Brice Dickson: Language and other rights are important but not as fundamental as the right to government, which Sinn Fein has blocked

As the dust settles on local government elections, new inter-party discussions are starting on how to get the executive and assembly up and running again.

Thursday, 9th May 2019, 5:27 pm
The absence of government in Northern Ireland at Stormont during the last 28 months has had a hugely more deleterious effect on peoples well-being than the absence of same-sex marriage or an Irish Language Act

A key issue in those discussions will be how to deal with various ‘rights’ claims, especially the right to same-sex marriage and the right to the use of Irish.

It appears that Sinn Féin is maintaining its line that it will not agree to re-establish the executive unless and until the conferment of those two rights is guaranteed beforehand.

The party seemingly won’t even agree to establish the executive and assembly on a time-limited basis to see if those rights can be agreed therein by a certain deadline.

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To me this is an increasingly indefensible position, and for three reasons.

First, it is counter-productive to be demanding those rights while denying people a much more basic right — the right to government.

The absence of government in Northern Ireland during the last 28 months has had a hugely more deleterious effect on people’s well-being than the absence of same-sex marriage or an Irish Language Act.

The longer this denial of the right to government goes on, the more the blame for it will be laid at the door of the party which effectively collapsed the last executive through the resignation of Mr McGuinness.

Second, of all my friends and acquaintances who are gay and/or speak Irish (and they are numerous), not one of them is of the view that the right to same-sex marriage or to the promotion of Irish, both of which I strongly support myself, should be set as pre-conditions to the establishment of a government here.

On the contrary, they resent those rights being used as bargaining chips in some larger political game.

Some of them feel exploited by politicians who are using their claim to rights in a way which they themselves disapprove of.

Third, Sinn Féin supported the advice on a Bill of Rights which the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission gave to the Secretary of State in 2008.

But that advice, very comprehensive though it was, included neither the right to same-sex marriage nor the right to use Irish.

All it said on linguistic rights was that ‘public authorities must, as a minimum, act compatibly with the obligations undertaken by the UK Government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of the support and development of Irish and Ulster-Scots’.

Those obligations do not go anywhere near as far as Sinn Féin is demanding.

There is a more general point here.

The vocabulary around rights can be misused.

It can be difficult enough to convince some people that the central point of rights is that they are for everyone. To then set up rights as pre-conditions for entering into legislative and governmental processes is to abuse the concept of rights.

Moreover, under international human rights law virtually no right is absolute.

The right not to be ill-treated is the only right which can never be qualified in any way.

All other rights, including marriage and linguistic rights, are allowed to be restricted in some respects.

Don’t get me wrong. I want the right to same-sex marriage and the right to use Irish to be well protected in Northern Ireland.

I just don’t want the demand for those rights to be used as a justification for denying the right to democratic governance.

There is also nothing in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, which again I fully support, to justify such a stance.

l Brice Dickson is Emeritus Professor of International and Comparative Law at Queen’s University Belfast. He is former chief commissioner for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. His ‘Writing the UK Constitution’ will be published this summer

l See Morning View, opposite