Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights: Report

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 14th February 2022.

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Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 14th February 2022

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights [NIA 156/17-22].

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allocate two and a half hours to the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have seven minutes.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to bring the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights to the Chamber. My initial remarks will be made in my capacity as Chair of the Committee.

A bill of rights for the North has been discussed and debated for decades. It was committed to most memorably in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In January 2020, 'New Decade, New Approach', the basis on which we are all here, called for the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee to consider the creation of a bill of rights. The commitment outlined that a bill of rights should be:

"faithful to the stated intention of the 1998 Agreement in that it contains rights supplementary to those contained in the European Convention on Human Rights … 'that reflect the particular circumstances'" of the North and:

"the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem."

A resolution of the Assembly in February 2020 established the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights and required it to submit a report to the Assembly by 28 February 2022. Today, I present that report to the Chamber.

As a Committee, we have had the privilege of hearing from a wide range of witnesses with expertise in human rights and constitutional law, including academics, senior judges, lawyers and representatives of the Human Rights Commission. We heard from negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, trade unions, the voluntary and community sector, language groups, the women's sector, LGBTQ+ activists and the Churches, amongst many others.

We were keen to hear from as many people across society as possible and particularly from less heard groups, as a bill of rights should be for everyone. We issued a survey that gathered over 2,300 responses, and we followed it up with a series of workshops broadly organised according to section 75 groups. Indeed, one of the highlights for the Committee was listening to the views of people who live here and hearing about their experiences.

We also held informal meetings with justices of the Supreme Courts of the UK and the Twenty-six Counties and met TDs, Seanadóirí and MPs through the Houses of the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. They were engaging and beneficial discussions, and we were grateful to have them.

On behalf of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights, I record our sincere thanks to all those who contributed to the Committee's evidence gathering, whether at formal or informal Committee meetings, and to the individuals who took time out of their day to respond to the Committee's survey or attend one of its stakeholder events. I also thank all the organisations who supported the Committee's call for evidence, particularly Disability Action, the Red Cross, Positive Futures, Mencap, the Now Group, the Housing Executive and Women's Aid, among so many others. Committee members are so grateful to each of the schools that took the time to participate in our focus groups, facilitated by the Assembly's Education Service, and to the children and young people for providing their views during an academic year that had been interrupted so much owing to COVID.

I acknowledge the invaluable contributions and support of the Human Rights Commission and the witnesses who shared their expertise with us from across the globe — from Queen's University Belfast to Trinity College Dublin, from London to Toronto and Cape Town. Each contribution was valued and considered by all members. We were pleased with the high level of engagement that we had throughout, which helped to ensure that the views of all communities and minority groups were represented.

I also thank the Assembly's engagement, education and communication teams for coordinating and promoting the Committee's call for evidence, as well as the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISe) for its papers.

As specified in 'New Decade, New Approach', a panel of five experts was to be appointed jointly by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Many of the Committee's discussions and decisions were to be subject to prospective advice from that panel. Therefore, it was a source of immense disappointment and frustration that the panel was not established, despite the many letters that we sent to the Executive Office seeking an update on the process.

I turn to the evidence that we received. We heard that the human rights of many people here are not adequately protected, particularly in relation to disability, age, religion or belief and ethnic group. Our survey identified strong support for a bill of rights. Of the respondents, 80% said that a bill of rights was "very important" or "important", while 6% thought that it was "not important at all". That support was evident at our stakeholder events. The Committee heard about the potential benefits of a bill of rights, including that it can:

"Enhance human rights protections; Act as a transitional justice measure; Act as a safeguard underpinning legislation and policy" and "Help support political stability".

A small proportion of witnesses and stakeholders raised concerns about the creation of a bill of rights, including those whose views on the matter are well recorded — Jeffrey Dudgeon and Lady Trimble. Some questioned whether the bill of rights is needed in view of existing legislation, while others were concerned that it might remove decision-making abilities from the legislature. That said, in June last year, the Committee agreed that it supported the creation of a bill of rights in principle in light of the evidence received and the references in 'New Decade, New Approach'. That decision, however, was reached subject to the advice of the panel of experts, which was not made available. The DUP, in its party position paper, then reneged on that decision.

I come now to the particular circumstances of the North, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. As a Committee, we heard diverse opinions on that, with some calling for different interpretations. Many of those we heard from were concerned about the impact of Brexit on human rights here. There were particular concerns about the limits of the "no diminution" commitment and the reduced application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. As a Committee, in the end, we were unable to formulate a view about what constitutes the particular circumstances of the North or about the impact of Brexit on those particular circumstances due to the absence of a panel of experts and the content of the DUP party position paper.

The Committee received a range of ideas on the approach that should be taken to a bill of rights, many of which are not mutually exclusive. For example, some advocated a tightly scoped bill of rights, and others pointed to approaches in other jurisdictions. A number of witnesses, such as Professor Colin Harvey, suggested that a bill of rights could act as a framework with further legislation and policy underpinning it. Others questioned whether primary legislation should address human rights issues instead. A common theme for many was that a bill of rights should draw from international human rights instruments. Again, as a Committee, we could not reach a decision on what approach to take to a bill of rights due to the absence of a panel of experts and the content of the DUP party position paper.

Bills of rights often combine law, symbolism and aspiration. Albie Sachs, former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC told us about the important role of a preamble in setting a value system and a tonality for a bill of rights, using language that resonates with people. There was strong support amongst those whom we heard from for a bill of rights to set out an aspirational vision based on foundational values. The values that seemed to resonate most included human dignity; mutual respect; justice; respect for culture, identity, traditions and aspirations; and equality. Many people said that they wanted to move away from the traditional orange and green identities and, as a result, thought that parity of esteem did not belong in a bill of rights for today, given that it refers to two communities and does not reflect an increasingly diverse society. The Committee provisionally agreed, subject to the expert advice of the panel, that a bill of rights should contain a preamble with an interpretative effect, meaning that it would guide the interpretation of a bill of rights over time. However, that decision was invalidated by the absence of a panel of experts and the content of the DUP party position paper.

As a Committee, we spent considerable time considering what rights should be included in a bill of rights. As I have already alluded to, we identified strong support for civil and political rights, with 88% of respondents to our survey calling for their inclusion. Civil and political rights protect freedoms such as the right to liberty, the right to life and freedom of expression. Many called for the European Convention rights to be incorporated, with supplementary rights to include equality and anti-discrimination provisions. There was also huge support for economic, social and cultural rights, with 82% of survey respondents calling for their inclusion. Those rights focus on protecting people's development and livelihoods, and there was particular support for healthcare, housing and education rights. The Committee also heard some concerns about such rights, relating mainly to enforcement in government and budgetary constraints. Eighty-six per cent of respondents called for the inclusion of environmental rights. That was particularly strongly advocated by the children and young people with whom we engaged, who also advocated the inclusion of children's rights, mirroring the provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Ultimately, the Committee was unable to make a decision on which rights to include due to the absence of a panel of experts and the content of the DUP party position paper.

