A Bill of Rights remains part of the unfinished work of the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA). It is almost 20 years since the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) launched the Bill of Rights process and submitted its advice to the UK Government in 2008.
To progress the Bill of Rights, the project produced a draft model Bill of Rights in consultation with a wide range of stake-holders in Northern Ireland.
The key findings of the report show that:
- The draft model Bill was welcomed by participants however many felt that it should be strengthened in a number of areas. These include: women’s rights (including reproductive rights); stronger provisions on children’s rights; a stronger equality provision, with emphasis on disability and the need to protect younger people, refugee rights and marriage equality.
- Brexit has created a receptive environment for a Bill of Rights, to help ensure there is a legal framework in Northern Ireland that will assist in clarifying and underpinning social, economic and citizenship rights.
- As a result of Brexit, the Bill of Rights proposals need to be updated and enhanced to reflect the changing circumstances in Northern Ireland. These include citizenship equality, freedom of movement, equivalence of rights on the island of Ireland, EU citizenship rights and voting rights.
- Many participants also highlighted concerns over the threat to two important sources of rights protection, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act (HRA).
- Brexit combined with the potential repeal of the HRA and possible withdrawal from the ECHR increase the significance of the Bill of Rights.
The study makes a number of recommendations including, the need for the Bill of Rights process to be acknowledged and celebrated as a significant contribution towards fostering a robust human rights culture in Northern Ireland.
As envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement, the advice submitted by the NIHRC, and all associated contributions towards the creation of a Bill of Rights should inform the next steps. The creation of a Bill of Rights must be progressed by the British and Irish Governments, as co-guarantors of the B/GFA, have a responsibility to ensure this happens.
The research also recommends that we should be ambitious for human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, and that the time is right to re-open this conversation.
Dr Anne Smith, Senior Lecturer in Law, Ulster University said:
“This research shows how a Bill of Rights could be a solution to an extensive number of rights and equality challenges in Northern Ireland. We hope this research will open up the debate once again, not simply to the idea of a Bill of Rights, but the details which one should contain.”
Professor Colin Harvey, from the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast commented:
“It is time to revisit the conversation about a Bill of Rights. This was one of the clear measures from those we engaged with as part of this project. Brexit combines with the current rights and equality crisis to make reflection on our existing framework of protection a necessity. This should be one part of a larger discussion about a future where the human rights of all are respected.”