Honour GFA with human rights: Kilpatrick
by Claire DICKSON
6 December 2022
Is Northern Ireland a rights-based society? Alyson Kilpatrick, the Chief Commissioner for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, mooted this at a Committee for the Administration of Justice-hosted talk, “Human Rights 25 years after the Agreement”. Kilpatrick began by stating that the Good Friday Agreement was a historic accord and one that meant a lot to her. It foresaw a society which would guarantee respect for everyone alongside enforceable standards everyone could rely on.
When Kilpatrick was human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, she learnt how important human rights are. She argued that policing in Northern Ireland has been one of the biggest success stories, as police have embraced a human rights approach to its work, realising that this benefitted not only themselves but also the communities they serve.
However, Kilpatrick also spoke about the sense of suspicion which has grown within government as it began to hear what a human rights culture was doing to society. The very people who had produced the Agreement, she added, were the ones undermining it with rhetoric which undermined human rights. But when Kilpatrick was asked why some people were afforded human rights at all, she referred to the Human Rights Act, which made these rights enforceable. In this sense, she argued that we are under an obligation to respect such applicable laws.
Kilpatrick said that a major issue with human rights is that people don’t recognise it as the law. She believes the most serious threat to the Agreement is an anti-human rights rhetoric which started years ago and has continued to fester. This reached a fever pitch when the government considered withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and repealing the Human Rights Act. Amidst a cost-of-living crisis, she believes human rights are painted as a luxury at best and a menace at worst.
Kilpatrick concluded her talk by referring to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which the Human Rights Commission have stated in writing to be incompatible with human rights and running in contradiction to the Good Friday Agreement. In her view, the bill is also contrary to the Northern Ireland Protocol, as it doesn’t adhere to the Victim’s Rights Directive. The government has signalled that they will make amendments to the bill, but Kilpatrick argued that a whole new bill is needed as amendments alone would not be sufficient.
Kilpatrick concluded that human rights must have practical effectiveness in ensuring peace and that rights are a prize worth winning in aiming to honour the Good Friday Agreement in its entirety.