Bid to end Stormont stand-off should be taken seriously

Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin chairman’s call for Bill in ‘Belfast Telegraph’ worth considering

Sinn Féin national chair Declan Kearney pitched his proposal in the North’s main unionist newspaper. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sinn Féin national chair Declan Kearney pitched his proposal in the North’s main unionist newspaper. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Sinn Féin national chair Declan Kearney is not usually a profferer of solutions. His typical role is to issue hardline statements, serving as a kind of engine warning light on a car that may or may not be registered to Gerry Adams.

So the solution Sinn Féin has just produced for a multitude of Stormont talks issues is all the more remarkable for having been delivered by Kearney, in a platform piece in Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph.

The issues in question are an Irish language act, same-sex marriage, Troubles legacy cases and a Bill of rights.

Kearney’s proposal is to put the first three issues into a Bill and solve the whole lot at a stroke.

Why has nobody suggested this before?

A large part of the reason is the laughable failure of the Bill-of-rights process as set out in the Belfast Agreement.

The agreement specified a complete system of legal and institutional rights protections, North and South, based on putting the European Convention on Human Rights into British and Irish law. This was all duly delivered. However, in a fateful paragraph, the agreement said there could also be “a Bill of rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.

Supplementary rights

Such a Bill was not compulsory but an attempt to devise one was required, by mandating the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to “consult and advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation,” those supplementary and particular rights.

The British government may have regarded this as saying: “If you can think of anything we’ve left out, let us know.”

However, the rights sector saw it as a chance to throw in everything including the kitchen sink.

Consultation dragged on for eight years and drew in 160 rights groups before the commission finally published its proposals, which ran to 191 pages – the American Bill of rights totals 462 words.

What had mostly been thrown in were so-called economic and social rights, drawn from international instruments, particularly the United Nations covenant on economic and social rights.

The commission made no attempt to explain how any of this reflected the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. It was just a general left-wing wish list, demanding binding entitlements to health, housing, employment, benefits and even a standard of living, all “to the maximum of available resources”.

A left-right split on the commission mirrored its nationalist-unionist split, causing unnecessary tribalisation of the argument.

Some rights groups did claim the Troubles had been caused by poverty, so the need to eliminate poverty is a particular circumstance of Northern Ireland. This sophistry found few takers and the British government politely but firmly dropped the whole thing down the back of a radiator. Little more was heard of it until Stormont collapsed this January.

When Sinn Féin began framing its reason for walking out in terms of broken promises from previous agreements, it added a Bill of rights to that list – although not too high up, as the agreed process for a Bill was fully delivered. It just turned into a joke. This is another reason Kearney is an interesting choice to suddenly elevate the idea. The Sinn Féin national chair does not do jokes. He is a very serious person indeed.

Kearney’s proposal for a Bill portrays language rights, equal marriage rights and Troubles justice rights (specifically, “the rights of families to have a coroner’s inquest”) as particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland because it is the only part of the UK that does not have them.

How can any unionist object to that?

Persuasive sophistry

Kearney has thrown in his own kitchen sink of further Sinn Féin requirements, but the sophistry in this case is persuasive.

He wants worker and employment protections that would answer regulatory concerns around Brexit, plus the inclusion of all current rights protections in the Bill to address nationalist concerns about the UK replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of rights.

More broadly, Kearney implies that anti-discrimination and anti-sectarian rights could address Sinn Féin’s overarching Stormont “respect agenda”.

He did not mention economic and social rights by name, and apart from employment rights he did not cite any by example. After all the years of arguing about such rights and their critical role in bringing the Bill down, this cannot have been an oversight.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Kearney’s proposal is that he pitched it in the North’s main unionist newspaper.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill was giving an interview to the Irish News, the main nationalist newspaper.

Also published on Tuesday, beneath the front-page headline “O’Neill: Sinn Féin is not for moving”, this claimed the republican party would accept only a standalone Irish language act and would not drop its insistence that DUP leader Arlene Foster could not be first minister before the conclusion of the heating scandal inquiry, which could easily take several years.

Is O’Neill still a serious person? 

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