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13 December 2001 Edition

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Rights Proposal threatens Agreement

By Laura Friel


Is Brice Dickson undermining the Good Friday Agreement? That's the question Irish Republicans and northern nationalists will be asking themselves after scrutinising proposals for the Bill of Rights by the Human Rights Commission.

A consultation document, "Making a Bill of Rights", was published by the Human Rights Commission in September. In the party's response, Sinn Fein describes the Bill of Rights as "an integral component" that should serve as "a guarantor of the vision" of the Good Friday Agreement. But according to Sinn Fein's spokesperson on Human Rights, Pat McNamee, "the proposed Bill of Rights fails the Good Friday Agreement test". McNamee argues that core concepts, central to the Good Friday Agreement, have been ignored or marginalized.

Key notions eschewed by the proposal include parity of esteem, the right to self-determination and recognition of the status of Irish language as indigenous. In this "the Human Rights Commission has either ignored or misunderstood its mandate," says McNamee. Worse still, the commission undermines it's own potential for implementing real change, by advocating adherence to a perceived notion of what is likely to be acceptable to the British government. In their document, the commission warns against raising "expectations which are unlikely in practice to be met". Despite the fact that the it has been specifically tasked with addressing "the particular circumstances" of the north of Ireland, the proposal argues that it cannot step beyond what is accepted practice in Britain.

The commission volunteers a pre-emptive restriction based on anticipation that the British government "may be unwilling to provide for many rights to be guaranteed in Northern Ireland when they are not so guaranteed elsewhere in the UK." However, Sinn Fein's submission makes clear, "human rights are non negotiable" and "it is not the task of the Human Rights Commission to provide 'acceptable' models for government."

"It appears that the Commission believes that it can draft a Bill of Rights acceptable to the British government or those within unionism who are opposed to change," says McNamee, "while disregarding those who have actually suffered from institutional discrimination for decades."

The British and Irish governments and all of the signatories to the Good Friday Agreement endorsed the principle of the parity of esteem, yet the Commission recommends that it should not be a principle in the Bill of Rights. Sinn Fein points out that parity of esteem has already been recognised as being a founding principle underlying the exercise of any sovereign jurisdiction within the north of Ireland. The Agreement recognised the principle, placed an obligation on government and public bodies to act in accordance with the principle and instructed the inclusion of parity of esteem within the Bill of Rights.

"The sole role of the Commission was to advise on the formulation of this general obligation," says McNamee, "the Human Rights Commission has misunderstood or misapplied its mandate by raising a question as to whether or not the Bill of Rights should contain a provision dealing with parity of esteem."

In its proposal, the Commission turns the notion of parity of esteem on its head by replacing it with European legislation concerned with the protection of minorities.

"Any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities," quotes the Commission. But Sinn Fein points out, "nationalists in the north refuse to conceptualise themselves as a minority in their own country."

In an essay on equality, Dr Robbie McVeigh highlights the fragmentation of the equality project into competing interest groups and suggests that this works towards neutralising the most politically contentious (for the British government and unionism) equality dynamic within the Six Counties.

The systematic sectarian discrimination against northern nationalists lies at the heart of the conflict and addressing this must necessarily be central to conflict resolution. Of course, discrimination, on any grounds, must be addressed, but McVeigh argues that to subsume the operation of sectarian relations within the wider equality agenda masks the centrality of this dynamic within the peace process.

Criticising the Commission's proposal, Sinn Fein points out that "many of the causes of the conflict were rooted in community inequality" and therefore "the Bill of Rights commitment to equality must contain a provision to deal with group inequalities and not simply single anti-discrimination cases."

The Commission also avoids the inclusion of the constitutional position, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, in the Bill of Rights. The Agreement affords the right to nationalists and republicans to work towards constitutional change. The Commission simply avoids this crucial issue. "We can only conclude that this is a deliberate omission," says McNamee.

Meanwhile, the Irish Language, given special recognition within the Good Friday Agreement, is denied the status of an indigenous language. International standards of protection afforded indigenous languages are by-passed by equating Irish with a ethnic minority language.

"Sinn Fein believes that the Bill of Rights should reflect the unique circumstances of the Irish language, its key importance for the sense of identity and parity of esteem for significant sections of the population," says McNamee.

The Good Friday Agreement had provided the Human Rights Commission with a platform to develop a Bill of Rights that would have been the envy of the world he continues. "However, the minimalist approach to this task has so far resulted in their proposals falling well short of this mark."

In it's present form, the proposal undermines many of the strengths of the Good Friday Agreement. "It must be put right," says McNamee, "Sinn Fein will continue to meet with the Commission, engage publicly with the community and work tirelessly to ensure that this unique opportunity is not squandered."
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