The Northern Ireland Bill of Rights has come under further fire from politicians, human rights activists – and now one of the original architects of the Bill.
A commitment to produce a Bill of Rights was included in the Belfast Agreement. But the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) responsible for drawing it up has been widely criticised for exceeding its original brief.
Now one of the original architects of the Bill of Rights, Professor Brice Dickson, has admitted in a surprise intervention last week that critics of the Bill “had a point” and that the Bill should be radically smaller.
The Conservative Party recently pledged to ditch the Bill of Rights if they come to power in the next election.
Welcoming the Tory proposal, the Ulster Unionists have branded the Bill “ridiculous”. The DUP also said it would “lose no sleep” if there was never a Bill of Rights for the Province.
In an extensive submission to the Westminster Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (WNIAC) Prof Dickson said: “There is no pressing need for a Bill of Rights to supplement the European Convention in far-reaching ways in Northern Ireland.
“The human rights situation in Northern Ireland is not so bad, or so precarious, as to require a Bill of Rights that is more penetrative than any other such document in the world.”
Prof Dickson concluded that he still supported the concept of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights but said it would have to be radically different to the one currently proposed.
Professor Liam Kennedy, the founder of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Association, has also blasted the Bill of Rights in a submission to the WNIAC.
The prominent human rights activist distanced himself from the NIHRC, claiming its focus is all wrong.
He said a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is not necessary because human rights are universal.
Earlier this month the Conservative Party announced it would scrap plans for the Bill, replacing it with a UK-wide Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
Critics say the Bill of Rights in its current form would take power from elected representatives and hand it to judges.
Two of the NIHRC’s ten members have argued that it has gone beyond the original requirements of the Belfast Agreement.
Lady Daphne Trimble and DUP representative Jonathan Bell both signalled their disapproval of the lengthy recommendations.
The Bill has been called “unwieldy” by current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward, who was recently forced to admit the Commission’s recommendations were “well beyond the brief they were given”.
The Commission’s report on recommendations for the Bill of Rights says “significant opposition” remains in Northern Ireland to homosexual rights and civil partnerships.
It recommends that civil partnerships are given “additional protection” in a Bill of Rights to “help promote respect and equality”.
The Commission says a Bill of Rights should include laws on “harassment motivated by hate on any prohibited ground of discrimination”. This would include sexual orientation and religion.
Similar sexual orientation ‘harassment’ laws were struck down by a High Court judge in Belfast last year because, in part, of concerns that the laws would infringe free speech and religious liberty.
Depending on the wording of a right to be protected from sexual orientation or religious ‘harassment’, such a right could leave Christians vulnerable to legal action if they publicly express the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality or other religions.
The Commission recommends that smacking should be banned. It says this ban should not be part of the Bill of Rights, but is an “additional recommendation”.
It notes the UN’s conclusion that smacking be banned in the UK and says the Government should “respond accordingly”.
The Commission said that abortion was one of the most controversial issues in its public consultation. It decided it would be inappropriate for the matter to be included in a Bill of Rights.
Although the Commission does not recommend a ‘right to abortion’, it also fails to recommend that an unborn child’s right to life be included in a Bill of Rights.
It did, however, recommend that the Government “respond” to the conclusions of a UN Committee on the elimination of discrimination against women, which called for a public consultation on abortion in Northern Ireland.