I am pleased, Mr Chope, to have secured this short debate today to raise with the Secretary of State the issue of the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It is a busy day in Parliament from a Northern Ireland perspective—the Committee on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is meeting and the Secretary of State is due to make a statement in the House on the appalling and disgraceful scenes of rioting and serious disturbance that have affected many parts of Belfast, including my own constituency of Belfast East, in the past few days. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has been able to attend the debate, and that the shadow Secretary of State, Vernon Coaker, has been able to join us for at least part of the discussion. I do not intend to detain the Secretary of State for too long on this issue.
The Bill of Rights is an important matter and the timing of this debate is appropriate. We stand here 15 years on from the Good Friday agreement which, notwithstanding the continued instability that we have witnessed over recent weeks and months, has laid the foundations for the significant transformation that has been delivered in Northern Ireland.
No agreement is perfect, and that includes the Good Friday agreement. I do not believe that every dot and comma of it must be protected for all time against change and evolution of Northern Ireland politics and society. However, its principles are hugely important and provide an agreed foundation on which we can build for the future. Indeed, my own party has argued for significant changes to the Strand 1 structures that govern the operations of the Assembly. Those changes would create a more normalised form of governance with a properly funded and resourced Opposition to hold the Executive to account, and with weighted majority voting replacing the current petition of concern arrangements, which are increasingly being misused. Such reforms are within the spirit of the agreement and are not a challenge to its key principles.
However, the Good Friday agreement was a carefully balanced package of measures that were endorsed by referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so it is important that all parts of it are implemented. It is therefore of concern that so little tangible progress has been made over the past 15 years on the matter of the commitment within the agreement to develop a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which would address the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland after 20 years of the troubles.
In response to previous written and oral questions on the Bill of Rights, the Minister of State has indicated that this is a matter on which Northern Ireland parties must first reach consensus before the Government will act to legislate. Although I acknowledge that consensus is important and that it is currently absent, I do not believe that that is grounds for inaction on the Government’s part. It is the duty of Government as a co-guarantor of the agreement and as a signatory to it to engage proactively with all stakeholders, including political parties, to seek consensus on this and other outstanding issues. There is a particular responsibility around leadership on such issues when they are reserved matters.
Although the primary purpose of seeking this debate is to discuss not the content of any Bill of Rights, but the process by which the Bill can be advanced, it is important to put on record my own party’s broad views on the Bill of Rights. Alliance recognises that human rights are inherent and universal. There is scope for different jurisdictions to recognise different rights in domestic law, provided of course that no inappropriate inequalities are created in doing so. Rights and a framework for the delivery and protection of rights are important to protect individuals and minorities against the state and against others. However, any dialogue around rights cannot be separated from responsibilities. Those claiming rights cannot do so without some consideration for the maintenance of the framework of a democratic society based on the rule of law that provides for the exercise of rights. That is particularly important to emphasise in the context of the past few days when tensions between competing rights have spilled over into lawlessness in a way that is both destructive and reckless.
In broad terms, Alliance believes that any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights must be realistic and capable of being enforced through our own courts, consistent with European and international standards, and flexible enough to take account of changing circumstances in an evolving Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it must avoid entrenching any particular view of identity, such as the notion of two separate communities in Northern Ireland, which could reinforce sectarian divisions. Equally, it should avoid giving group rights precedence over the rights of the individual in a manner that would do likewise.
My reason for raising the issue at this time is in part also linked to the progress being made by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The previous Secretary of State, Mr Paterson wrote to all party leaders about the Bill on
“There remains disagreement about possible further rights protections in Northern Ireland. I have agreed with the Lord Chancellor that any specific supplementary rights for Northern Ireland should be implemented in a separate section of any legislation that would give effect to a UK Bill of Rights. However, our forthcoming Bill may provide opportunities to handle this issue differently by, for example, giving the Assembly power to take forward work, or even legislate, in this area.”
At that time, the Alliance party view would have been that a UK-wide Bill of Rights could have provided a suitable vehicle for progressing the Northern Ireland Bill. Although Northern Ireland is a distinct society in many respects, it does not and should not exist in a self-contained bubble. It is part of a wider UK, all-Ireland and European and international context. In a globalised and interdependent world, individuals are interacting much more across frontiers, and human rights protections must recognise and respond to those challenges.
It was originally envisaged that any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights would be created in the context of a common platform across the UK provided by the European convention on human rights, but no wider UK Bill of Rights. However, Alliance recognised at that point that any process to formulate a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would have to relate to any potential UK Bill of Rights. That could still have entailed a separate chapter for the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights or a chapter within a larger document, provided that the subtleties of the situation in Northern Ireland were respected. However, it would be fair to say that the UK Bill of Rights has been kicked into some very long grass at this point and that we are unlikely to see it delivered in the medium term.
It is also the case that the opportunity to legislate for the Bill of Rights as part of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has also all but expired as the Bill is now making speedy progress through the House of Commons and the Bill or Rights issue was not included within it or within the consultation that preceded it. Will the Secretary of State say how she intends to make progress with respect to the Bill of Rights in the absence of either of the identified options to do so?