The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has been an advocate of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland since its inception in 1981. As such we have been actively engaged in the various stages of consultation and debate that have occurred, in particular over the last ten years since the commitment to a Bill of Rights was given in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
We welcomed the establishment of the Bill of Rights Forum, and were pleased to represent the human rights sector in those debates. CAJ commends the Forum, the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, for achieving a great deal in terms of facilitating meaningful cross party and cross community dialogue on the Bill of Rights, and in producing a substantial report which contains many positive and at times progressive recommendations. As such, we believe the Forum represented a significant milestone in the process of delivering a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
In this brief response, we seek not to respond in detail to the report of the Forum but rather to set out what we believe are some of the key principles that should underpin any Bill of Rights, as well as some specific comments on rights which should form part of any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
Before turning to substance, it is worth stressing that CAJ has long argued that the process of developing a Bill of Rights is as important as the product itself. To that end, there were some process issues in relation to the Forum that need to be highlighted in terms of the lessons that can be learned to ensure that future processes are as inclusive, meaningful and widely supported as possible.
In terms of successes, CAJ wishes to highlight the hugely significant value of the Forum as a mechanism for delivering a hitherto absent cross-community debate on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Upon its establishment, many doubted the ability of the Forum to keep everyone at the table for the duration. Not only was that achieved, but it is clear – both from the deliberations and the final product – that there is much support across the political spectrum for the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland that needs to be built upon.
It must be recognised that although there may not ultimately have been cross-party support on all the recommendations, there was meaningful participation and engagement from all sides.
The process also served to encourage and facilitate wider public debate about human rights, not least because of an increased media interest in the discussions. While not all of the coverage has been positive, in this instance we believe that by simply placing the Bill of Rights on political, media and social agendas the Forum has increased the Bill’s profile and the levels of public awareness of it.
However, there were also a number of significant problems in relation to process, the first of which relates to timeframes. While the Forum theoretically conducted its work between December 2006 and March Introduction The Best Bill of Rights – A guide. June 2008 General Principles on a Bill of Rights June 2008 Comments on the Bill of Rights Forum report June 2008 Introduction June 2008 3 2008, in reality the first eight months were spent discussing procedural issues, with substantive debates about rights only beginning when the working groups became operational towards the end of the summer.
Further, within that fifteen months a lack of strict time management and goalsetting meant substantive discussions were too compressed at the end. The knock on effect was that there was no time to negotiate higher levels of agreement on the final text, or engage in greater consensus building. CAJ firmly believes that more time spent on these discussions would have awarded a greater level of agreement.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have now set themselves a goal of developing recommendations for the Secretary of State by December 2008. While CAJ is cautious of such a small time frame, we urge the Commission to learn from the mistakes of the Forum. Adherence to a deadline should not take precedence over the development of a coherent, effective and widely supported Bill of Rights.
A number of resource and management issues also emerged over the course of the Forum’s operation that resulted in a general lack of drive and momentum throughout the whole process. For example, the lack of a full-time chair arguably denied fuller discussions, debate and relationship and consensus building between monthly plenary meetings. Inadequate guidance to and oversight over the different working groups meant they all took different directions in their discussions and in the preparation of their final reports, resulting in confusing variations in style, substance and length. Significantly, not nearly enough consideration was given to the level of work that would need to be done by the Forum and working group participants. The sheer volume of work that was carried out by these participants with little support left a drain on many of the organisations they represented.
CAJ suggests that a better funded and more coherent administration of the process could have enabled more effective communication within the Forum, saved a lot of time and resulted in a better quality end product.
Finally, we believe that the Forum represented a valuable opportunity to develop recommendations for the Bill of Rights in conjunction with wider civil society input. As already stated, CAJ believes that the development of ownership of a Bill of Rights is almost as important as the end product itself. It is therefore unfortunate that the Forum’s outreach was so limited; it suffered from resource limitations, a lack of adequate human rights expertise or guidance for outreach workers on the nature and scope of their work, and no defined strategy as to how the submissions of civil society groups would feed into Forum discussions. Furthermore, CAJ believes that the period of time allowed was wholly inadequate and indeed out of sync with the Forum’s time-frame, thus prohibiting effective and meaningful outreach.
CAJ acknowledges the effort and results of the Forum outreach workers, especially considering these limitations. Their efforts demonstrate that with an appropriate time-frame, resources and scope, outreach can be effective in building a ground-swell of support for the Bill of Rights. CAJ therefore urges the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to give serious consideration and resources to developing an effective outreach strategy or consultation process in the preparation of their recommendations for the Secretary of State, not least with those whose expectations have been raised by virtue of their engagement with the Forum