Bill of Rights (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 16th July 2013.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance, Belfast East 11:00 am, 16th July 2013

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. He reinforces what I said earlier about there being no consensus on the issue. However, I want to address some of what he said. There are two narratives around the Bill of Rights. One is an expansive Bill of Rights, which includes a lot of detail, such as socio-economic rights to which he refers, and there are others who believe that that is not the role of the Bill of Rights. They believe that it should enshrine broader principles around which the country should protect people’s rights as individuals. I would tend towards that more broad definition rather than the more detailed definition that would include socio-economic rights. Abortion, the age of consent and various other issues are best dealt with through the normal democratic and legislative process and not through a Bill of Rights. That is my view and the view of my party. However, a Bill of Rights approach can inform how the debate on those issues takes place, but it is not the job of the Bill of Rights to supersede the work that Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly do when legislating on matters of socio-economic importance. That is part of the democratic imperative that must be maintained regardless of whether or not there is a Bill of Rights.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the Bill of Rights has caused controversy. The forum for the Bill of Rights sat from December 2006 until March 2008 and produced what is probably one of the most non-consensual reports that has ever been produced in Northern Ireland, which in itself is quite an achievement. In addition, the Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State, which was delivered back in 2008, also drew fierce opposition from some quarters. Clearly, there is still much work to be done. I am not suggesting that we are at a point where a Bill of Rights is ready to be drafted and put to Members for agreement. However, the fact that there is work to be done should be an impetus to doing that work.

In conclusion, as with many other difficult issues, consensus is currently absent, whether it be on parades, on flags and emblems, on building a shared future, or on dealing with the past and its legacy. The Executive have convened talks, which will happen during the summer and in the autumn, to address those issues and to seek sufficient consensus to make progress on all of them, in an attempt to give renewed energy to the discussions and to end the inertia that has characterised the process of late. I believe that is welcome. I also believe that Dr Richard Haass agreeing to chair those talks impartially will add its own momentum to them. However, it is very clear from research conducted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium that a significant majority of people in Northern Ireland favour a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland being implemented in line with the provisions in the Good Friday agreement, and that that includes a significant majority of ordinary members of each political party in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Gentleman’s own party, within which I think the support for a Bill of Rights among ordinary members ran to about 80%.

Notwithstanding the political and ideological impediments to reaching sufficient consensus, I hope that today the Secretary of State will at least commit to a process that would help to breathe fresh life into this issue and make good on a promise made 15 years ago, which is still important to so many people in Northern Ireland today.