The drama and pomp that has surrounded the ongoing Bill of Rights discussion in the Six Counties is not wholly unwarranted as a bill of rights in any shape or form must be viewed as a progressive thing, setting aside the obvious hypocrisy and unchallenged rights abuse of British occupation.
However, those with a vested interest in the status quo are vehemently against any such bill coming into effect.
The unionist parties, as a bloc, are against a bill of rights for a whole host of reasons. The catholic and protestant churches are not very keen on the idea either, with the Church of Ireland arguing, against all historical evidence and the reality of the sectarian experience in the Six Counties that a bill of rights would entrench sectarianism. The concept of a bill of rights itself, as promised in the Good Friday Agreement, is now 10 years old and continues to be delayed, harangued and curtailed. Why?
The obvious answer is that those mentioned and others unmentioned but equally influential do not want a document, bill or policy in place, which makes their collective and individual discriminatory and abusive actions in the Six County state questionable. According to the luminaries of the Orange State, the victims of rights abuses have enough avenues to facilitate their questionable grievances and are not in need of any others.
According to former Ulster Unionist assembly member Dermott Nesbitt, any Bill of Rights in the Six Counties is undermined by the allegation that around half the population in the occupied area don’t support it. Nesbitt is seemingly unaware of the fact that it’s exactly when a sizable section of society, including the most powerful, refuse to recognise the rights of others that a bill of rights is most needed.
Should catholics, homosexuals, the travelling community, Irish speakers and ethnic minorities have to wait until those doing the discriminating recognise their rights for them to be enshrined?
Unionism as an ideology is built upon intrinsic rights abuses and has, as its central objective, the continued infringement of the Irish people’s collective right to national self-determination.
The churches of all hues, notwithstanding progressive individuals within them, have attempted to maintain hegemony and control in every parish and district in Ireland for centuries, accompanied in many instances by rights abuses. Institutions like the protestant and catholic churches might find many of their practices that are currently under scrutiny, further questioned with the added backing of a bill of rights.
The irony within some proposed rights is palpable, as with the right to free assembly - except in the case of threatening ‘national security’. In a normal, sovereign state this restriction would be seen as reasonable and just. However, if the republican ideology exists to do one thing more than any then that is to dismantle the concept of British ‘national security’ in Ireland and it will be interesting to see how those protesting the existence of the Six County state, as republicans will, are perceived and dealt with.
In a Six County context, any right to freedom of assembly must be qualified by the right of communities to live free from the fear of sectarian harassment. Consequently, bigoted organisations like the Orange Order must not have the unquestioned right to coat trail through nationalist areas.
Most of the universal rights enshrined within this current attempt at a bill of rights and, more importantly, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been and will continue to be abused by the forces of the British state in Ireland, including those rights covering freedom of association, freedom from abuse and degrading treatment, the right to national self-determination, fair conditions at work, freedom from exploitation, freedom of thought and religion and the right to life.
The Bill will ultimately be within the gift of the British government to give and may or may not be party to the unionist veto at the Six-County executive. Given the track record of the British government and unionism as a whole on rights abuse, both in Ireland and internationally, it is difficult to see how their regime will introduce and, more importantly, uphold the rights proposed. Especially given that most of those rights, if recognised, would precipitate the collapse and dilution of their continuing control.
Irish citizens have their rights denied on all fronts under British occupation, unionist political domination and the economic system to which both are aligned. It would be foolhardy to think that a bill of rights can succeed in challenging and delivering on our rights whilst the joint ills of foreign occupation and free market economics dominate the political landscape.
However, a bill of rights, much like the Section 75 aspects of the GFA do serve one purpose, if nothing else, and that is that when the British regime in Ireland is looked at with rights-based glasses on, it is found to be in gross contravention of all of them.
This is the reason why a proposed Bill of Rights has been given such a cold reception by many of the stakeholders in rights abuse. It is not because a bill of rights provides any legal framework to challenge such abuses because it does not, rather that it will become another litmus test of justice that the British government and their unionist counterparts will fail. Both do not like looking in the mirror of human rights, either historically or contemporarily.