Controversy grows over Bill of Rights

SUPPORTERS of the Bill of Rights have claimed it will not impact on Northern Ireland's constitutional position in the UK, amid unionist and church concerns that it could.

The Human Rights Consortium - a Province-wide coalition of 120 organisations, including community groups and trade unions - has moved to counter fears expressed in a Church of Ireland Gazette editorial this week, and supported by DUP Executive Minister Arlene Foster.

The Gazette piece said there was no need for a Northern Ireland rights bill - separate or additional to UK legislation - and suggested that a nationalist agenda was at work to create laws which would be mirrored in (and strengthen ties with) the Republic and which would dictate to the making of any other laws by the Assembly.

Mrs Foster also said she was concerned at a lack of representation for certain sections of unionism on the Bill of Rights Forum, tasked with formulating a draft Bill by March 31 this year.

But the Consortium said that both the process to create a Bill and the Bill itself must and would reflect the needs of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Chairwoman of the Consortium Fiona McCausland also commented that, despite the controversy in unionist circles, it was encouraging that greater debate was now happening.

Ms McCausland insisted: “This is the year in which we will see much progress on the development of the Bill of Rights.”

She said: “The recent article by the Church of Ireland Gazette has stimulated engagement in that debate and this can only be a good thing.”

She added that Northern Ireland’s position within the UK would not be changed by a Bill of Rights.

“The British legal system already accommodates regional differences in law which do not weaken any constitutional ties,” said Ms McCausland.

“It will be a piece of Westminster legislation which should ‘reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’ and will address the unique needs of this society as it emerges from conflict. Everyone in Northern Ireland stands to benefit from its provisions,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA Martina Anderson reacted to “negative comments” in the Church of Ireland publication.

She said: “Firstly, the publication in question has an independent voice from the main Church of Ireland position which has supported a Bill of Rights and indeed the development of a charter of rights for the island since the Good Friday Agreement was signed and voted for.

“It is therefore important that the general public is not confused or misguided by many of the negative opinions.

“There is no hidden nationalist or republican agenda in seeking a Bill of Rights and certainly no agenda, as has been wrongly claimed, to deny unionists and loyalists their rights.”