I turn to the enforcement of rights. We heard regularly, particularly from civic society representatives, that a bill of rights must include justiciable rights; that is, rights that are capable of being decided on in a court of law. Others raised concerns about the adjudication of rights, including potential implications for the separation of powers. A common thread running through the evidence of the then Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Sir John Gillen and others was that any bill of rights must be specific to ensure that rights are enforceable. We also received evidence from the Human Rights Consortium and Professor Christopher McCrudden about a range of available options for the enforcement of economic and social rights, but, again, the Committee was unable to make a decision on the justiciability and enforcement of rights due to the absence of a panel of experts and the content of the DUP party position paper.

A number of witnesses, including Dominic Grieve QC, suggested that the Assembly should legislate for its own bill of rights; indeed, we also heard that the devolved legislators in Wales and Scotland had incorporated international human rights standards into their domestic law. However, there was substantial support for a bill of rights to be taken forward at Westminster, as per the Good Friday Agreement. The Committee agreed in September last year that a bill of rights should be taken forward at Westminster. However, that was subject to the advice of a panel of experts that was never appointed and was subsequently negated by the content of the DUP party position paper.

The subject of a bill of rights has been discussed and debated by many people over the years. I recognise that many will be disappointed that we were unable to present a draft bill of rights here today. It is some consolation for me, as Chair of the Committee, that we have contributed to the wider conversation about human rights and equality here. I hope that our detailed and thorough consultation, research and report will assist future work and negotiations. On behalf of the Committee, I call on the Assembly to approve the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights.

I will now make some remarks in my capacity as Sinn Féin's equality spokesperson. I know that I speak for my whole party when I say that I am deeply disappointed by the abject failure of our Committee to produce a bill of rights that could be implemented in the North. As I outlined previously, we spoke to and engaged with hundreds of people from numerous walks of life. I thank formally all of those who gave of their time to help us. I thank the former Deputy Chair Mike Nesbitt, who showed steady commitment throughout, and to Paula Bradshaw, who ably replaced him. I also thank those who joined us temporarily, including my party colleague John O'Dowd.

All of the five main parties came together two years ago and committed to the process. Sinn Féin's record on rights is clear and unequivocal. I believe that we were in the majority, in that we were acting in good faith here. To be honest, I perhaps naively believed that everyone was on the same page throughout. We, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP might have had some differences in what the final product would look like, but we all came together and did the work. Unfortunately, we were working with one hand tied behind our back, as the DUP blocked the establishment of the panel that was supposed to advise us and then, at the very last minute, produced a position paper in which it stated that it did not believe that a bill of rights is merited and that any that we would create should focus on principles, not rights. Whilst that is disappointing, it is hardly a surprise. It is consistent with all of the other things that would bring real benefit to people's lives here that the DUP has blocked or tried to block.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

No, thank you.

They include implementing the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) report findings, Acht na Gaeilge, the commissioning of abortion services, the protocol and, perhaps, a Sinn Féin First Minister. We are in a cost-of-living crisis. We have just been dragged out of the EU against the wishes of the majority. The British Government are implementing legacy proposals that no party here is happy with. We know that people across the North are living in a rights deficit: our Irish language speakers, migrant workers, our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, women — the list goes on. We know that a majority of people across the North want to see the delivery of a bill of rights; they told us so. We know that legislation for socio-economic rights would prioritise in government many of the issues that are to the fore of the minds of all of our constituents: healthcare, housing and how to feed your children and heat your home comfortably at the same time. Never has it been more important for us to deliver rights. The DUP's blockage will last for only so long.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I have been on the Committee for a short time, yet I wish to speak about the report. Having read it and engaged with the Committee, I believe that this was a useful conversation to have.

Rights and the concept of rights are probably as old as man. They stem from ancient life, particularly from the Romans. It is important that there be a layer of rights, because democratic institutions sometimes fail. It is important to have a superior set of laws that can be used, if needed, in case a political party, even a democratic one, that may well have a private army behind it, or a shadowy organisation organising and leading it, would have power and trap it for itself. That is why rights, the concept of rights and that superior level of law are important: because, at that point, they take the judgement out of the hands of politicians and put it into the hands of judges.

Even from the last century, we have the experience of the unspeakable wickedness that was conducted by the Nazi Government. They ensured that everything that they did was wrapped up in law, rules and regulations so that even the most wicked acts of the Nazi Party were lawful. It was important that we had that superior source of law by which members of the Nazi Party could be judged, condemned and, in a lot of cases, executed. That is why we need that superior level of rights.

The concept of rights is assured. It is something that we support. A number of issues were borne out even in conversations in Committee, however. One is the rights in this part of the United Kingdom that may well become different from those in other parts of the nation and how that would affect the body corporate and the democratic principles and institutions of this place. Another is the expansionist model of, or approach to, rights. Rights are important, but they should be a high-level principle and need to be used only if the democratic institutions fail to protect people.

I must say that it has certainly been a lesson for me over the past two years when I have seen this democratic institution fail on so many occasions. We have had to pass laws retrospectively. Regulations have brought harm to our people by removing their right to earn a living, to work, to have a proper education, to play sports and to be active. The Assembly needs to take a good look at itself. That is one of the reasons that we need a superior level of law — a level of rights — that protects people when democratic institutions fail.

There is a balance to be struck between the courts and having a democratic organisation that is fit and proper and working in the right way. Those are two of the branches of government there to protect people, because that is what government is all about.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, I will.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Does the Member agree that provision of a bill of rights is, in essence, the creation of a written constitution and that, as we have seen in the United States of America, a written constitution invites differing interpretations? The situation in America now is that it is a deeply polarised society, where the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court falls along vicious partisan lines, because the country has a written constitution and two schools of thought as to how it should be interpreted.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The Member makes a very good intervention.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I must say that he has added to the debate and certainly to my position. He is right. Look at the Supreme Court in America and how politicised it is. Can anybody argue that that is the direction in which we should go? I believe that it is not. We have finely balanced levels of government.

We have the legislature, the courts and the Executive. That is basically where we need to be. It is about the balance and us being the guardians of democracy, making sure that it does not fail or hurt our people. We cannot say that that has been the case over the last two years.

When I look at the judge-led system in our courts and at some of the people who contributed to this conversation over the last two years, it strikes me as being very clear that the judges do not want us to expand on this approach at all. Sir Stephen Irwin, former Lord Justice of Appeal of England and Wales, thought that there was little to be gained from a bill of rights while the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) applies. Rather, he thought that the desire to improve social conditions and hold Governments to account should be fulfilled through the political system. I agree with Sir Stephen Irwin 100%. That is the fine balance that we need to bring in.

