When are we going to wise up and start taking human rights seriously? Why, as Malachy Clarke wrote for us in July, do current policing practices and marriage equality laws leave people in Northern Ireland considerably less protected than people in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland? Why are our politicians so consistently embarrassing and so brazenly unapologetic for their awful views?
Northern Ireland should, in many ways, be ideally placed to deal with the challenges of human rights protection.
Northern Ireland should, in many ways, be ideally placed to deal with the challenges of human rights protection. International human rights laws are incorporated in the founding statutes of our Assembly. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equalities Commission review human rights in Northern Ireland and to take action to improve the protection of our rights. When you add to this the strong third sector work going on and the many community projects funded by EU money, then you could be forgiven for thinking that we should really have our arses in gear by this stage, more than 15 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
And yet, we don’t. Instead we have a former First Minister who has consistently defended people from amongst his own party, friends, and family who have the most appalling views on homosexuality and Muslims. Instead, we have had successive Health Ministers who have spent tens of thousands of taxpayers’ money on trying to retain a total ban on gay men giving blood which has no basis in medicine and which a judge called irrational and tainted by bias. Instead, the 2014 Annual Statement of the NIHRC is a frustratingly long list of instances where all branches of the NI Executive and the British Government have failed to put in place the necessary protections for human rights in Northern Ireland.
So what’s going on? There are always going to be any number of factors that will affect your views of human rights and influence how effectively they’re protected but I think one reason that is worth exploring is the conception of human rights that we often hold in this country as a battleground, which means we don’t engage with human rights for what they really are.
At the risk of making a massive understatement, Northern Ireland has a somewhat checkered and controversial history when it comes to human rights. The country has seen the introduction of internment, Diplock courts, military policing, and sectarian electoral, housing and social policies. For many in Northern Ireland these are live issues which have lost none of their force for being, for the most part, in the past. Just mentioning them with anyone in the pub exponentially increases the risk of you getting lamped, regardless of whether you’re in the Hatfield or the Royal Bar.
Too often, both sides see human rights as a problem of the ownership of their historical legacy rather than as something current to be grappled with.
Without going too much into these issues, for both sides of the political divide human rights in Northern Ireland represent drastically different things. For unionists and loyalists they have historically been seen as something to be resisted for fear of legitimising IRA violence. For republicans and nationalists they have either been a goal in their own right or one tool amongst many to be used in furthering the cause of a united Ireland. Within this historical context, it becomes difficult to view human rights objectively and instead they become just another battleground in which to secure the legacy of the Troubles and both sides feel their need to legitimise their views by resisting the other. How many discussions have there been that descend quickly into one side focusing on past abuses by the state while the other focuses on the rights of victims of paramilitary violence? Too often, both sides see human rights as a problem of the ownership of their historical legacy rather than as something current to be grappled with, something that affects the lives of thousands of people in our country today.
If rights are allowed to be dictated by the majority of a population then they are not really rights at all, they just become a reflection of the status quo.
This historical focus and struggle to “own” human rights makes it a lot more difficult to engage with what human rights really are. To seriously paraphrase Ronald Dworkin in Taking Rights Seriously, human rights are rights are not subject to political consensus for their validity, they are rights that protect minorities and the vulnerable regardless of political opinion. If rights are allowed to be dictated by the majority of a population then they are not really rights at all, they just become a reflection of the status quo. It is a failure to understand this that means we have MLAs consulting on motions, in the most perverse misunderstanding of human rights, to have “conscience clauses” introduced to allow businesses to deny services to people against whom they have prejudices based in religious or political belief.
In addition to this, the way Stormont operates can prevent new human rights protections emerging. As the Northern Ireland executive is set up on a consociational basis, with ministers appointed to represent the split of parties in the Assembly, no one party has a majority. Together with the petition of concern, this means that increasing human rights protection is nearly impossible if a minister or party does not wish to support a change in the law. Instead personal opinions, or the anticipation of which way the electoral breeze is blowing, can lead ministers and parties to block the introduction of new human rights protections. This can lead to consecutive DUP health ministers refusing to repeal bans on gay men giving blood and women having access to abortions because of their own or their party’s beliefs.
This reluctance to engage with human rights, other than as a partisan issue or as a battleground over the legacy of the Troubles, is problematic, not least because human rights issues today exist in a wide variety of contexts that have very little to do with the Troubles. While effectively dealing with issues from our shared past is always going to be important, for many in Northern Ireland today discrimination and abuse exist on a daily basis regardless of whether they come from the traditional Protestant or Catholic communities. According to the Equalities Commission the largest grouping of cases that they dealt with were related to discrimination in the workplace on grounds of disability. In 2014, compared with the previous year, the PSNI recorded an increase in racist incidents of 38.1%, bringing the total number of racist incidents to 1356; they also recorded an increase in homophobic incidents of 19.3%. We continue to live in a country where gender equality and gay rights are considerably behind the rest of the U.K.
We, as the people of Northern Ireland, need to say that these issues affect us daily and that we’ve had enough.
These are not problems that can be solved if we keep to the same old way of doing things. They’re problems that face Northern Ireland today and they’re problems that require us to start thinking properly about human rights. We, as the people of Northern Ireland, need to say that these issues affect us daily and that we’ve had enough, to press for more changes and for greater equality, to lobby and badger at every available opportunity, to keep protesting inequality. The sooner we, and Stormont, start viewing human rights as a tool to be used to protect rather than to secure the historical or political advantage, the sooner we can start working towards sorting things out.