Scope for a Bill of Rights

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Lady Hermon: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of the Belfast agreement. The mandate of the commission does tie it to looking at additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities, and parity of esteem. That is where the terminology has come from. It has not been dreamed up by the rest of us; it is actually in the agreement.

Lembit Öpik: I know where it comes from, but I have disagreed with the terminology from the outset. I do not think that it helps us to enshrine the situation in the legislation, which ironically is all about human rights. The actual step to take is to think about walking the talk in terms of respecting the diversity of Northern Ireland communities in the terminology that we use in the documents.

Another concern I have is that any modern Bill of Rights should reflect all rights, be they civil, political, economic, social or cultural. However, we should always remain at a strategic level, rather than being tempted to create a shopping list, which may create a litigious society at the end of the day. My feeling with regard to enforcement is that, as the Minister said, laws are there to protect and enforce rights. It is very important that we recognise that rights at their most effective are enforced by the attitudes within the societies in which they are created.

At heart, democracies serve the public, not rule them. They enable, not enslave, and they liberate, not litigate. As a result, I remain ever-vigilant and ever-concerned that we do not inadvertently create enormous potential for litigation in society, where individuals end up spending huge amounts in legal insurance to ensure that they are not sued because of the inadvertent consequences of well-meaning legislation. I am sure that we will have opportunities to discuss that further.

It is good that we are moving forward. I am extremely positive about the discussion. It looks like a unique opportunity to draft a comprehensive, modern, effective and forward-looking Bill of Rights for a divided society, the history of which has been marked by intolerance. Looking ahead, let us recognise that it is not an opportunity simply to regulate life in Northern Ireland in a fair way. It is an opportunity to take the philosophical challenges before us and create something so robust that, with little change, it could legitimately be applied to the rest of the United Kingdom. This is not so much about giving people a chance for an equal life in Northern Ireland; it is about giving people the chance for a good life in general. That is territory that should attract us all.

4.10 pm

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Unlike some of the other hon. Members who either majored in philosophy or have dealt with that side of the issue, I want to look at the scope of the Bill in terms of how I believe many people in Northern Ireland will view the

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concept, and how it may well be enacted on the ground.

First, I fully agree with the Minister over his discussion of and reference to the genesis of the scope of the Bill when he traced it back directly to the Belfast agreement. It is my view, and that of the people whom I represent, that the genesis of a Bill of Rights must be right. If it is not, and if it is not something that the people of Northern Ireland, in their diversity, can accept and support, and want to see the development of, mistakes will be made. If the genesis of the Bill is going to be enshrined in the Belfast agreement, it will in essence have opposition from my community, which is deeply suspicious of all that surrounds the Belfast agreement because of the way in which it has been manipulated and used to the disadvantage of the Unionist community.

I alluded in an intervention to the composition of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That is not only regrettable but a matter that has to be addressed. The composition of the commission is such that not a single member, as I understand it, comes from the bulk of the Unionist community. That is not to say that it does not have any pro-Union members; it does. But none of its members shares the views that we, the bulk of the Unionist community, hold—opposition to the Belfast agreement and wanting to see a fair system of government to which both communities can give allegiance, rather than the Belfast agreement to which only the Nationalist community and a minority of Unionists give allegiance. That must be addressed. We simply cannot have a human rights commission that is not broadly based continuing to give advice and make decisions. That is simply not tolerable.

My concerns go further. In preparation for the debate, the commission circulated Members—I presume other Members have received copies, as I did—with a briefing. It refers to a survey that it carried out during the past six months, which gives rise to further concerns. The questions contained in the survey, which address the scope of a Bill of Rights, are very partisan.

Table 3 in the summary from the commission shows time after time the distinction between the two main communities and how they would view specific protections for particular rights in Northern Ireland. Over and over again, in virtually every element of every question asked, there is a lower proportion of people from the Unionist community than from the Nationalist community who would support specific rights. That is the case both with bland matters, such as the right to health care or the right to an adequate standard of living, and with more specific ones, such as the continued application of the Bill if there were a united Ireland. I see no question regarding the continued application of the Bill if there were an independent Ulster. Why should that not be considered? I am not someone who would advocate and favour an independent Ulster, but it is at least as tenable a proposition as that of a united Ireland, and no more unlikely.

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I shall deal with some of the wording of the consultation document, which continually uses the phrase

    ''the conflict in Northern Ireland''.

It uses that phrase as if there were some parity between victims and perpetrators. Unfortunately, the whole usage of the word conflict permeates Government thinking. The relatives of innocent victims in Northern Ireland are very deeply concerned at that mythical parity—that in some way there is a conflict between diverging political opinions. In fact, what has happened over the years has been not conflict, but a perception that those who advocate violence and terror can get political change because of the advocacy of that violence.

I want to close because I am conscious that others want to speak. The scope of any Bill must be enshrined in and have as its basis the fundamental support of both communities in Northern Ireland. There is a perception among the Unionist community that the human rights enshrined in and advocated by the commission can be more easily supported by Nationalists. We must avoid that at all costs.

Lady Hermon: May I ask the hon. Gentleman a question? This is a point of information rather than point-scoring. Did any anti-agreement Unionist apply for membership of the commission when it first advertised or for any of the new appointments?

Mr. Campbell: The short answer is yes, but they were unsuccessful given that no one represents their point of view on the commission.

I shall conclude by referring to the scope of the Bill and how perpetrators of violence—those who support and advocate violence and those who are passive—would view a proposed Bill. The rest of Northern Ireland—more than 90 per cent. of the population, Unionist and Nationalist, Loyalist, Protestant and Catholic—want a Bill that would be useful to peace-loving democrats who would be able to avail themselves of it in circumstances outlined by the Minister and other members of the Grand Committee. If the Government allow a Bill of Rights to be perceived in such a way that perpetrators of violence see it as a charter or mechanism by which they can promote an agenda that leaves democrats opposed not to the principle of human rights, but to how it is implemented in Northern Ireland, that would be deeply regrettable. I hope that the Government will take steps to avoid that.

4.17 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am conscious that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire also wants to make a contribution, so I shall make mine briefly.

I am in the happy position of being able to report that the Ulster Unionist party, for the first time in its history, had a meeting to discuss a Bill of Rights and human rights protection generally. That took place last Thursday and the date was set before this meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, so it was a happy coincidence. It was a very well-attended meeting—

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Mr. Hunter: Are we to understand that the official position of the hon. Lady's party's is that there should be a Bill of Rights for the Province?

Lady Hermon: It was a meeting that brought together Ulster Unionist members, some of whom were not in favour of the agreement and some of whom were in favour. The consensus was that, as the agreement was endorsed by the vast majority of the population—more than 70 per cent.—in a referendum in 1998 and 13 lines in it were dedicated to a Bill of Rights, we should make a contribution to any forthcoming Bill.

I strongly recommend to the Government that as the agreement has been endorsed by a majority in referendums both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, they should take the opportunity to make it work for all the population of Northern Ireland, not just for a specific section of it.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I just want to pursue the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) asked. It is true that the Belfast agreement provides for a commission to examine the scope for a Bill of Rights. Everyone in the Room accepts that a commission should be set up and that the question should be examined. However, the agreement did not prejudge the answer to the question of whether there should be a Bill of Rights; that is what the consultation exercise is about. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked if the Government had decided in principle whether to have a Bill of Rights. I am interested in the answer to that.

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