.

NOES

Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain,  Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Kennedy and Mr B McCrea.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you now invite Members to your left to withdraw the petition of concern?

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

That is not a point of order, Mr Ford.

Main Question, as amended, put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 45; Noes 39.

AYES

NATIONALIST:

Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.

UNIONIST:

Ms Purvis.

OTHER:

Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr A Maginness and Mr McCarthy.

NOES

UNIONIST:

Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain,  Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea,  Mr I McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson,  Mr K Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Kennedy and Mr B McCrea.

Total votes 84          Total Ayes 45  [53.6%]

Nationalist Votes 37 Nationalist Ayes 37 [100.0%]

Unionist Votes 40  Unionist Ayes 1 [2.5%]

Other Votes 7       Other Ayes 7 [100.0%]

Main Question, as amended, accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]