Researcher conducting study on Bill of Rights

Dr. Robin Whitaker is comparing the development of Northern Ireland’s Bill of Rights with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A new research award is spurring advanced research into the development of Northern Ireland's inaugural Bill of Rights. Dr. Robin Whitaker, Anthropology, was recently awarded the Ogilvy Renault Scholarship, presented by the Ireland Canada University Foundation, for scholars conducting research in a discipline which is related to both Ireland and Canada.

Dr. Whitaker will use the award to compare the debate over the development of Northern Ireland's Bill of Rights with Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These will serve as a starting point to look into broader questions of democracy and citizenship in divided societies.

Dr. Whitaker will be based at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University in Belfast while she conducts the Northern Ireland portion of the research.

Dr. Whitaker is very familiar with Northern Ireland politics, having conducted doctoral research on the Northern Ireland peace process and served as a member of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. This political party was formed to contribute to the peace talks which began in 1996. These negotiations aimed at producing a settlement that could put an end to violent conflict in the region and create political structures that were acceptable both to unionists and nationalists. Unionists, most of whom are Protestant, want to maintain Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists, most of whom are Catholic, would like to break the link to Britain and establish a united Ireland.

In April 1998, the parties to the talks endorsed the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Over 70 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland endorsed the Agreement in a referendum held in May of the same year.

“One of the provisions in the Agreement was to establish a Human Rights Commission,” she said. “Part of its job is to advise the British government on a Bill of Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland .”

Six years later, while opinion polls show that a strong majority hope to see this commitment fulfilled, the question of what should go into a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland remains a subject of intense debate.

Dr. Whitaker said that there has been a broad difference in the approach of unionist and nationalist parties.

“In general, nationalists have tended to want a more comprehensive charter. They wanted more detailed provisions in the Bill of Rights, whereas unionists have tended to argue for a more minimalist approach, in keeping with the rest of the United Kingdom .”

Dr. Whitaker said that disputes around the question of group rights are of particular interest for her work. She explained that the Belfast Agreement took what political scientists call a consociationalist approach to dealing with conflict. The idea was that power should be shared between the two main political groupings and that, in the words of the Agreement, “the identity and ethos of both communities” should be safeguarded.

She said that some people have argued that this means a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland should include formal recognition of the two communities as such. Others have argued that rights should apply to individuals, not groups.

Dr. Whitaker noted that one of the things that she finds most interesting about how the Bill of Rights debate has developed is that, while unionists and nationalists have expressed divergent views on some aspects of the proposed charter, these are not the only perspectives being expressed.

“I am very interested in what this might tell us about how Northern Ireland political culture is developing in the wake of the Agreement,” she said.

Dr. Whitaker added that much of her doctoral research on Northern Ireland politics focused on people who do not fit neatly into the “two communities” framework. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition is one such a group. It is a cross-community party, whose founders included women from unionist and nationalist backgrounds, as well as others who would not identify with either of these political communities. “In this sense, they have challenged the idea that there are only two political views.”

She added that, while her “research is immediately concerned with the question of how people see Northern Ireland society after the Good Friday Agreement and what kind of society they want for the future, it can also be used to explore broad questions about the place of cultural and political difference in democracy more generally.

“These questions are also relevant in societies that don't have such dramatic kinds of divisions as Northern Ireland has experienced. For example, some people would argue that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has made an important difference to Canadian democracy. However, there are still many unresolved issues related to, for example, language politics and aboriginal claims to self-government. What is contained in a Charter of Rights can actually say quite a bit about how people imagine the kind of democracy that they want and what they understand citizenship to mean.”

Dr. Whitaker plans to conduct her research through interviews with a wide range of participants in the Bill of Rights debate. These include members of the Human Rights Commission, members of political parties and relevant non-governmental organizations, such as women's organizations and organizations representing ethnic minorities. She will also be collecting documentary evidence not readily available outside Northern Ireland and attending relevant public meetings held during her time of research.

Dr. Whitaker said she was very grateful for the Ogilvy Renault Scholarship and is “looking forward to being able to spend a month or more in Belfast next spring. The Good Friday Agreement is complex, and this is just one piece of it. But it also offers a window onto wider questions of democracy and democratic inclusion in diverse societies.”