Debating Rights in the New Northern Ireland

Lay Summary 

Human rights feature prominently in efforts to address conflict in divided societies and rights charters are widely viewed as a marker of democratic maturity. The 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement provided for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Opinion poll evidence indicates strong approval for such a charter. Diverse civil society groups have offered support, as have all the main political parties. Yet, the scope and content of any such bill is a matter of considerable dispute and the Bill of Rights remains among the unfinished business of Northern Ireland’s peace accord.

At first glance, debate about rights looks like a continuation of constitutional conflict between British-identified unionists (mostly Protestants) and Irish nationalists (mostly Catholics). Nationalist parties argue for an expansive charter, encompassing social and economic rights and also support the codification of group rights. The main unionist parties support a minimalist bill focused on a narrow interpretation of the “particular circumstances” of Northern Ireland. Moreover, human rights issues have been widely viewed as “nationalist issues,” with unionists and Protestants perceived as being less comfortable with human rights discourses. However, evidence from interviews, policy documents, print media sources and public events on the Bill of Rights debate reveals a more complex picture. Politicians outside the main parties together with civil society organizations whose members include nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants, and others, argued for a wide-ranging bill of rights but against an approach to group rights that might more deeply embed sectarianism. Meanwhile, the positions of unionist and nationalist politicians on the bill of rights cannot be reduced to national politics but also reflect competing perspectives on democracy. Critics have argued that the consociationalist (power sharing) Agreement institutionalizes national division, making it the main fault line of politics to the exclusion of other dimensions. Scholars have presented evidence of increased polarization in at least some areas in post-Agreement Northern Ireland. To the extent that post-Agreement debates about a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland can be taken as diagnostic, however, an all-or-nothing approach to this question may be inappropriate. The range and great heterogeneity of perspectives shows that the meaning and debates surrounding the Bill of Rights only partially map onto traditional ethnic and nationalist categories.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms offers possible lessons for Northern Ireland as a human rights bill that has created new avenues for the expression of citizenship and political participation. Comparison with the Canadian case suggests that, rather than create a solution to the existing conflict in Northern Ireland, a human rights bill might more realistically and effectively evolve into a framework for a multiplicity of future disputations and issues.

Published in: Irish Political Studies, v.25, no. 1, pp. 23-45, 2010

Ireland Canada University Foundation (Ogilvy Renault Scholarship)
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
United Kingdom
Human Rights
Social Sciences
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Public Administration
Scientific Research and Development Services
Start date 
1 Jan 2010