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17 July 2017

Ruth Dudley Edwards: It is about time unionists called Sinn Fein's bluff over its demand for new human rights legislation

'About time unionists called Sinn Fein's bluff over demand for new human rights legislation'

Jeff Dudgeon

"Open borders are a human right", announced a placard I saw at a protest in London last week when the Policy Exchange think tank awarded Australian Prime Minister Turnbull the Disraeli Prize.

He had been chosen because of his role in maintaining “a strong, non-discriminatory immigration programme” and for “his emphasis on the importance of immigrants in Australia integrating successfully into the country’s mainstream — by acknowledging and respecting the predominant values of Australian life and society”.

This was a neat encapsulation of some of the difficulties about the human rights debate.  

As far as the protesters were concerned, open borders were a human right because they said so and they didn’t care about unintended consequences.

As far as Malcolm Turnbull was concerned, border controls are vital to everyone in Australia to ensure social cohesion and immigrants have obligations to the host community.

In Ireland there has been a disturbing lack of grown-up discussion about what we actually mean by human rights.

Last week the Human Rights Consortium — which so far comprises 160 organisations which want a Bill of Rights — came up with a fatuous Press release announcing that a poll it had commissioned showed that “Human Rights unite Northern Ireland”.

Since the questions were so uncontentious (e.g. “Should all human rights apply to everyone, whoever they are?” was agreed by 90%) I’m slightly surprised that there wasn’t 100% approval for them. 

The trouble is, not many people agree on what exactly is a human right.

When the IRA was at work its supporters wouldn’t have agreed even with such principles of the 1689 Bill of Rights as the ban on “cruel and unusual punishments”, but of late they’ve made their platform “rights and equality for all”, which would be more reasonable if those rights weren’t simply anything they approve of these days and if they showed any signs of caring about the financial or social cost.

As someone who doesn’t think the answer to the demand for an Irish Language Act is to compound pointless extravagance by extending it to Ulster-Scots, it’s been encouraging over the past few weeks to see some heavyweights challenging basic assumptions.

Dr Maurice Hayes from Downpatrick, an enthusiast for the Irish language and the GAA, whose distinguished and lengthy career included being permanent secretary at the Department of Health, Ombudsman and an Irish Senator, described the Irish Language Act as “madness” which wouldn’t do much for “an old guy waiting for a heart bypass”. 

While he had no time for those DUP members who show the language disrespect (and I agree with him), he worried about the potential cost and duplication.

There have been years and years of wasted money and labour in the NI Human Rights Commission to come up with a local Bill of Rights.

As UUP councillor Jeff Dudgeon, the hero of the campaign to have homosexuality decriminalised in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, has pointed out, the 1998 UK-wide Human Rights Act fulfilled “all necessary human rights requirements”.

The Good Friday Agreement had required the government to consider the commission’s advice, but zealots pushed what Mr Dudgeon rightly called a “foolishly extensive” agenda that included “social and economic rights” that were for voters and politicians to decide on.

The government, therefore, was entitled to ignore it.

Dermot Nesbitt, once a UUP minister, called on unionists as well as the London and Dublin to respond to republican demands by looking to the international rights law endorsed in Europe.

While the Council of Europe had supported legislation to promote the Irish language, it had also said the government “should engage in a dialogue” to create the necessary “political consensus”. However, by refusing to sit in Westminster, showing no respect to the name “Northern Ireland” and pushing a “two flags or no flags” position, Sinn Fein fails to “uphold the basic tenets of international human rights law” as laid down in the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Sinn Fein is big on entitlements, but without acknowledging its obligations to respect the national constitution, it is simply not entitled to demand rights.

Any hope that the unionist leadership will choose to fight on the moral high ground for a change?

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Jeremy Corbyn, who lost the general election, on stage at Glastonbury
© Ruth Dudley Edwards