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.

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