We can talk about all sorts of rights. There is this thing coming in now about positive rights — Lord Sumption, of all people, talks about this — whereby people now demand a minimum standard of something: a minimum standard of living, a minimum standard of health and a minimum standard of education. All of that is really good and aspirational stuff, but it should not be at the superior level of rights and the superior level of law; it should be the democratic process that achieves that for our people. This legislature and the Executive should achieve that for our people so that we have good standards of living, good standards of health and good standards of education. If you go and put those aspirations into the superior form and level of law — ie rights — you will have courts imposing their will on the legislature here, and every single pound that we take off our people to put into a Budget that we want to enact and spend in a certain way will be contradicted and challenged in the courts. Then, the judges will reign supreme in a democratic system. That will take away the balance of the democratic institutions that has been a strong pillar of this nation for decades and centuries.

Let us not dabble in things. Let us have the conversation, let us see where we can improve people's lives, but let us mark very clearly the difference between the Executive, the legislature and the courts.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:00 pm, 14th February 2022

John Hume once said:

"the basis of peace and stability, in any society, has to be the fullest respect for the human rights of all its people."

A bill of rights specific to Northern Ireland and its unique circumstances is the embodiment of that vision, yet, 24 years on from John's Nobel speech, the commitment made to that under our guiding document, the Good Friday Agreement, whether people like it or not, remains outstanding.

The failure to deliver on the promise to safeguard the rights of all citizens in the North is unacceptable, particularly in the context of a post-Brexit society in which the protections it would afford are needed more than ever. A rights-based framework, while not a panacea, makes for a solid foundation for peacebuilding.

As others have said, a bill of rights has been talked about for a long time. I do not have such a long time to talk about it this afternoon, so I am grateful that the Chair has done such a thorough job of reporting on the Committee's work.

A bill of rights, or the lack of one, affects everyone. The SDLP has long advocated for, and strongly supports, a robust bill of rights that includes protections for socio-economic rights. The agreement mandated a bill of rights that would, among other things, reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. It is too often forgotten that a disregard for socio-economic rights was at the heart of the conflict here. In our post-conflict society, a bill of rights is an integral tool in peace and reconciliation.

By placing duties on Executive Ministers and other public authorities, a bill of rights would sharpen the focus at the beginning of the decision-making process and offer redress when things go wrong, as they have a tendency to do.

What is more, a bill of rights could prove transformative for areas such as the north-west and others that have been routinely neglected when policies and legislation are designed. In short, it would help to guarantee the rights of everyone in the North and provide remedies where those rights are breached.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member explain to the House how a bill of rights will impact his people in a way that the laws that we create in here will not?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. Mr Frew described us as "guardians of democracy", which is particularly perverse coming a week after his party collapsed the Executive. I will put the question back to the Member: can he give robust examples of where the law here protects people's rights? It goes nowhere far enough in far too many areas.

A bill of rights would help to guarantee the rights of everyone here and provide remedies where those rights are breached, whatever current or future constitutional status or political arrangements may be in place. I am acutely aware that we live in a constantly changing and growing society. In that vein, the two-communities stipulation is no longer applicable and must be widened to reflect all citizens. Disappointingly, despite the continued overwhelming public appetite for this ambitious instrument, the framework has failed to sprout wings and has been hampered by stalemate after stalemate and, quite simply, a lack of political will.

The demand is evident from the extensive consultation process and expert advice, as outlined by the Chair. People are eager to move this process along. NDNA opened the door, once more, to that process. I and other Committee members — and we have gone through a few — approached the Ad Hoc Committee with a renewed sense of vigour, ambition and hope, in the knowledge that protecting the inalienable rights of all was a key provision in the delivery of lasting peace. In the wake of Brexit and the subsequent loss of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, this vehicle for change became even more critical to help bridge the gap left behind.

To touch briefly on some of the detail, the Committee determined that the three-generations approach to rights was most appropriate. I acknowledge that, during the consultation process, individuals highlighted the scope and limitation of the bill of rights. It is important to note, however, that this framework was merely to be a springboard to further, more-comprehensive legislation. It is clear that change is afoot, not just here but globally, particularly in the context of climate change. As David Kenny stated:

"very few common law bills of rights include environmental rights".

That gap would allow Northern Ireland to address the climate crisis robustly by embedding provisions in a bill of rights and to stand as global leaders on, arguably, the greatest challenge facing our society and generations to come.

Another area of particular focus was equality rights, specifically the right to safety and protection from discrimination. From our engagement with children and young people, embedded safeguards for minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community and ethnic minorities, were at the forefront of their asks. We need to deliver those protections to improve lives and make a tangible change for the betterment of our society.

The adoption of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland is in everyone's best interests. The SDLP and others are keen to keep the momentum going despite the protestations of the DUP. I am disappointed, but not overly surprised, by the DUP's block on this vital piece of work. It is, sadly, typical of the zero-sum approach that the DUP seems to apply to so much. A win for one does not mean a loss for the other. That is certainly not the case where the bill of rights is concerned, rather this provision is good for everyone. I am particularly bewildered by the DUP's rationale of not wanting to take a separate approach to human rights legislation from that of the UK, given its renowned cherry-picking on numerous rights issues.

I pay tribute to everyone who contributed to the consultation process. The consultation was extensive, deep and thorough and provided detailed research and expert advice. It is a great source of shame that we are not going to be able to progress the bill of rights. I thank those who contributed for their work.

The failure to establish a panel of experts is hugely disappointing and will only serve to deny important human rights protections being enshrined in law. I do want to say, though, that this report will assist future delivery. Things are changing.

This bill of rights will come, maybe not in this mandate but in the next. This provision was promised almost a quarter of a century ago, yet political self-interests have hampered and hindered its advancement at every turn. This is about putting people, not parties, first and delivering for our shared home place and its people. The narrow-mindedness of the few cannot hinder the progress desired by the many and required by all.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

My party has approached the work of this Ad Hoc Committee positively. I do not wish any remarks that I make this evening to reflect any opposition to the principle of a bill of rights. I welcome the fact that the Chairperson has been able to present a report to the House tonight. However, I have to point out that she omitted to mention some actions that she has taken recently on the work of the Committee which I consider to be an abuse of position.

Before a regular meeting of the Committee on 25 November 2021, all parties were requested to submit a position paper for inclusion in the report to be brought to the Assembly — the report we are discussing today. No indication was highlighted on the agenda of that meeting that the Chair would single out a paper from one particular party for a political critique. I am not going to defend that party. Its Members are in the Chamber and can defend themselves. It would not have mattered whose paper was drawn out for political critique; I would still be making the same remarks. I want to make that very clear.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Will the Member take an intervention? No?

