Second class citizens: how we pay the price for political stalemate
Representatives from the Northern Ireland Human Rights’ Commission (NIHRC) were in Geneva this week to make a submission to the UN committee on Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which can be read here.
It amounts to a searing indictment of how political paralysis has led to a situation where commitments to citizens have not been fulfilled, regardless of good intentions.
The NIHRC is urging the UN to highlight a number of areas of serious concern with the UK government and challenge it to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to resolve them.
Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said: “The Commission has provided an extensive analysis for the UN highlighting gaps in protections for economic, social and cultural rights. We are very concerned that political inertia is preventing progress in human rights protections.
“Across the devolved institutions measures to enhance health, housing, social security and other rights are being affected by an absence of government decisions. Good intentions are insufficient to deliver human rights obligations. The Northern Ireland Executive must be seen to act on issues that will improve the lives of local people.”
In its submission the NIHRC told the committee that it was concerned that the lack of a fully functioning Executive, coupled with current political instability, is jeopardising rights.
“Under the devolution settlements, control of a substantial number of policy areas in NI has been transferred from the UK Government and Westminster Parliament to the NI Executive and NI Assembly. These include, among others, health and social services, education, social security, employment and skills, and housing.
“The NI Executive is a complex power-sharing government consisting of a mandatory coalition. While power-sharing was a key output of the NI peace agreements, the inability to maintain effective power-sharing has stymied the realisation of ESC rights. The legacy of the conflict and the accompanying ideologies continue to hinder dialogue among our political leaders.”
Three of the areas that the NIHRC highlights as of especial concern are:
- The lack of an anti-poverty strategy. The 1998 Northern Ireland Act stated that the Executive had an obligation to produce an anti-poverty strategy. Seventeen years later in June of this year the Committee for the Administration of Justice took the NI government to court claiming that no proper strategy was in place. It won, with Mr Justice Treacy stating: “There is no evidence before me that this inchoate strategy was ever finalised. There is no evidence that it was ever crafted into a road map designed to tackle the issues referred to in the section.”
- Equality: The rest of the UK has had a single Equality Act since 2010 which harmonises equality legislation. Northern Ireland has yet to follow suit. As a result there are gaps in protection in Northern Ireland one example of which, according the NIHRC is that “NI does not prohibit unlawful discrimination and harassment by public authorities on the grounds of sex in the exercise of their public functions.”
- Health: The commission expressed concern about progress on the Executive’s flagship Transforming Your Care strategy pointing out that the necessary funding for its implementation has still not been found.
- Childcare: Unlike the rest of the UK Northern Ireland does not yet have a childcare strategy. One is pending, but the NIHRC has concerns about the fact that childcare in Northern Ireland is disproportionately higher than in the rest of the UK
These are just three of the issues raised in a document that runs to 83 pages. If some or all of these concerns are taken up by the United Nations there is no guarantee that anything will change as a result.
The UN deals with state rather than devolved institutions and when problems have been raised before about human rights in Northern Ireland the Westminster government has responded by saying that the matters in question are devolved, implying that it neither will nor can act upon them.
Dysfunctionality in government appears therefore to go much further than discrepancies over human rights: there is also a structural issue as to the potential of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland providing lesser safeguards for Human Rights in devolved areas without anyone being able to do anything about it. At the most any UN statement is likely to be an embarrassment, rather than a pronouncement that leads to action.
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