Human rights are always about the minority. They are always about protection against majority rule.
Internationally human rights standards were written in the context of majoritarian abuse. The violations committed by the Nazi party were legal, committed with a majority of the population voting for the Nazi party. The Nazi occupation of Austria was voted for by the majority of the population of Austria. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written by nations who understood their own excesses and how a population can deny the liberties and lives of minorities. It was written with protection of the unpopular in mind. These protections would develop to include the practical protection of the rights of people with diverse political affiliation, languages, cultures, and sexualities.
Nation states agreed to sign up to those charters and conventions on behalf of their people, in order to protect minorities from majorities even in their own countries. Without human rights protections how can we protect free speech of those we disagree with? How can we protect the imprisoned activist? How can we ensure that mob rule does not reign the day? Without convention and law we cannot.
We need no lectures on why that is important with the minority population living in the north of Ireland following partition having their rights refused, denied and written out of law. But perhaps some need a reminder. We, in our transitional context, with our peace agreement under pressure, cannot succumb to some notion that we have a progressive majority so therefore protection of the minority is no longer required.
The Petition of Concern, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, has been abused and sullied. There is no question about that. However, it is at its core a key mechanism that ensures the worst excesses of majoritarianism can never visit this land again.
The Petition of Concern should have never used in opposition to convention rights, or against previous agreements. That is was abused to do both in relation to LGBT rights, commitments to an Irish Language Act and the rights of victims of our conflict is something that must be addressed in any negotiations. But that focus must be on the re-assertion of the primacy of human rights legislation and a commitment to implementation of previous agreements. It cannot be with a sacrifice of a key pillar of protection.
Suspension of the Petition of Concern would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and the potential for a new Assembly. I honestly don’t know if a new assembly is possible, but I do know it will absolutely not happen in the context of further erosion of the Good Friday Agreement.
The political landscape has changed utterly since Spring 2018 when the parties had an agreement which the DUP failed to sell to the Orange Order, the UVF/UDA and the listenership of the Stephen Nolan Show. The pro-Brexit nihilists that ignored the risks of a no deal Brexit and the rights of Irish citizens have ensured that only a February ‘18++ agreement could possibly garner a scintilla of support for re-establishing an Executive, and even at that many people will doubt it can gain the confidence of those whose generosity was abused and wasted.
The idea that suspending a Petition of Concern will help in that confidence building is reckless, absurd and a non-starter.