Northern Ireland needs a bill of rights for its 'community of minorities'

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The Bill of Rights that was promised for Northern Ireland has become lost in political battles between the main parties. But Fiona McCausland, chair of the Human Rights Consortium, draws on The Detail’s Imaging NI project to argue that overarching rights could benefit all communities in a rapidly changing Northern Ireland.

WE ARE all minorities now! That was one of the key messages from The Detail’s recent series of infographic themed articles on the demographics of Northern Ireland.

While the articles debunked the notion that many of the standoffs over identity based issues like parading are not as widespread a problem as some would have us believe, it did identify the clear threat presented by our ongoing inability to deal effectively with the disputes over identity and culture issues that do arise.

According to the Detail articles, those disputes only look set to get worse in a Northern Ireland where even the two main traditional communities have become minorities.

We are all well versed in the flag protest that engulfed Belfast in the wake of a City Council decision. With the birth of the 11 new super councils we should probably now be prepared for a battle a day in many of those councils on a range of similar issues.

The Detail’s infographic showed that all but one of the new councils contains a clear minority/majority scenario.

Using religion as an indicator of potential political preference, five of the new councils will have a Protestant majority while five will have a Catholic majority with the last council of Belfast just short of a Catholic majority.

That leaves the future image of local politics likely to be one where a minority community may face problems with having its identity and culture recognised and included by a majority tradition in the councils.

If you think this won’t be the case, the battle lines are already starting to be drawn.

From divisions over the use of the Union flag by unionist councillors in Craigavon and the naming of Raymond McCreesh Park in Newry on the eve of the new councils, to dropping of the .gov.uk web domain by a number of the new councils, the fight for cultural recognition has already begun in a battle of supremacy where there seems little prospect of an approach that facilitates the traditions and identities of both communities.

The Detail’s own article put its finger on the problem when it said, ‘The pattern of majorities and minorities can be seen as a system of interdependence that demands overarching agreements. But the failure of Stormont to deliver Northern Ireland-wide deals on issues such as flying the Union flag or the official use of the Irish language, has resulted in local councils going on solo runs over the status given to either British or Irish identity.’

This emerging problem at the council level is indeed symptomatic of a wider, long running failure at a macro level to provide solutions to these difficult issues.

Take a look back at the document which set up our Stormont system of governance and there was mention of a mechanism for addressing this problem. Remember that thing called a Bill of Rights?

Most of the political opposition to a Bill of Rights was predicated on resistance to the overwhelming calls by all elements of the community for it to include social and economic rights - something the UK has already signed up to and threatens no one.

But just leaving the idea of social and economic rights aside for a moment, what about other rights that could be included or built upon, which might actually help with some of these identity issues.

The agreement spoke about developing additional rights that added to the European Convention of Human Rights that were reflective of the ‘particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’. What could be more particular than the ongoing disputes over identity and culture?

Even unionist parties have traditionally supported the concept of a Bill of Rights because they drew their interpretation of ‘particular circumstances’ on a fairly narrow basis to only include those parading, flag and identity issues.

As an example, the recent DUP Westminster manifesto proposes ‘Legislation for a new way forward on parading which respects the fundamental rights of assembly’.

Despite others in Northern Ireland, myself included, choosing to define ‘particular circumstances’ more broadly to contain the full gamut of experiences related to the troubles, that should not stop us collectively ignoring a possible entry point to dealing with these contested identity issues or as a starting point to agree a more complete set of rights.

The Agreement clearly intended for identity issues to be dealt with in the Bill of Rights solution. It said that any ‘additional rights’ (beyond the ECHR) should ‘reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem’.

It is unclear whether the mutual respect or parity of esteem phraseology could be drawn into a set of rights that dealt with flags, symbols and identity in a way that satisfied both communities. It would seem to imply a two identities or no identities solution that is unlikely to garner support from everyone, but it may be a starting point that’s a better solution than the alternative.

We have tethered the future of respect for our cultural traditions to the supremacy of identity politics. A framework of rights that set standards for the equal expression of cultural identity would lift these decisions beyond the zero sum, winner takes all outcomes we will continue to witness in majority/minority dominated councils or a deadlocked Assembly.

It would also empower our politicians to be confident that their identity was being protected regardless of which community or party held the balance of power at a council or Assembly level.

A Bill of Rights could also address the many gaps in protections for new and existing minorities such as the LGBT, BME and immigrant communities already correctly identified by The Detail as increasingly marginalised and unprotected.

If we truly want to deal with the respect and expression afforded to all the identities in Northern Ireland once and for all, in a manner that is non-partisan and doesn’t keep leading us round the same sectarian merry go round, then a Bill of Rights or a similar framework of rights is our best bet.

If the Detail article is correct and we are indeed all minorities now, then that doesn’t mean we can’t all have our identities and rights respected. In fact it should be all the more reason to ensure that they are.