Today is international Human Rights Day and, ten years after the Multi-Party (Belfast/Good Friday) Agreement, we will finally see the advice on the shape and content of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland handed over by the NI Human Rights Commission to the Secretary of State, via NIO Minister Paul Goggins.
I’ll be in Castle Buildings at Stormont (venue for the negotiations which led to the historic Agreement) this afternoon for the official handover. Even before this event, there is already news that the two Commissioners (out of ten) with connections to Northern Ireland’s main unionist parties, are withholding their support for the otherwise agreed advice.
This follows the concerns aired about the Bill of Rights delivered by Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey at his party conference on Saturday and means a difficult passage ahead for the translation of the NIHRC advice into law.
Sir Reg’s concerns were focussed on fears that the Bill could transfer powers from politicians into the hands of judges and that, by better legislating for rights in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland’s place in the UK would be somehow diminished.
I don't discount Sir Reg's concerns lightly but, with genuine respect for his significant efforts in local politics through the years, I would contend that his former concern is misplaced and his latter concern is at odds with the devolutionist trend throughout the UK, which offers local approaches to local contexts in place of the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all approach which preceded it.
Let me be clear: after years of frustration at the lack of political power in local hands, I would be among the first people to object to any snatching away of decision-making responsibility from our representatives at Stormont.
But that’s not what a Bill of Rights is about.
It is about creating a level playing field for all and a safety net for the most vulnerable.
It is part of the normal system of checks and balances to be found in most democracies.
It is not about instituting the rule of lawyers, but about strengthening the rule of law.
I think it is time for the Bill of Rights debate to focus on people not politics.
Yesterday I attended the launch at W5 of a brilliant new booklet from the Human Rights Consortium, Why We Need A Bill of Rights, which tells the stories of ten ordinary Northern Irish people who want a Bill which could make a difference to their everyday lives.
There was Elizabeth Zammitt, a wheelchair-user in L/Derry, who daily struggles for access to public buildings and public transport.
Alan McBride, who lost his wife in the Shankill bombing, who wants dignity and justice for all victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Fiona McCausland, from the mainly loyalist working class Old Warren area of Lisburn, struggling to ensure decent standards of living, housing and healthcare for the thousands of parents who want no barriers for themselves and their kids.
Then there are the pensioners, who are facing the choice this winter between spending their meagre resources on food or on fuel.
And the children living in poverty (yes, apparently prosperous Northern Ireland has plenty) who make their way to school without a proper breakfast or a proper coat and return home to a hot water bottle because there’s not enough money for heating.
So, politics should have their rightful place and party politicking is a normal part and parcel of that. But at the centre of the Bill of Rights debate must be the people of Northern Ireland who, in opinion poll after opinion poll, unionist and nationalist alike, have expressed their support for a Bill of Rights.
Indeed, today I can’t help but think the powerful words of Eleanor Roosevelt, a key architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights who, sixty years ago, reminded us that human rights are about people in small places:
"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.
"Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.
"Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
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