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18 December 2008 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

Who’s afraid of a Bill of Rights?

It was second time around for the launch of proposals on the shape and contents of a Bill of Right’s for the North. Hours before the official launch by the Human Rights Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, both unionist parties issued press statements, rubbishing its contents without ever having read them.
The notion of a Bill of Rights for the Six Counties has been around since 1972 but any attempt to move it beyond a wish list by human and civil rights advocates, floundered on the rock of hard line unionism although it is worth noting that some grassroots Unionists have always been supportive of the idea.
The concept was resurrected again and given the kiss of life under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of the Human Rights Commission whose responsibility was to produce a Bill of Rights within a specific time frame.
From the onset of the consultation process, it was clear that the British Government were not fully committed to the concept of a Bill of Rights that would be people-centred, and an instrument for the kind of change needed to process  justice and equality throughout the North and the whole island. They were also pandering to a unionist political leadership that was resistant to any kind of change.
The concept of the ownership of rights by all the people and enshrined in law, was enough to send unionists of all hues scurrying to the wrecking chamber.
During the feedback in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast by a number of  consultation groups, Lord Laird, the doyen of kilts and Ulster Scots folk,  rubbished the contributions and any possibility that a Bill of Rights might  ever see the light of day in the North disappeared under a ‘muckle clood’ of negativity.
In the Assembly, his comments were supported by other Unionist MLAs, although it is interesting to note that Jeffrey Donaldson at a meeting in the Europa Hotel, organised by the Charter 88 group, and speaking in his capacity as an Official Unionist MLA, welcomed the idea of a Bill of Rights. Jeffrey said that such a measure ‘has to be one of the cornerstones of any new political agreement’
 Jeffrey has moved house since then and although there is a new political agreement, his fellow DUP member Nelson McCausland, told the Human Rights Commissioner, Monica McWilliams to more or less, stuff  the new proposed advice on a Bill of Rights.
In January past, the Church of Ireland Gazette advocated that any proposed Bill of Rights should be dropped and no more public money spent on it. The hard hitting editorial claimed ‘there was a political agenda behind seeking a bill that was undemocratic and unacceptable’ and that a Bill of Rights is not needed to ensure freedom from discrimination and parity of esteem as ordinary legislation can cope with such matters.
In a place where the law and its agencies have consistently been brought into disrepute and the British Government and unionism has been heavily criticised for its abuse of human and civil rights, the introduction of a Bill of Rights is seminal to the creation of a just and fair society.
Clearly unionism has not yet learned that rights and safeguards, equality and justice are the foundations of democracy. 
What are they afraid of?


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