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

At that meeting


At that meeting, there also seemed to be —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Order, please. The Member has indicated that he does not want to take an intervention.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

At that meeting, there seemed to be an awful lot of inside knowledge of what was happening at the Executive and who had blocked what. I can only speculate on where that information came from. The meeting on 25 November was short. It lasted maybe 10 minutes. The Chair put forward a proposal, which was seconded, to suspend the meeting pending the appointment by TEO of a panel of experts. That rather threw me, because the Committee had been working for the last year and a half to two years without a panel of experts. I could not understand why, at such a critical stage, when we were coming to the endgame of producing a report, it was thought appropriate to suspend the work of the Committee. An agenda item for the meeting was the date of the next meeting, so we did not even get to that point. I certainly left the meeting disappointed that the work of the Committee was at a standstill. I could not see a panel of experts suddenly and magically appearing between then and when the report had to be presented at the end of this month.

A couple of days later, correspondence was received from The Law Society expressing its grave disappointment at the indefinite suspension of the work of the Committee. A learned body like the Law Society seemed to have the same interpretation as me: that the work of the Committee was suspended indefinitely.

At the end of December, Committee members received an email from the Clerk saying that there was to be a meeting of the Committee on 13 January. It was actually cancelled and took place a week later on 20 January. Given that a panel of experts was not appointed in the interim period, I could not understand why there was a sudden change by the Chair, who had previously suspended the Committee pending its appointment, but, suddenly, we were going to have a meeting without the appointment of a panel of experts.

The minutes of that meeting read that the Committee agreed to suspend the meeting until a panel of experts was appointed. I did not agree to that. No vote was taken at that meeting to support that minute. They say that the camera does not lie, but there are people in the Chamber who may feel that the camera can lie, because they have insisted that a vote was taken. I have watched the video many times; I cannot see any vote being taken.

I raised a number of issues around the meeting of 25 November. When the minutes came out for the meeting that was held on 20 January, at which I raised those matters, not one word of my concerns was contained in those minutes. When I objected to that, my suggestion that those things should be put in the minutes had to be subject to an electronic vote by the Committee. At that point, I withdrew from the work. I did not resign from the Committee, but I retired from the work of it, because of what, I felt, was going wrong.

I was at the meeting on 25 November in good faith, and I was prepared to advance the report at a time when Committee time was at a premium, yet the opportunity to hold a meeting on that day was not taken. It was suspended, yet we were called back four weeks later without that condition of a panel of experts being appointed having been met. I am extremely disappointed with that. The Chair of the Committee needs to reflect on her actions, particularly those taken at the meeting of 25 November.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 6:15 pm, 14th February 2022

I thank the Member for that contribution.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to discuss the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights. My Alliance colleague Paula Bradshaw was the party's representative on the Committee and will respond later as Deputy Chair when she makes a winding-up speech on the motion.

Alliance is supportive of a strong, stand-alone bill of rights for Northern Ireland, and, with the review of the Human Rights Act at Westminster, we feel that more than ever. We welcomed the inclusion of a commitment in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document to establishing the Ad Hoc Committee to move the process forward. We believe that that would have been an opportunity to create a bill of rights that everyone could support, that would be sufficiently durable to take account of the changing circumstances in an evolving and diversifying Northern Ireland and that would, at last, move us on from the out-of-date premise of two separate communities.

Alliance wants a bill of rights that is consistent with European and international human rights standards and is capable of guiding legislative and policy development now and into the future. However, as it stands, we have no bill of rights, and, instead, we have a Committee report that highlights the inability that parties still have to recognise and support the rights of people living here. The Ad Hoc Committee was due to be supported by an expert panel that was to be appointed by the FM and DFM, but the recruitment for that panel has not taken place.

The failure to appoint an expert panel is disappointing, especially when contributors felt that the human rights of many individuals and groups in Northern Ireland are not sufficiently protected. Disability, age, religion or belief, cultural background and ethnic group were among the areas in which stakeholders thought that additional human rights protections were needed. Indeed, a majority of respondents to the Committee's survey — 61% — and most of the young people who participated in focus groups disagreed with the premise that:

"everyone in Northern Ireland is treated equally."

With over 80% of consultees confirming that a bill of rights is important, it is extremely concerning that the block to progress is the lack of an expert panel and a DUP submission that, I feel, undermined the process. Although there was consensus on 23 September 2021 that a bill of rights should be enacted at Westminster, in line with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, no decision could be taken while there was no expert panel.

As provided in the Committee report, I will confirm why Alliance supports a bill of rights. Alliance believes that ascribing special rights to two communities results in direct and indirect discrimination against those who do not define as either. More broadly, speaking of solely two communities entrenches division when the purpose of a process like this is to produce a bill of rights with the potential to unite all sections of society behind it.

While the right to associate to exercise our rights is a freedom that we enjoy and that should be protected, there is also a right not to do so without any resulting diminution of rights. By placing the emphasis on group rights and on rights for specific groups in the manner that the 1998 and 2006 agreements did, we are often entrenching inequality. Given the intersectional nature of rights, this has the potential to cause disadvantage to groups that we should wish to protect.

I will give an example of where such a diminution of rights occurs. Currently, there are two openly LGBTQ+ people in the Assembly. As a result of group rights known as parallel consent, their votes count for less than those of others in respect of legislation and some motions. The consequence is a form of indirect discrimination against gay people in the Assembly and thus in society among the electorate, albeit unintended.

Similarly, under 50:50 recruitment, the groupings of Catholic, Protestant or other meant that black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants, despite being an under-represented group, were not recognised as such. We see that continued through fair employment monitoring that counts how many Catholics and Protestants are employed, ignoring whether there is fair representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic people —

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Not just at the moment.

— people with disabilities or other section 75 groupings, or considers people who sit in a number of those groups. Most people have multiple and complex identities, and the rights should first attach to the individual rather than to groupings.

I will give way.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member is absolutely right in saying that people's identities are multifaceted. However, will she accept that there was a time when the only people in the entirety of the European Union whom it was legally permissible to discriminate against in relation to employment were people who happened to come from a Protestant community background and were applying for a job in the police?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you, Speaker. I might not need to take that. As a woman who is a Catholic, I will maybe remind you of that at some other time.

Alliance would like to see in a bill of rights the first-generation rights that are largely consistent with those in the ECHR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights are long established domestically and internationally. We are concerned, however, that protocol 12 of the European Convention, relating to the prohibition of discrimination, has not been ratified by the UK. Therefore, the Assembly does not have the legislative competence to incorporate it into Northern Irish law.

Concerning victims of crime, article 14 of the ECHR outlaws discrimination on the basis of any status. In this context, Alliance does not believe that a bill of rights should single out groups for special treatment. Therefore, we do not support any differentiation between victims of crime and conflict-related crime.

With respect to second-generation rights, Alliance strongly believes that a bill of rights should enshrine a right to healthcare; education rights should include a right to integrated education as we take the view that this is a supplementary right that meets the particular circumstances test that appears in the 1998 agreement; and identity and cultural rights, given their particular relevance in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Not just at the moment.

