Blog: What price human rights and equality in Northern Ireland?

Professor Colin Harvey reflects on human rights and equality in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is figuring prominently in the news again. This time it is the discussions between the Conservative Party and the DUP on the formation of a workable new British government. Developments have provoked much criticism, derision and even satirical comment. Quite a bit is directed towards human rights and equality themes. Whatever emerges officially about any deal, it does provide a fitting opportunity to reflect on the state of (and prospects for) human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, nearly 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

First, let us remind ourselves just how central human rights were to that Agreement. From the Declaration of Support, to references to the European Convention on Human Rights and the potential for a new Bill of Rights, to the idea of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It is a document that repays a re-read; a convincing way was found to respect human rights and recognise the realities of the bi-national nature of Northern Irish society. A place often casually and lazily dismissed, but whose politics springs directly from the history of conflict across these islands. That Agreement (just like subsequent Agreements) was never perfect. On reflection it tended to trust too much to the work of politics, and (perhaps) not enough thought was given to implementation and enforcement, particularly when things get tough and difficult. This now seems evident in both the failure to realise a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, as well as the practical problems that have arisen in areas such as rights and equality. Even on matters where robust guarantees were eventually secured (such as policing and criminal justice) there is always the risk of slippage. Northern Ireland has learned through experience that complacency on rights and equality is not an option.

Second, as challenging as it may appear, it is time to consider how to improve the human rights and equality picture. Holding a constant threat over the life of the Human Rights Act 1998 hardly assists; that threat can and should be lifted. The suggested replacement with a weak British Bill of Rights is not entirely sensitive to the tricky politics of bi-national division (British-Irish) or the fact that the Northern Ireland process was intended to be ECHR plus. Erasing human rights language from the governance of Northern Ireland does not help either. There was a real risk last year that the Northern Ireland Executive would be tempted to do precisely this (arguably to ease DUP anxieties about rights). Significant projects have simply been jettisoned. The failure to deliver a Bill of Rights (following on from the advice of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission) and, for example, the absence of a Single Equality Act stand out, but there are plenty of others to cite.  There is of course that small matter of Brexit too; a project that has done so much to destabilise politics in Northern Ireland and re-open the sovereignty fracture.

The DUP is not alone in standing in the way, though it tends to be the major political blockage at present. The hostility to aspects of human rights and equality echoes (to varying degrees) other political parties, political positions and movements across these islands and elsewhere. There are plenty of human rights sceptics in British and Irish political life too.  One of the historic, and continuing, challenges in Northern Ireland, however, is often persuading any unionist party to endorse an expansive human rights agenda. Always recall that the human rights legislation that applies now flows from the Good Friday Agreement but is secured by Westminster legislation. The changing dynamic within the Northern Ireland Assembly may provide opportunities in the time ahead (if that Assembly re-emerges). The risk is, however, that progress on rights and equality might well now be impeded at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

Third, there is a subtle form of disrespect that floats around Northern Ireland, and a hard one to explain. It is a limited narrative of good relations that occasionally wraps itself in the flag of reconciliation. How could anyone be against just getting on with everyone? The problem is that Northern Ireland’s version often comes with a logic of exclusion (relating to rights and equality). Those things cannot be named and are necessarily divisive, it tells us, and must be carefully airbrushed out (to keep everyone round the table). The result can be the worst forms of empty symbolism and the politics of vacuous gestures. In Northern Ireland we have become tired finding codes to capture this, but if you hear ‘lack of cross-party consensus’ on matters of rights and equality then it is usually (but not always) in play.

The election produced an intriguing outcome for Northern Ireland. Westminster can easily collude in the picture sketched above, either by neglect or by proactively propping up the politics that stands behind it. The worry is that a Conservative Party-DUP deal will feed this troubling dynamic, and the cost will be progress on human rights and equality. It is surely not a price worth paying?

  • Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast.