Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Council of Europe and the European Charter

While it has been widely pointed out that repeal of the Human Rights Act might constitute a breach of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, there has been less publicity about the fact that a deliberate withdrawal from the Council of Europe's human rights regime might mean that the UK finds itself in an impossible position regarding its continued membership of the body.

That would clearly entail a further weakening of the Nationalist position in Northern Ireland, since Irish is protected, after a fashion, by the UK's adherence to the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Although technically Ulster Scots is also part of the package, it has never enjoyed the same degree of protection, and in any case ordinary Unionists have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the dialect.

The main failing in the Charter has been that it is not justiciable: the Northern Ireland Executive has consistently failed to present required reports to the Committee of Experts tasked with gauging implementation, obstructionism that has seen it named, shamed — and then left alone.

However, there is no doubt that the Charter has been better than nothing. Current Conservative policy envisages an end to universal human rights in the UK, and perhaps both a hard land border with the Republic and kicking away the linguistic protections of the Charter. All in all, it's a decidedly unappealing mix for Northern Ireland's Nationalists.

It is therefore clear that a two-pronged approach must be taken — on the one hand working to defeat the Conservatives' madcap isolationism and on the other engaging with them to ensure that linguistic rights are protected, this time in a fashion that envisages legal remedies where appropriate.

Of course, the truth is that the Conservatives stand little chance of being able to repeal the Act, not only because legislative consent is required from the Devolved Administrations but because its majority is simply too small. There are enough pro-European, liberal Tories such as Kenneth Clarke to stymie the change, which appears to be being pursued merely in order to keep the more swivel-eyed backbenchers happy. All the better reason, perhaps, to sit down with the UK Government and persuade it of the need for justiciable linguistic rights.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Proposed Bill of Rights — a Linguistic Annex?

There has been much talk of the possible repercussions of the UK repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights, a task rendered more difficult by the existence of the devolved authorities, as Lallans Peat Worrier points out.

Veteran legal correspondent Joshua Rozenberg argues that there is "really no need for any significant reform". In fact, although the middle-brow press has often expressed its righteous indignation at terrorist suspects not being extradited or some prisoners being given the right to vote, the UK loses very few indeed of the cases that reach court.

There is no doubt, however, that trying to do away with the Act and failing to persuade Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to go along with the scheme could lead to greater distance between Westminster and the fringe, which would need to pass legislative consent motions if all parts of the UK are to proceed in uniformity.

In the case of Northern Ireland, scrapping the Human Rights Act would be a clear breach of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which has the status of an international treaty. Proceeding with the reform would require the support not only of the Northern Ireland Assembly but of the Republic of Ireland.

In that regard, the Blether Region has one or two suggestions. Everyone knows that, although an Irish Language Act was promised by the last Labour Administration, real pressure can be exerted on the UK Government to come up with the goods only if the Northern Ireland Assembly collapses and direct rule is imposed.  If that happened, of course, getting the Assembly up and running again might be easier said than done.  If, on the other hand, the Assembly continues as it is, any Irish Language Bill will almost certainly be blocked in the Executive or by a petition of concern, since the Unionist parties have chosen to oppose it for purely political — not to say, sectarian — reasons.

Rather than refuse point-blank to negotiate a new Bill of Rights, Republicans and Nationalists should enlist the aid of the Irish Government and play hardball on the inclusion of linguistic rights — say, rights of the kind that reflect on the Welsh experience — and put the ball firmly in the Unionist court.  Better still, why not just encourage the Welsh to do the heavy lifting themselves? An annex to the Bill of Rights might not be able to do everything that a Language Act could, but it might well put a stop to the most arbitrary and egregious limitations placed on use of the language, for example, the ban on using it before the courts or the requirement for super-majorities before bilingual street signs can be erected.

The outcome might of course be that Unionists rather than Nationalists turn out to be the ones to reject the new Bill of Rights, but in that case Irish-speakers will be no worse off than before and will have gained valuable publicity for their cause.