More than 50 organisations representing civil society in the North have written to the First and Deputy First Ministers to express their “grave concerns” over the failure to progress a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland.
In the letter they called on the Irish and British governments to intervene and for the British government to bring forward legislation at Westminster to “guarantee” its delivery.
The signatories also challenged the circumstances of the recent suspension of the Ad-Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights at Stormont, which they said was a “violation” of the commitment made to this process in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement.
The failure to agree progress on the Bill of Rights, they wrote, was “at odds with all evidence and public opinion”, including a public survey by the committee of 2,400 individuals and organisations which found 80 per cent of respondents supported it.
As representatives of local civil society they could “no longer accept such a veto being exercised over legislation for badly needed and long-awaited human rights protections for people in Northern Ireland”, they said.
The letter, which has been seen by The Irish Times, is signed by human rights organisations including the Human Rights Consortium and Amnesty International, trade unions such as Ictu, NIPSA and Unison, students’ union NUS-USI, and other bodies including Women’s Aid Federation NI, Disability Action, Friends of the Earth, the Children’s Law Centre, Shankill Women’s Centre, Age NI and the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network.
The creation of an ad-hoc committee to consider the creation of a Bill of Rights “that is faithful to the stated intention of the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement” was a commitment in the NDNA deal which restored the North’s powersharing institutions in 2020.
Under the deal, the Bill is intended to contain rights “supplementary to those contained in the European Convention on Human Rights . . . and that reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland” as well as reflecting principles of mutual respect and parity of esteem.
The director of the Human Rights Consortium, Kevin Hanratty, said it was “totally unacceptable that we do not have a Bill of Rights 23 years after it was first provided for in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and it is intolerable for the notion of political consensus to be continually used as a political veto on much-needed human rights protection for all sections of our community”.
The work of the ad-hoc committee was suspended in November after the committee chairwoman, the Sinn Féin Assembly member Emma Sheerin, said its work could not continue without the appointment of a panel of experts.
She told the committee this blockage was due to the DUP, which had made clear it was opposed to the Bill of Rights and had vetoed the appointment of a panel of experts because the party did not agree with the appointment of Prof Colin Harvey of Queen’s University Belfast.
In a statement to the BBC, the DUP said the First Minister did not know the identity of the applicants and questioned how, in a confidential recruitment process, Ms Sheerin could have been aware of them before him.