You could almost hear the little cock-a-doodle-doo of triumph in the Press release from the Human Rights Consortium, announcing that a poll they had commissioned to answer a question they had phrased indicated that three-quarters of the respondents strongly – or quite strongly –
supported a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It reminded me of the episode of Yes Minister when Sir Humphrey, attempting to steer Jim Hacker on the issue of nuclear weapons, said: "Minister, a poll will always give you the answer you need if you ask the right question."
So say, for example, that the question on the Bill of Rights had been: "Do you support a Bill of Rights which is unique to Northern Ireland, which imposes an array of socio-economic commitments upon the Assembly which are incalculable in scale, incapable of being costed and will require substantial funding which will almost certainly have to be borne by the local taxpayer?"
Now, I know – as I'm sure do the members of the consortium – that asking that question would have produced an entirely different answer.
In an article in the News Letter last Tuesday, Fiona McCausland, chairperson of the NI Human Rights Consortium, said: "A Bill of Rights that adequately meets the needs of Northern Irish society must address all of these aspects of our society's particular circumstances."
The "aspects" and "particular circumstances" she listed included: over 500 older people die of cold here every year; 21,000 households in Northern Ireland are homeless; one in five people have a disability; some 44,000 children in Northern Ireland live in severe poverty.
How, exactly, would a separate Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland deal with those aspects and particular circumstances? Government departments can address problems and can provide practical measures and funding but you cannot pretend that a separate Bill of Rights will save those 500 people or alleviate the poverty and homelessness. But by making it a 'right' not to die of cold or a 'right' not to be homeless you simply open the door to thousands more cases of people trying to sue the Government in the name of those 'rights'.
And, let's be quite honest about this, the Government itself, or one of its departments, cannot be held personally responsible for everyone who finds themselves cold, poor, homeless, unemployed or disabled. There is such a thing as personal responsibility. There is such a thing as family. The contract between government and governed in a democratic society is a two-way process. There is no such thing as an inalienable, stand-alone human right. The 'right' to freedom of speech has limitations. The 'right' to freedom of movement has limitations. The 'right' to life has limitations.
It may seem harsh to some of you but I do not believe that a Bill of Rights should make a government legally and morally responsible for someone whose own actions have contributed to their own circumstances – however appalling those circumstances may be.
Another argument promoted by the consortium goes like this: "Creating a new legal framework and rebuilding confidence in the legal system has proven to be an essential element of transition in societies all around the world... like South Africa, central America, central and eastern Europe." But that argument only works if you believe that Northern Ireland can be compared to South Africa or central America. In South Africa a white minority imposed its will upon an overwhelmingly black majority. In a number of central American countries the governments were composed of military dictatorships.
Northern Ireland is not and never was like South Africa or central America. To argue that it was is simply to play along with the Republican propaganda that "justified" a terrorist campaign against a majority population. So when Fiona McCausland voices a concern about the "Bill of Rights being turned into a political football", my response is that she has only herself to blame; for it strikes me that the consortium has a very clear determination to politicise and push so-called socio-economic 'rights' and to do so in the name of helping Northern Ireland "emerge from a period of conflict". I would argue, however, that it was constitutional issues which were the source of the conflict and the Bill of Rights is addressing issues which do not need addressed by this method.
So who does support the bill? Well, according to its own site, the consortium is a coalition of more than 120 groups from the community and voluntary sector, non-governmental organisations and trade unions. In other words, a coalition of the self-interested in pursuit of long-term funding for themselves and their pet projects. Northern Ireland is already embraced by the terms and conditions of the European Convention on Human Rights and by the 1998 Human Rights Act. What the consortium is trying to do is convert into legally binding 'rights' issues that are covered in a practical, albeit not perfect, manner by other legislation.
Indeed, their approach is utterly delusional and doomed to failure. Neither the UK Exchequer nor Peter Robinson is going to provide the funding for the consortium's recommendations (make no mistake, the consortium may talk of a consultation process but it has its mind made up already); for those recommendations, if enacted, would place an intolerable legal, political and financial burden upon the Northern Ireland government. And since we know that the whole project is going to turn to dust, wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to dismantle the consortium now?
I couldn't finish without a brief mention of the decision to appoint a four-person Victims' Commission rather than a single Victims' Commissioner.
As with so much of the machinery which has been created to guide Northern Ireland into the 'post-conflict era', it succeeds in being expensive, absurd, offensive, politically correct and utterly unnecessary. It will, as the other creations have done, attempt to impose an equality agenda upon the matter in an effort to convince us that everyone is deserving of equal treatment because everyone is equally guilty.
Am I the only one left in Northern Ireland who believes that the blame for most of the problem should be placed upon the doorsteps of republican and loyalist paramilitaries? And am I the only one left who believes that these "former" paramilitaries exploit the existence of commissions, consortiums and consultations entirely for their own self-justifying agenda? If we can't lock them up, can we please stop providing them with platforms in which they can add insult to the injuries they have already done (and continue to do) to so many?