We would like to see other rights included. However, each would be greatly enhanced by their inclusion in supplementary stand-alone legislation. That would allow for the incorporation of parts of ratified international instruments through Northern Ireland legislation, so it would not go over the head of the UK Government.

A progressive realisation clause should be carefully drafted and included in a bill of rights. As community spokesperson, I am concerned that there will be further instances where, for example, one welfare benefit is reduced while another is increased. That means that some people are worse off while others are better off. That is linked to non-retrogression and how that could be challenged in the event of policy change by the UK Government such as the recent removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit. Alliance would subsequently support an obligation on the relevant Department to demonstrate that it took reasonable measures to achieve the progressive realisation of rights.

Alliance would like to see the inclusion of a broad heading of a right to a healthy environment that should be supplemented by stand-alone legislation enacted by the Assembly. Alliance remains supportive of the Good Friday Agreement provision that a bill of rights for Northern Ireland should draw on appropriate international instruments and experience. It was clear from the evidence supplied to the Committee that there is support for the ratification of several international human rights instruments in domestic law.

After many hours of input, witness submissions and the collation of papers, this report, unfortunately, provides no concrete recommendations. All I can say is this: what a waste of an opportunity, time and money.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Unfortunately, you can almost see what way this is shaping up. I still do not know what the Ulster Unionist Party's position is on a bill of rights. We had Alan's attempt to set the record straight, but, if I go by what Mike Nesbitt said at the Committee about that party's intention, I think that the UUP wants a sort of bill of rights while it is clearly established that the DUP wants no bill of rights. Let us be clear about that.

We talked about the need for rights, but, first, let us go back a step. I thank the Committee staff and the staff in the Assembly for their engagement. More importantly, I thank the scores of people who came in front of the Committee. Most members attended the meetings. Most of us had the courtesy to attend the meetings, I should say. We spoke to a lot of people who came to us because of the rights deficit, and that is why a bill of rights came forward in NDNA.

We also need to step back a bit to the reason why these institutions collapsed in 2017. It was not just because the DUP incentivised people financially to burn money under the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme; it was also the complete and blatant disrespect for rights. Even in this Chamber, we had a DUP MLA — he is now an MP — mocking people who use the Irish language.

There are lots of things that go right across this community — I agree that it is not one or other; it is "the community" — and I am prepared to grow and develop with them. I will not use the word "tolerate", because it is offensive. I fundamentally do not come to that position naturally, and I fundamentally disagree, but I have —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I will give way in a minute, Christopher.

Going back to Roman times and talking about the courts is pathetic. People had to go to court because of a denial of rights in this place. There was supposed to be an anti-poverty strategy, but activists had to go to court to ensure that there was one, and it was then reflected in NDNA. There was supposed to be an Irish language strategy, but the Member's party and others voted against it. Activists had to go to court, and it was then shown in NDNA. We were supposed to have a bill of rights, and you, even though you agreed in principle, then put forward your no bill of rights. Christopher, I will give way at this stage.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I appreciate the Member's giving way. She and I served together for many years on Belfast City Council, where people from different and disparate backgrounds had to work together because nobody had a majority. That was just the nature of the place. She talked about respect and disrespect. What message of disrespect is conveyed when the person who opened the debate tweeted a joke about her former colleague, the then deputy First Minister, taking a gun to go and meet the Queen, someone to whom I pledge my allegiance?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

Christopher, I am not surprised that you have made those points, because you have nowhere else to go. To be frank, you have nowhere else to go.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

You have no answer to them.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

My answer is that the Member has apologised. What I hear from you is that you will not accept that apology.

Let me say this about Martin McGuinness: he very reluctantly left this place because of people like you denying rights. We talk about the generations coming behind us. I completely agree with Mark that there will be a bill of rights. There has to be a bill of rights. If it is not done by my generation, people like Emma coming behind me — I am proud to call her a comrade and a colleague — and people who are watching the debate will ensure that there is a bill of rights. Why? We have had trans kids who talked about ending their life because they felt that they were not included as citizens. We will get them their rights. We have Irish language speakers who were mocked in the Assembly by your colleagues. They will get their rights. You talk about economic rights and about the deprivation in communities. You are for academic selection and social engineering.

Some of the most deprived communities are in areas of Belfast that we represent, so let us stand up for them, not just those in Christopher's community or my community but the whole lot of them.

Having a bill of rights would be one of the greatest expressions of citizenship. Christopher, respectfully, I will disagree with you, and you will disagree with me, because using America as a constitutional example was probably one of the worst that you could use. If people do not want to implement rights, they will wave a piece of paper. That is what they will do, and that is what you have done. You have waved a piece of paper and said, "Not on our watch". I want to say this: the days of "Catholics, nationalists, gays, lesbians and human rights experts need not apply" are gone. They are well gone. We all apply, and we all will apply. That is the message that the Assembly needs to send out.

I will finish on this. I know that I am going to meet those people again, including those kids, but I am not embarrassed because Sinn Féin and others worked really hard. We were honest about the difficulties with the issue, but we did our best.

You talk about shadowy figures. In Dundela house, within a matter of weeks, you were in, you were out. I do not think that you can talk about shadowy figures in respect of anybody or anything, Paul, to be frank.

Let us be honest. When kids come up here with their school, we try to present it that we are all united, but — I will give you a heads-up — I am going to call it out and say, "I wanted a bill of rights, but these guys opposed it". I still do not know where you are, Mike. That is why I am keeping my powder dry.

I will say this: it will come back, and it will probably do so through the courts. We had human rights experts, citizens, activists and others asking us for support and to reflect their lives, their personalities and their core beings in this place, and you let them down. You let them down big time. To be frank, this is where you are when it comes to rights: human rights do not apply. It is really regressive that this place is now a backwater when it comes to rights. I take heart and positivity from the Members in the Chamber I have worked with and the fact that we did our best. That report is there, and we will come back to it. As sure as the day is Monday, we will come back to it, and there will be a bill of rights.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 6:30 pm, 14th February 2022

I mentioned that I sat on Belfast council. I sat across from people in Belfast council whose charge sheets, had I printed them off, I would have been able to paper the City Hall with. I will not be lectured on rights by anyone from the Benches opposite — absolutely not. There is one absolute right in law —


Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

There is one absolute right in law, and that is the right not to be tortured. That is an absolute right that is accepted as a universal right. How many people did the fellow travellers of the party opposite deny that human right to? So I am not going to take that from any Member opposite when it comes to rights.

There is a historical context to the issue. I and Ms Bradshaw, who was the Deputy Chair of the Committee, have been engaged from the very start. I do not know who it was that either of us offended in our respective parties, but we were nominated to serve on the Bill of Rights Forum. The Bill of Rights Forum at that time was tasked with thrashing through some of the issues that we are thrashing through now. The longer the arguments and the debate went on, the more similarities I could see with those processes, arguments and debates.

