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Where Next For a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?

Contact: Dr Anne Smith and Professor Colin Harvey (QUB)

Funder: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT)

The overall goal of the project is to progress the enforcement and implementation of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was one of the outstanding issues of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. In response to its mandate under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) delivered the advice on a Bill of Rights to the British Government in 2008. The following year, in 2009, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) responded to this advice by publishing its consultation document. The NIO forwarded the view that further discussion on the NIHRC’s advice could take place through a newly established United Kingdom (UK) Commission on a potential Bill of Rights for the whole of the UK. That Commission concluded in December 2012 that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was a separate issue and should proceed accordingly. However, the British government has not yet responded to these findings nor has the NIHRC’s advice (alongside the NIO’s consultation document in 2009) been deliberated on through all-party discussions. Since 2009, there has been little further discussion on a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights between the parties and the government. The absence of political debate between the parties and the governments has created a vacuum on furthering human rights protection in Northern Ireland.

The potential impact  of the project is to address this vacuum by  producing a  policy report  containing a model Bill based on the NIHRC’s advice.  This Bill would take the form of Westminster legislation in accordance with the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The report would also include related explanatory commentary to help give clarity to what are often complex and legal issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.  We intend to hold a stakeholder event where we will present a draft model Bill based on the NIHRC's advice for feedback. As the NIHRC's advice was published in 2008, it will need to be updated. The feedback from the stakeholder event will be  summarised and sent to the draftsperson for a redraft. The policy report would then be presented and disseminated at a series of seminars in Belfast, Dublin and London with key stakeholders such as the British government (the Northern Ireland Office),  the Irish government (Department of Foreign Affairs) political parties, and a range of human rights organisations (both non-statutory and statutory).

In summary, this project represents our attempt to involve stakeholders to give their views on an updated legislative expression to the NIHRC’s advice on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The importance of this idea of a model draft Bill  might be of great assistance in unlocking the current  political deadlock following the unforeseen Northern Ireland Assembly elections in March 2017. With the emphasis on the implementation of outstanding issues of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in the current political discussions with the Northern Ireland parties and the two governments, this project reflects the current political mood of implementation rather than re-negotiation/discussion.

This project is a follow on from previous work carried out by Harvey and Smith. See Colin Harvey,  ‘Northern Ireland and a Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom’ British Academy, 2016 and  Anne Smith, Monica McWilliams and Priyamvada Yarnell, ‘Political Capacity Building: Advancing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’  sponsored by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust,  October 2014.

Draft Model Bill