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Human rights report – the reformists bite the dust

John McAnulty

10 January 2009

A central issue in resolving the conflict in the North of Ireland has been a concept labelled by Marxists as the irreformable nature of the state.  In this view the state, set up on a sectarian head count, sustained by a built-in system of sectarian repression and discrimination, could not be gradually reformed until it became a democratic state. Any reform that led to full human rights would negate the purpose of the state and lead inevitably to a United Ireland.  A settlement that preserved the state would also have to preserve sectarian discrimination, retain an apparatus of repression to support the discrimination and thus deny human rights. 

Reformists have long been aware of this conundrum and have long held to a particular method of squaring the circle – a bill of rights that would force the unionists to stay their hand and gradually desist from discrimination and repression for fear of the law.  Legislators seeking a deal eagerly seized on this concept and a bill of rights became a part of the Good Friday settlement.

Now, a decade later, the recommendations of the committee have been published on December 8th.  The report has been rejected by the Unionist and DUP representatives and they have been supported by their parties.  Given the British history of appeasing the unionists there is no chance of the report becoming law, so to that extent the original Marxist view has been bourn out by events.  The six county settlement will remain the basis of a nasty sectarian hell-hole until a new generation summon the energy to demolish it. 

There is however more to be said. On December 11th Daphne Trimble, unionist commissioner and spouse of David Trimble, laid out her objections.  She quoted from the remit given to the commission in the Good Friday agreement.

“The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was required by the Belfast Agreement, to consult and advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and - taken together with the ECHR - to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”
Trimble then sets out her objections:
“My fundamental difference is that the rest of the Commission has misinterpreted its mandate and that the additional rights suggested by the majority have little if anything to do with the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem. This was plainly required to be the essence of our advice, on the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland advice which reflected the reasons behind and the purpose of the Belfast Agreement.”
Anyone reading the legislation will be struck by the ambiguity of the language. What would “reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”? Why should rights be constrained by a need “to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem”?
The “particular circumstances” to anyone not a lawyer can only be a reference to the core issues of the troubles – persistent sectarian discrimination and repression. However the act says that these can only be met within the constraint of parity of esteem – that is, that the rights of sectarian identity trump human rights!

Daphne Trimble’s argument is therefore quite logical – giving the citizen defense against sectarian discrimination and intimidation would quite clearly contradict the ethos of a unionist political structure founded on such things. 

It is a tribute to the blind bigotry of Unionism that they feel the need to indulge in this piece of sabotage and stymie a human rights act.  The fact is that parity of esteem has been the motor of political developments over the past decade, only requiring the St. Andrews agreement to ensure that, to paraphrase George Orwell, unionist party of esteem is more equal than others. The status of human rights in all this is indicated by the fact that it could take a decade to produce a report and that this report is immediately negated by unionist resistance.

But the report has more gloomy news for those peering into the entrails of our own wee Norn Iron.

The fact is that the remaining commissioners – a mixture of unionists, nationalists, liberals, reformists and ex-republicans – were far too cowardly to put forward an assault on sectarianism as a central aim.  The whole report was a ineffective attempt to defuse unionist resistance by diluting the human rights component to levels best seen in the journals of homeopathy – a pseudo-science that believes that drugs work best when diluted to zero.

So the context of the bill of rights is such that the central issue of sectarian discrimination is buried in a mass of group rights in the hope of making it invisible.  Even this is subject to a silent censorship. Defending the rights of the disabled is uncontroversial. Women may be protected from domestic violence (with wider issues such as abortion avoided) but Loyalists are as likely to be homophobic and racist as well as sectarian.

When it comes to defining issues reacted to sectarianism there is heavy qualification:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Freedom of expression

The exercise of these freedoms, (of expression) since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

Freedom of assembly

No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.

- note that this provision is completely in line with the parades commission and its arbitrary determinations of rights at the whim of the state

Language rights 

– enshrines the equality of Irish with the obscure Ulster-Scots dialect and thus capitulates completely to the sectarian dynamic that dominates The Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews modification.

Legal rights 

the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security

The report goes on to acknowledge that the state may suspend the right to a trail at any time.

The whole report is buried in a mass of verbiage:

The right to respect for private and family life
The right to marriage or civil partnership
Property rights
Education rights
Freedom of movement
Freedom from violence, exploitation and harassment
The rights of victims
The right to health
The right to an adequate standard of living
The right to accommodation
The right to work
Environmental rights
Social security rights
Children’s rights

It is evident right away that many of these rights are not available in a normal capitalist society and that achieving any of them is not a matter of appealing to a legal apparatus  firmly on the side of the bosses but rather a matter of political struggle. 

That is the real significance of this report.

Human rights appear no-where in social structures that are ten years old. The report, a decade late, is immediately sabotaged by the unionists. The majority capitulate in their report to the sectarian logic of the two traditions and build in support of the sectarian settlement.  They bury the central problems in a verbiage of aspiration around rights that are clearly absent from bourgeois society.  The central message is that there is no need for political struggle.  We should see what parts of the pottage we can persuade the Unionists to buy and then patiently wend our way through the plethora of courts, tribunals committees and Quangos, all of which will prove unable from the get-go to deliver anything in the way of democratic rights.

Not only are there no rights to be had, there is no political opposition to fight for it.  The trade union movement was unrestrained in its support for the report.  Sinn Fein have moved so far to the right that supporters complained that there were to many rights proposed for children!

It we want rights, if we want justice, we will have to organise and take them. We will have to overthrow the rotten sectarian colony that has been built on the Good Friday agreement. We will have to build a revolutionary party of the working class that can make this possible.

The existing parties, the supporters of the report, have demonstrated in letters of fire that they represent no form of democratic solution and, indeed, are the forces that enforce and hold up this grubby sectarian statelet.


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