One of the arguments — Ms Ní Chuilín disparages the United States of America and says that it is a bad example — was that, if you produce a bill of rights, you are, in effect, producing a written constitution. She said that it will come through the courts — how many of her colleagues went through them? — and it may well do that, but that will then require legal interpretation.

In the United States of America, you have two schools of thought: the expansionists — the people who do not believe that the Founding Fathers should be taken at their word, or that the Constitution should be interpreted in the strict sense; and the originalists — those who do. Generally, the people who are nominated by the Republican Party are originalists, and the people who are nominated by the Democratic Party are expansionists. There are two schools of thought. We all know that, if you get two lawyers into a room, regardless of whether it is in the United States of America or elsewhere, there will be two schools of thought on whether a black crow is white. We know that, if we enact law and it ends up in front of the courts, there will be schools of thought. However, if this, in effect, becomes our constitution —

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No, perhaps later.

If this, in effect, becomes our constitution, it will have implications for the judicial appointments process, and it will be perfectly legitimate, in a democracy, for people to ask those who are being appointed to high courts how they would interpret the constitution.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I am curious as to what rights that were asked for by the people who gave evidence the Member is opposed to.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Absolutely none. In Northern Ireland, we have, in law, some of the strongest protections of rights in the world. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act makes that clear.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Human trafficking.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The legislation that is being passed on human trafficking and exploitation makes that clear. Those are already in law. To some extent, section 75 already addresses the key point.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Let me make some progress.

The key point in the brief is the "particular circumstances" of Northern Ireland. That is, and should be, central to everything that we examine. When Dermot Nesbitt, someone who was in the room when the Belfast Agreement was negotiated, came to give evidence to the Committee, he detailed what he meant, and what was meant, by "particular circumstances". That is essential.

I spoke to Mr Nesbitt about this earlier: I fear that it may be time to insert a new chapter into the Standing Orders on the roles and responsibilities of Chairs of Committees, especially this Ad Hoc Committee. It is important that Chairs know what their roles and functions are. I am disappointed. We had valuable and useful discussions in the Committee. I do not think that it ever got particularly bad-tempered, so I am disappointed at the tone that was struck in the opening of the debate and in subsequent contributions, but I am not going to lie down like a dog and take it. I am not going to take the rewriting of history. There was genuine engagement, on my part, in that Committee and its work.

I thank the Clerk and everyone else who contributed to the work of the Committee. I thank the people who gave evidence. We live in a democracy; it is OK to sometimes have different views. There may well be a prevailing consensus; that is fine. If there is a prevailing consensus, that is fair enough, but it is never unacceptable to hold to a minority view, and, on these issues, evidently, we do. I have stated my position and made it clear that I think that we have a strong human rights framework in Northern Ireland. We have two bodies, established in law, that are dedicated to the protection of human rights and equality. We are one of the most human rights- and fairness-compliant societies in the world. It is important. The debate will resume in the new term, and that may present an opportunity for further discussion to see where we go with it, so I am not shutting the door on it, but let us not try to drag this down into rancorous acrimony, because that will not serve any useful or helpful purpose.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

As has been mentioned, I served on the Committee for a period. Indeed, I was the Deputy Chair to Ms Sheerin. When Steve Aiken, our party leader at the time, asked me if I would be the Ulster Unionist Party representative on the Ad Hoc Committee, I said, "Yes, but with one condition".

The condition was that he and our MLA group understood that I was instinctively in favour of a Northern Ireland-specific bill of rights and would work to try to achieve one. There were no dissenting voices.

Two things struck me very quickly during my time on the Committee. One was how we would shape a bill of rights, which effectively would be in two parts. The first part would be a preamble, which would set out our vision. It would be an explanation, particularly for younger generations, of why we were doing this. It would therefore be, at the same time, aspirational and inspirational. On its own, however, that would not be of great use, so the second part would contain the judicable rights. As many people, such as Sir Declan Morgan and Sir John Gillen, made clear in their witness evidence, we should be as detailed and as specific as possible when we are detailing our judicable rights, because those are the ones that the judges may have to rule on.

Mr Frew, in his comments, talked about handing over control of our Budget, potentially, to judges. I have to say that that runs utterly contrary — utterly contrary — to all the judicial evidence that the Committee received. In fact, that evidence made very clear that, if a citizen were to go to a court and say that they wanted a judicial review of the Budget on the basis that, for example, not enough money was going into housing or that too much money was going into something else, the judge would chase them, saying that that was a political decision and not one that the courts would take under their notice. What the courts perhaps would take under their notice would be a complaint that said that a Minister for housing — I am not choosing that role as an example because of who the current Minister for housing is — was clearly putting out budgets that advantaged one community over the other. That would be judicable, and a judge would take a view on that.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. It would be much more nuanced than that. It would not be as blatant. It would happen over time. When somebody is saying that they want a minimum level of education or health or whatever, those are all great aspirations in this political House. If that is being determined through the courts, the judge does not have to say to a Minister that he is not spending enough on health. It would be a basic truth at that point, as deemed by the court.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. All that I can say to the Member is this: perhaps he has greater legal authority than I do.

Moreover, there is the concept of progressive realisation. That is an understanding that if we say, for example, that every citizen has the right to good-quality, appropriate housing, we will not deliver that in one mandate, because, if we were to, there would be no money for education, schools, hospitals and road building. It therefore happens progressively over time.

The second thing that I noticed very early on was the fact that so many expert witnesses were willing to come forward and give us both written and oral evidence for no charge. Locally, as the Chair of the Committee mentioned, we received evidence from Colin Harvey. I was also very impressed by Christopher McCrudden. Nationally, Dominic Grieve, on multiple occasions, gave us detailed papers and followed them up with oral evidence. Internationally, no less a figure than Albie Sachs from South Africa, one of the original Constitutional Court judges, made himself available at no charge. Members will recall that that is why I then questioned why we were appointing a panel of five experts at £500 a person a day. It cost £2,500 to get a panel of experts to come to speak to us when experts were falling over themselves to make themselves available for free. Why five? I know that it is a commitment in NDNA, but why five? Was it to give us a consensus or to give us five various views from which we were to pick the one that we wanted?

I have watched the video of the meeting of 25 November, so I understand what happened. I am going to criticise the Chair of the Committee at this point.

First of all, there was an attack on the DUP. I do not hold a candle for the DUP. There was an attack on its position that we do not need a bill of rights.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Briefly, because I want to finish this point.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Thank you very much, Mike.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Third time lucky.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Exactly. The reason for the attack on the DUP position


was that it was a complete contradiction of what it had agreed to. That is a fact, Paul. Sin é.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I am glad that the Member has got one intervention in during the debate.

