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18 October 2007 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

Mary Nelis

Mary Nelis

Bill of Rights — why are we waiting?

It has been on the go a long time, since it was first mooted by the Civil Rights Movement all those years ago.  Yet 40 years on from those heady days, ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement and the North of Ireland Human Rights Commission and we have not progressed much beyond the notion that the introduction of a Bill of Rights is a good idea.
The latest online poll by the Commission reveals that 83.9% of people support the notion of a Bill of Rights. So why has it taken so many years to put into effect the democratic wishes of the majority of people who clearly state that civil, religious, political and social rights should be enshrined in law?
A Bill of Rights to redress the inequalities of a place whose very inception violated every right in natural and universal law, has to be part of the political process, otherwise we run the risk of inequality remaining as a permanent feature for future generations.
The timeline for the introduction of a Bill of Rights has been on the political agenda for ten years with little progress and is hindering the creation of a just, equal and peaceful society. So why is there such foot dragging in bringing forward the necessary legislation as part of the new dispensation and why are both the British and Irish Governments presiding over a consultation process that has been flogged to death?
The remit of the Human Rights Commission in 2000 took responses from a wide range of groups and individuals on proposals for the draft bill. Many of the submissions challenged the limited remit of the Human Rights Commission which at that time had rejected the notion of due consideration to individuals whose rights had been violated by the British state.
More specifically the Human Rights Commission in its first draft got bogged down in the sectarian balancing act of the terms of reference created by the British Government. This sought to promote the notion that protecting the rights of two main communities was in conflict with the concept of rights for all on an equal basis.
However, it was and is the overall opposition to the concept of a Bill of Rights by unionist politicians that has dogged any attempt to date to introduce the necessary legislation.  Lord Laird, he of the travelling kilt fiasco which cost  tax payers £10,000 attacked the notion of a Bill of Rights in the Waterfront Hall during a presentation by the working party on social and economic rights. He also claimed that highlighting the sectarian attacks on the Holy Cross School had ‘turned the entire unionist population against the concept of human rights’.
Unionist politicians in both Westminster and the Assembly have made it clear they would resist any attempts by the British Government to introduce the Bill. So what is it about a Bill of Rights that threatens Unionist politicians to the degree that they are once again running scared in front of the latest consultation process? Like the right of people to speak the Irish language, the introduction of a Bill of Rights is not going away.

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