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Northern Ireland: Bill of Rights

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, what discussions they will hold with the political parties regarding the promotion of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights in accordance with the 1998 Belfast agreement.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland recently made clear in the other place, we want to see this issue resolved and will be taking the views of the new Executive, political parties and others in Northern Ireland on how best to move matters forward.

My Lords, that is a smidgen of an improvement on the Answer given the last time I raised this question, and I suppose that that is progress. Can my noble friend tell me frankly whether the Government are going to continue the previous Government’s policy of kicking this issue into touch, or when we might have some positive progress on implementing this last aspect of the Belfast agreement?

My Lords, I cannot give any specific dates or times. Civil servants have already talked to people in the human rights fraternity in Northern Ireland, and the next job is to get involved with the Assembly and to get things moving. I said on the previous occasion, and I repeat now, that with the new Assembly there is an opportunity to break into this issue, which I understand is of long standing. It is important that we move forward.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, when we negotiated the Belfast agreement, we had it specifically written into the agreement that there would be progress on human rights not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland? When will the Government make representations to Dublin to have the obligations under the Belfast agreement honoured after 13 years?

My Lords, I cannot answer for the Government of Ireland. However, as I indicated on the previous occasion that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, raised this question, I wrote to the Government of Ireland to let them know of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. Your Lordships will note that, regardless of there being, in the noble Lord’s words, no progress, an Irish Human Rights Commission has been set up and is very busy in its work.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this issue of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland has been going on for many, many years? Can he confirm that the Government will not allow any one political party in the Assembly to veto progress towards the commitment that we entered into?

My Lords, I cannot give guarantees but I do not believe that there ought to be vetoes. The Belfast agreement is clear. Of course, one highly significant party in Northern Ireland was not party to the Belfast agreement. Nevertheless, it is important that this matter, which is almost the final piece of the agreement, has not really been tackled. It is a tricky issue. The noble Lord will recall that his own Government had a bit of bother with it; 12 years on, we have not got too far with it. However, because we have now had another election in Northern Ireland, there is an opportunity to make a fresh start, which the Government are very hopeful of doing.

My Lords, perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend that we would all benefit from a close reading of the terms of the Belfast agreement on this point? Those terms make it clear that the core of any possible Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is to be the European Convention on Human Rights, possibly together with some supplemental matters to reflect the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. That is open to a lot of interpretation, and is there not a very clear and quite principled disagreement between the major parties in Northern Ireland on its interpretation?

My Lords, people can interpret these things differently. However, the agreement of 10 April 1998 quite clearly talks about rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. It states:

“These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and—taken together with the ECHR— to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”.

Those are the words of the Belfast agreement.

My Lords, the Government said, as the noble Lord has confirmed, that they would return to the issue of the Bill of Rights following the election of the new Assembly and Executive, which are now in place. The Prime Minister has also written that he stands ready to facilitate agreement. Can the noble Lord inform us—I have not got this from his answers so far—of the actions taken by the Government to date, following the elections, to facilitate that agreement? Also, what discussion have the Government had with the commission on the UK Bill of Rights on the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights?

My Lords, I am not certain about discussions with the new UK commission. It is involved throughout the United Kingdom. It has sought people to help it from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I do not think I am able to say that any further work has been done, but talks about talks are going on. I mentioned that civil servants have already been to Northern Ireland to get things moving. It is only a matter of weeks since the Stormont election and there could be criticism of the time, but this is on a different scale from the 12 years that elapsed under the previous Administration.