I chaired the Executive Office Committee and, before that, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) for five years. I will not drag the Speaker into it, but he sat on that Committee. Blockages in that Department are the order of the day, so, if the DUP is responsible for the panel not being appointed, let us not pretend that that is some sort of evil one-off. It happens day and daily, or it did in the five years that I chaired the Committee.

It is valid — I do not agree, but it is valid — to say, "We do not believe in a bill of rights". NDNA only set up a Committee to look at the bill of rights. It said that we would:

"consider the creation of a Bill of Rights that is faithful" to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement did not say that there will be a bill of rights. It said that we would:

"consult and ... advise on the scope for defining" a bill of rights. The scope might be zero. So it is OK, although I totally disagree with it, for a party to say, "We do not want a bill of rights".

The Ulster Unionist Party wants a bill of rights, and so the question becomes this: do we go forward with consensus, meaning that all five parties have to agree to a way forward, or do we go forward with sufficient consensus, which is a concept that we relied on heavily back in 1998 in the negotiations that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement? If you go with consensus, at a certain point it becomes a veto, and no party in the House should have a veto.

We are happy to endorse the report. We are sorry that nothing further is likely to happen in this mandate, but let us go again when we can.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The report speaks to me of the absolute sham and farce that 'New Decade, New Approach' was. It was supposedly the new beginning, the new approach. This debate speaks to just what a fraudulent suggestion that was. 'New Decade, New Approach' was nothing short of a vehicle of convenience to get the Executive parties back into the Executive. There was no agreement about very much, other than that they wanted to be back, with the ministerial limos, the salaries and the titles. It turned out, not for the first time, to be a vehicle with no engine. It did not even splutter to a standstill; it never got started. Such a farce, and the report personifies that. The Committee laboured for months and did not deliver so much as a mouse.

There are some in the House who tell us that we must have a bill of rights. Those who say that loudest are those who have spent their political careers refusing to condemn the most fundamental breach of human rights: the right to life. The very people who have twisted, turned, equivocated and used weasel words to avoid condemning those who took innocent life come to the House and parade themselves as those who want and believe in rights — such hypocrisy.

Of course, my fundamental position is this: a bill of rights speaks to a national position.

It is nations, not regions, that have bills of rights. I leave aside the whole debate about whether it is suited to our constitutional framework: I do not think it is, but that is another debate. A bill of rights speaks to a uniformity across a constitutional and political entity of rights that should be respected. It has no regional perspective or ownership. It is of national significance, and therefore I do not believe that we need or should have a Northern Ireland bill of rights.

We have a United Kingdom Human Rights Act, and that is the proper ambit and facility for addressing these issues. That is the correct facility. This idea that you would have a regionalised bill of rights is, to my mind, a constitutional nonsense.

I am quite content that the report and the Committee ran into the sand, and I am not at all surprised that it did. At the end of the day, it was being driven by some who have anything but respect for the most basic human right of all.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

We have an incomplete report, a Committee of the Assembly frustrated, MLAs determined to do their work but unable to do so and no progress made with regard to a bill of rights. All this is a direct result of the DUP's opposition to rights and equality. It is not only regrettable, indeed, it is outrageous that an Ad Hoc Committee, established under New Decade, New Approach was unable to complete its work because the DUP blocked the establishment of the panel of experts by refusing, by all accounts, to appoint Professor Colin Harvey, an eminent and internationally recognised human rights expert.

The refusal to appoint Professor Harvey is political discrimination, and it needs to be called out for what it is. The days of "No nationalist need apply" are gone for ever, never to return. Let me be absolutely clear. The days of unionist parties practising discrimination and inequality are numbered and running out. There will be no return to the failures of the past. The DUP will not stop progress or forward momentum to a society based on equality and rights for all.

The disgraceful slurs that Colin Harvey has been subjected to in the media and online, prompted Amnesty International to issue a call for Professor Harvey to be protected in the face of a sustained campaign of hostility that has, in the words of Amnesty International:

"sought to intimidate him and undermine his academic standing".

Those behind the slurs and the discrimination against Professor Harvey cannot wash their hands of that.

As my colleague Carál said, we will return to this. There will be a bill of rights. Some in the Chamber should remember this: today's majority can be tomorrow's minority. When you are in the minority, that is when you most seek protection under the law and in a rights-based society. When Mr Allister, Mr Frew or whoever it may be denies the need for a bill of rights, they should think of it in this way: in the not-too-distant future, the unionist community will be a minority, who will, quite rightly, seek protections under the law. What will be the title of the document under which they will seek protection? It will be a bill of rights. If I am around to see that day, I assure you that I will support any minority seeking a bill of rights.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Given the many injustices that exist in our society, a bill of rights is the bare minimum needed to address the inequalities that still prevail. My party fully supports a bill of rights being implemented, but I do not believe that the work can or should stop there.

I recently met the bill of rights working group, and I thank it and others for their work in progressing this issue and keeping it firmly on the agenda. The DUP's effective blocking of the appointment of the panel of experts is not only shocking but a disgraceful attempt to deny rights and protections to everyone across our society, including the DUP's own voters and constituents, who have been neglected by the exact policies that have been cheerled and implemented by that party in particular. We also need to call out the dog-whistle approach to Colin Harvey, the human rights lawyer and activist, whose name has been dragged through the mud in a disgraceful attempt. The DUP needs to stop blocking progress as it has done for so long. It needs to allow the panel of experts to be appointed and a strong bill of rights to be implemented.

For me, there is a lot of important information and comment in the report. One of the most important pieces of evidence that the Committee received was the strong support expressed:

"to move away from ‘traditional orange and green’ identities".

For too long, this place has literally othered those groups who fall outside the paradigms of unionism and nationalism, so it is extremely important that rights be embedded in legislation. Frankly, however, we also need to focus on the actions of Ministers in the Executive. For example, we have strong anti-discrimination legislation here that makes it illegal and a criminal offence for people to be treated differently on the basis of their race and ethnic background. Not so long ago, however, when everybody was supposedly "in it together" in the context of COVID, Black Lives Matter activists were still disproportionately targeted and fined for taking part in safe demonstrations when others were not. To be honest, there is no use in enacting robust legislation if the content and motivation behind it is not practised and if Ministers can operate in a way that is contrary to it.

Yes, we are for a bill of rights, but we are also for a fundamental change in how this and any future Executive treat marginalised communities and those who are discriminated against. It is significant that, in the Committee's report, there was higher support for a bill of rights amongst women — half of our population who are repeatedly failed, ignored and impacted on by decisions that have been taken by consecutive Executives. In any bill of rights, there should be a right to healthcare that is implemented and actionable. It is disgraceful that we have a two-tier health system in which people can get treatment only if they can afford it. In reality, the right to healthcare is denied to many hundreds of thousands of people.

