The absurdity of the collapse of Stormont in January has only been overshadowed by the absurdity of its failure to be restored. Following an election to restructure the embattled institution, the Democratic Unionist Party found themselves without a clear Unionist majority and have been forced into a true form of power-sharing, one that requires actual debate, discussion, and compromise. And yet, following the March 2nd election, a functioning government has not been established, calling into question the motives and desires of both Unionists and Republicans.
Like many examples of division, the restoration of Stormont has come down to only a few points of contention which bear significant historical weight, but head-scratching objections. An Irish Language Act has been the purported road block to a devolved government, with neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein budging even slightly on the issue. While budgeting issues have been cited by Unionists, it is fair to assume that there is a level of prejudice in their objections. A victory for the Irish language would be a victory for Republicans, while also making the language and culture more socially accepted over time, putting the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom at greater risk. With this in mind, one must ask, how far would one be willing to go to prevent social and cultural victories in order to preserve power? Oddly, quite far.
An Irish Language Act is only the tip of the iceberg; the greater struggle is the establishment of a Bill of Rights. A simple document that lists the explicit rights and liberties of all citizens, to be protected by the government, which is to be limited in power in relation to these rights and the effect legislation can have on its citizens. While a seemingly simple task, it has been nearly twenty years without a result.
One of the promises of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is the establishment of a Bill of Rights, creating a nation that would be very different from its counterparts in Scotland, Wales, and England. With Northern Ireland being a perpetual powder keg of sectarianism, the guarantee of rights could not be more important. To have the equality of society extend across religious and sectarian lines only comes with the establishment of rights, to be agreed upon by all parties and protected under law.
The United Kingdom has long touted its own Bill of Rights, which have existed for some time, but these have been shown to be limited when presented with other nations. The United States, having thrown off British rule, set out to ensure that the rights of its citizens would not only be protected, but would take priority to the government’s intentions. Legislation is reviewed and, if there is an objection, it can be taken back to the government for reconsideration, via the lower courts and, if necessary, the Supreme Court of the United States. It can be a slow system, but has been paramount in its protection of the country’s citizens.
The basic liberties that we enjoy in the United States do not exist because the government allows us to have them. The right to speech, religion, assembly, due process, self-defense, and self-determination, are natural liberties that are innate in every human being, from birth to death. Whether they come from a divine creator or from the natural evolution of our species and society, they are as much a part of humanity as the air we breathe and the blood we bleed. Without government, these rights still exist. But by choosing to live in a society that has government, we must first make clear the limitations of such governments and establish of what we as citizens are capable. In essence, we establish who is in control.
Sinn Fein has brought forth a Bill of Rights, to be debated and amended, for ratification. Calling their vision for Northern Ireland and, eventually, a United Ireland “rights-based”, the Republican party has been insistent that a Bill of Rights is tantamount to the peace process. Along with the explicit declaration of fundamental liberties for all citizens, a Bill of Rights can also lay down the framework of means in dealing with issues of legacy from the Troubles. This has become a far more urgent issue, now with the impending effects of Brexit. The current Human Rights Act, which brought the UK in line with the rest of the European Union, has come under scrutiny, which should make every citizen of the United Kingdom speak out.
While there are some Unionists who have spoken in support of a Bill of Rights, the stifling loyalty to the British Government seems to hold them back. Surely the British Government is capable of protecting the rights of citizens in their own countries, despite a spotty-at-best record. Surely citizens being investigated for offending another or dissent, Catholics and “others” facing wait times for public housing nearly two and three times as long as Protestants, and the use of military as a police force on home soil are nothing more than human error. But human error at the state level can be stifling at best and deadly at worst.
What is the risk of a Bill of Rights then? Public dissent is nothing new in Northern Ireland, nor is the expression of faith, although both have long been points of contention and violence. There are only two points that Unionists can fear, but cannot make public: the guaranteed equality and protection of Catholics and minorities and a public victory for Republicans and Nationalists. If Sinn Fein is able to one day ratify a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, making the country even more distinct than the rest of the UK, it will endear them to Irish and British alike. Not the British who long for Ian Paisley to rise like Lazarus, but for the common men and women who wish to live in peace. Blinded by sectarianism and slipping power, a victory for all citizens of the North can only be seen by Unionists as a victory for Republicanism, which will, forever and always, be unacceptable.
A Bill of Rights should be supported by all citizens in Northern Ireland, not just Republicans, as it is for all citizens, not just Republicans. You may be offended at the sudden outpour of opinion and dissent, but you may also be surprised to find much of that dissent coming from your own neighborhood. The fear of a United Ireland, for which a path is already guaranteed under law, is not sufficient to deny equality and protection for all. If I must listen to a Klan member speak (or I could simply walk away), then he must listen to me when I speak against him (or he could simply walk away). But, if you truly find peace walls acceptable and your neighbors being denied services through discrimination or being intimidated for moving into a Catholic or Protestant neighborhood, then, by all means, maintain the status quo. For your own sake, however, consider this: the risk of your neighbor being discriminated against or silenced by the state will eventually trickle down to you. When the state has silenced its opponents, it will find new ones to maintain power. And that, dear friend, is far more terrifying than the tricolor over Stormont.