There is nothing right about an absence of government

26 Jan 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 26 Jan 2018

Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby
Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby

The absence of local political leadership is having a harmful effect on human rights, according to the Human Rights Commissioner.

Northern Ireland is not perfect and never will be.

That is news to nobody. Like any other place, we try and make the best of circumstances and see where that takes us.

Having no government, however, results in significant problems. The state is not the solution to everything – clearly the third sector appreciates that – but not having real governance at all creates huge barriers to progress in many areas.

One of these is human rights.

Last month the NI Human Rights Commission released its Annual Statement. It makes chastening reading.

Since its publication, the Human Rights Commissioner, Les Allamby, has continued to highlight the absence of a functioning Assembly as a critical obstacle to improving a dismal situation.

As it has done before, the annual statement tries to look at an exhaustive list of human rights issues and then grade them all with a green, amber or red light.

Green is the best grade (where an effective response has been provided by Westminster, the NI Executive or relevant public bodies), amber middling (where there is not necessarily an ongoing violation of rights, and where initial steps to address the matter may be underway), and red a warning light (where a subject requires immediate action and where there may be an ongoing violation or abuse of human rights).

In total, 74 areas received a grade – 64 amber, ten red, meaning none of them were green. Clearly things need to improve.


The NIHRC Annual Statement itself highlighted the collapse of the Executive in the very first paragraph of its foreword:

“It is difficult to write in a positive vein on the developments in human rights in 2017. There is not a single green light for the UK government, Northern Ireland Executive or any relevant public authority denoting an effective response to addressing specifically identified human rights issues in Northern Ireland. The lack of progress reflects the absence of a working Northern Ireland Assembly throughout this year.”

Last week, the Commissioner wrote an article for the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), following up on the statement, and again talking about the impasse and its effect on rights:

“The annual statement also illustrates why an effective devolved Assembly is so important for human rights.  Outstanding strategies to promote gender equality, improve the circumstances of people with disabilities and to enhance the lives of LGBTI individuals all remain on the drawing board.  An anti-poverty strategy remains outstanding despite the High Court ruling two and a half years ago that the NI Executive had failed to meet its legal obligations by not producing such a strategy.

“The absence of such strategies is not academic.  Recent concluding observations from the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the UKs’ performance set out in trenchant terms just how far we have to go to ensure people with disabilities can fully realise the right to live independently and be included in community life.  This report follows hot on the heels of the Committee’s inquiry into the cumulative impact of the UK government’s social security, work and employment legislation, and policies on persons with disabilities right to live independently and be included in the community.”

Future concerns

The third sector and issues around human rights have extensive overlap. It is therefore unsurprising that frustrations within the sector about local political drift is replicated when it comes to rights.

It is only right to be concerned about what is to come in 2018. A key part of Northern Irish civic life has ground to a halt. There are bound to be consequences.

As time goes on and the political deadlock continues, we will be left wondering what would have been possible if we had a government. Now is a time for many significant issues, such as health reform, or Brexit. Being rudderless is a problem.

The Commissioner continued: “The report concluded that there was reliable evidence that systemic and grave violations of the rights of persons with disabilities had occurred.  The UK government robustly defended the policies adopted that engendered this conclusion.  As the annual statement highlights further reform, including provision to confine entitlement to new claimants of child tax credit and universal credit to two children only will have a debilitating impact on child poverty in larger families and for family households containing a child with a disability.  The Northern Ireland Executive’s measures to mitigate the adverse impact of earlier social security reforms were due to be reviewed in the coming financial year and end altogether in 2019.  The review is one of a large number of issues in stasis as a result of the political impasse.”

The appointment of a new Secretary of State, and the start of a new round of talks pursuing the formation of an Executive, marks (yet another) local fresh start.

Westminster has no appetite for Direct Rule but rumours abound that preparations are being made for just that scenario. Whether this is an attempt to cajole our politicians into agreement, or a straightforward acceptance that the vacuum cannot continue, hopefully it results in some positivity and direction.

Because the state is not the solution to all our problems but not having a government makes most things a lot harder.

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