The report also states that the denial of economic and social rights can be a causal factor of social conflict. That has been the case historically and also recently when, last summer, the DUP, using a combination of the protocol and blame of the other side for the poverty that exists in the communities that the DUP itself represents, tried to whip up communities that had been left behind. That needs to be called out as well. Trade union rights was one thing that I did not notice in the report. Employment law is devolved. I am progressing a trade union freedom Bill through the Assembly, and a bill of rights needs to take that into consideration.

Language rights were mentioned as well. They need to be in a strong bill of rights too. We obviously had mention of LGBT rights in the report. The LGBT community, as a whole, is mentioned, but it is important to recognise that huge advancements have been made through rugged determination and by people facing down the actions of the ex-First Minister and others. It is also important to recognise that trans rights are particularly under attack, with disgusting and disgraceful dog-whistle attacks and the denial of services, funding and support to people who need to transition.

In conclusion, we need to recognise that unionism thinks that denying things such as a bill of rights will strengthen the North's place in the UK. In reality, by blocking it and taking other positions, unionism will actually speed up the growing calls for a united Ireland. Unionists need to get with the changing programme.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call Paula Bradshaw, the Deputy Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights. She will have 10 minutes in which to conclude and wind up the debate.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Before I begin to wind up on behalf of the Committee, I will add a few words on behalf of the Alliance Party.

My party colleague Kellie Armstrong covered it very succinctly, but I want to lay out my disappointment at how this process has evolved.

I share what is nearly a sadness in the Chamber about the fact that we were not able to deliver for the many people who came before the Committee, submitted evidence, turned up at focus group sessions and spent a lot of time putting their hearts and souls into submissions. As far as I am concerned, so many opportunities are gone for now, such as the opportunity for a preamble that would have set us on course for a more cohesive shared future; the opportunity to provide an effective pre-legislative scrutiny tool and a guiding document for policy decisions; the opportunity to give domestic effect to the rights in international human rights treaties that are not available here at present; the opportunity to protect against the negative impact of Brexit, not least on employment and environmental rights; the opportunity to guard against the unpicking of the Human Rights Act by the UK Parliament in its ongoing review; the opportunity to address years of discrimination and marginalisation felt by so many who have been referenced this afternoon; and, finally, the opportunity to fulfil a long-standing deficit in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

I turn to the contributions. The debate was opened by our Committee Chair, Emma Sheerin. She covered the history of the journey towards a bill of rights in Northern Ireland and very much laid out how intensive the engagement with the different sectoral groups and the contributions from the human rights experts were. We were blown away at times. As the former Deputy Chair outlined, those experts' willingness and their support for us to deliver on this was humbling at times. We really benefited from the contributions from around the world. I place on record my thanks to the Chair for her chairmanship of the Committee. She was at every meeting, full of enthusiasm. Her contribution in steering our work was immense.

The next contributor was Paul Frew. He laid out his reservations in relation to a bill of rights, talked about the differentials in this part of the UK and expressed his concern about an expansionist approach to rights here. Mark Durkan talked about the fact that the lack of a bill of rights affects everyone and about protections for socio-economic rights. He said that the bill of rights would be an integral piece of our peace and reconciliation process and that it is in everyone's best interests that we have a robust bill of rights. Alan Chambers provided an overview of his discontentment with the Committee over the last few months. I can identify with that in some respects in that it got quite messy towards the end; had things run a lot more smoothly, I do not think that we would be in this position this evening.

As I said, my party colleague Kellie Armstrong outlined the Alliance Party's position very well. She drew out the areas in which there are deficiencies and highlighted the fact that, from Alliance's point of view, the bill of rights would have had the potential to move us away from the entrenchment of green and orange. She talked about how things such as environmental rights would have been an important addition to our legislative framework.

Carál Ní Chuilín went back and talked about the rights deficit that led to the need for us to have a bill of rights. She said that that will come. She said that it needs to come for trans rights, Irish language rights and economic rights. She thanked all those people who came to us and spoke so sincerely about the ways in which having their rights enshrined in a bill of rights would make a difference to their lives.

Christopher Stalford, who is not in the Chamber, talked about the historical context, about how laws can be interpreted by two different judges or lawyers in a court room and about his concern that a bill of rights could be misconstrued. He mentioned that, in this part of the world, we have some of the strongest rights that are enshrined in law. I think that he was genuine when he said that, at times, there was genuine engagement at the Committee in its discussions with contributors.

Mike Nesbitt, the former Deputy Chair, said that, when he was asked to sit on the Committee, he told his former party leader that he was instinctively in favour of a specific bill of rights for Northern Ireland. His positivity and his enthusiasm for engaging with the people coming before the Committee was evident throughout his tenure. He talked about the two parts of his vision, and, as I mentioned, he really appreciated the contributions from the expert witnesses.

Jim Allister criticised New Decade, New Approach. He said that it was supposed to be a new beginning but that we have delivered nothing. He also said that a bill of rights speaks to a national position rather than a regional one across a political entity; he does not believe in a bill of rights for Northern Ireland; and it would be a constitutional nonsense.

John O'Dowd contributed his thoughts about how regrettable and outrageous it is that we have been unable to complete our work. He mentioned the public row, which was very unedifying, about the potential appointment of Professor Colin Harvey to the expert panel. I was pleased that the most recent Committee agreed to write to Professor Harvey to outline our support for him and to state that any public comments were not reflective of our respect for his academic background and work to date on human rights. John O'Dowd finished by saying that today's majority may be tomorrow's minority and that he will seek to protect minority rights, regardless of the background.

Finally, Gerry Carroll said that a bill of rights should be a bare minimum. He thanked the Human Rights Consortium for its work over not only recent months but many years. He said that the DUP needs to stop being a blocker of rights and that we need to move away from green and orange politics and make stronger anti-discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland.

I thank all Members who contributed to the debate this evening. The Committee Chairperson began by discussing the approach to the work. It was a really valuable process, but, as I said, it is disappointing that we were not able to reach a conclusion. We heard from the Human Rights Consortium; international and national academics and legal representatives; civic society; refugees and asylum seekers; the LGBTQ+ community; children and young people; those living with disabilities; those from different cultural and religious backgrounds; and women's groups — to name but a few.

As Members will be aware, the Committee is bound by a resolution of the Assembly to submit a report by 28 February, which is what we have before us. Human rights impact on the daily life of everyone in this community. It was a privilege and an honour to be part of the process. I reiterate the Chairperson's thanks to all those who gave so generously of their time to contribute to the Committee's work. Their participation has resulted in a very rich body of evidence. Although it is unfortunate that the Committee was not able to reach agreement on all the issues, our detailed and thorough consultation, research and report can help any future work and negotiations on a bill of rights.

I thank the Committee Clerk and the staff team around her. They did sterling work. It is very much appreciated.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 7:00 pm, 14th February 2022

I thank all Members for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly approves the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights [NIA 156/17-22].

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two before we move on to the next item in the Order Paper.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)