Bill of Rights 'needs cross-party support'

A report to be published today that could argue for what critics are describing as left-wing and even nationalist-orientated rights will not be implemented without cross-community support, it is claimed.

The Bill of Rights Forum will present recommendations on the contents of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to the Human Rights Commission this afternoon which could potentially see controversial changes to rights in Northern Ireland on issues such as:

lraising the age of criminal responsibility to 18;

lparades;

lthe Irish language;

labortion;

lsexuality;

lvictims of terrorism;

lthe Disappeared victims of the IRA.

The Belfast Agreement requires that the possibility of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland be explored, which many feel was a concession in negotiations to nationalists.

In recent times some unionists have voiced fears it could be a Trojan horse aiming eventually to link Northern Ireland with a similar Bill in the Republic of Ireland.

But according to the DUP yesterday there is virtually no cross-community consensus on any of the issues to be published today. The DUP believes that no radical changes will be imposed on Northern Ireland without cross-community consent. However others believe the process towards a Bill will continue, subject to further consultation and amendment.

Unionists of all hues have said that the forum had a strong nationalist bias. Out of 28 representatives in the discussions, unionist parties have only six seats, with nationalists the same. However unionists feel the weight given to trade unions, community and voluntary sectors brings an undemocratic bias to the discussions.

It is expected that the Forum’s report will be very close to an earlier report on a Bill which was published previously by the Human Rights Commission.

DUP Assemblyman Peter Weir said the democratic views of unionists were to a large extent crowded out because they had comparatively few seats on the Forum.

“For most of the discussions it has mainly been the DUP, UUP and Alliance Party versus the rest,” he said. “A lot of groups involved are sticking to their guns on their areas of special interest but at the same time recognising that what they are asking for is not realistic.

“The NIO has the final say in what happens but we are quite confident that nothing is going to be done on any issue if there is not cross-community support.”

It is understood today’s report will make recomendations on a wide range of social, legal and economic matters, while noting the level of support from representatives on each point.

Mr Weir set out a few issues he expected to see in today’s report:

lthe age of criminal responsibility to be raised in a hoodies charter;

lgrave concern about clauses on women’s reproductive rights;

lthe right to a family in some very diverse forms;

lthat people disappeared by the IRA be given a specific identity among victims, though not specific rights;

lthat everyone be given potentially unrealistic economic/welfare rights which could potentially interfere with prioritisation of resource distribution by the Assembly;

la questionable reference to freedom of assembly that could impact on parading;

lcultural and language rights included without agreement.

The Belfast Agreement does not require that a Bill of Rights be adopted on the basis of the views to be presented, but simply that the feasibility be explored.

Australian human rights expert Chris Sidoti, who chaired the Forum, said he had seen views move over the past year

“Positions have been developed on the basis of compromise,” he said.

“There’s still a long way to go in the process and I don't think it was possible at this stage to reach full agreement but there has certainly been agreement on a number of significant issues and that will assist the commission in its work.”