'Much more than a language' - how Human Rights can help Ulster-Scots realize its full potential

‘Talking Ulster-Scots’ - Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Chief in Exclusive Chronicle interview

'Much more than a language' - how Human Rights can help Ulster-Scots realize its full potential

Dr David Russell, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 19B52-17

Alan Millar


Alan Millar



ONE of Northern Ireland's senior Human Rights experts has urged the Ulster-Scots community to use the human rights based approach to realize the full potential of their culture and identity.
Dr David Russell, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) made his remarks in an exclusive interview with The Chronicle.
Having recently given a talk organised by the Ulster-Scots Agency on the subject of 'The Human Rights framework as it applies to Ulster-Scots identity,' we thought that this might be a subject of interest to many readers.
Having kindly consented to do an interview, Dr Russell began by making two points.
David said: “I think that it is important that we recognise the wider role the Ulster-Scots and Scots-Irish have played in the creation of the modern human rights framework.
“There are links between Ulster-Scots Presbyterians and ideas of freedom and individual liberty.
“People left this place and went over to the USA and other places taking their beliefs with them.
“They contributed to the development of the modern sense of rights and freedoms, helping establish democratic states in different parts of the world.”
“The second point I would make is that Ulster-Scots is not just a language, there is a tendency for it to be compared rather crudely with Irish language.”
“People are naïve if they believe that Ulster-Scots is just a language, it's clearly much more than that.
“There is also clearly a historical narrative, a cultural identity, dance, music as well as a linguistic tradition, there are links to particular religious traditions.”
David said that academics such as the late Dr Ian Adamson and others have done and are doing work in the various fields of Ulster-Scots including historical, literary and the diaspora.
“We at the NIHRC deal with hard law,” David said: “the right to culture is enshrined in international law and has been signed up to by the UK government.
He said the two big treaties covering this were: The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“These two sit below the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said.
“The treaties are very broad, covering many sorts of rights including the right to culture, educational rights, recreation rights, parental rights to name but a few.
“Members of the Ulster-Scots community are well within their rights to claim that protection and access the full range of benefits.”
However David went on to say that members of the Ulster-Scots community appear to seldom use human rights based language in tis way.
“It is a very different sort of argument to make a Human Rights claim based on rules in law as opposed to just claiming that one has a cultural identity,” he said
“One would expect more members of the Ulster-Scots community to be claiming rights that go beyond the linguistic.
“Those in the Ulster-Scots tradition can engage those rights, but unlike other groups making demands of government, there is not a tendency to articulate demands in rights based language.”
Asked how Ulster-Scots minded people could better access the benefits of this approach, he said:
“It's a question of building capacity in the Ulster-Scots community, members of that community should have a conversation about how they can realize fully their cultural identity. One way is to frame that through a rights based approach.”
He said that the Ulster-Scots Agency has a role in promoting the broader view among the general public, but also in encouraging internal discussions within the Ulster-Scots community.
“The language of Human Rights can be used to make claims to support the Ulster-Scots community to realize their full potential,” he said.
Given the amount of ignorance and derision displayed in respect of Ulster-Scots, especially on social media, we asked if the NIHRC works to protect individuals and communities against the intolerance of others.
David said: “The NIHRC works primarily between the state and the individual
“It is not our role to take sides between two private individuals having a different view of cultural identity.
“If one person has a narrow reading and another person a broader reading, we can advise and assist people to talk to each other, as well as talking to the state.
“We are doing work with the Ulster-Scots Agency to build capacity that we hope will help Ulster-Scots to be taken forward as a rights based cultural identity.”
David continued, “Equality doesn't always mean treating everyone the same, it must be honed to the needs of each differently according to their situation.
“Conventionally put under a linguistic tradition, Ulster-Scots is a very important cultural tradition in this part of the world and needs to be recognised and fostered so that recognition is afforded to the benefit of everyone!
“This potential needs to be realized, not in terms of comparison to others, but in terms of what individual members of Ulster-Scots community feel they want in terms of recognition.
“This is where the development of the rights based approach and the state can help,” he said.
“Human Rights belongs to us all, the Human Rights approach can be developed by people of Ulster-Scots background. There is a long historical tradition of Ulster-Scots in this area.
“Our door is open at the NIHRC, we want to help people claim their rights, that's the same for the Ulster-Scots as it is for everyone else.” David said.
Continuing more generally, David said that only two human rights are absolute, the right not to be a slave and the right not to be tortured.
“Even the right to life is not absolute,” he said, “it may be lawful for the state to kill.”
“Other rights are limited, there is no absolute right to a cultural identity, there needs to be a balance!
“Human Rights is a rules based system and 'balance' is always there, if one historical narrative disagrees with another there must be a balance.
“Part of our remit is to work with people and advise them, and governments.
“If it can't be sorted out these things find their way to court where a balance will be struck there! Courts should however be the last resort,” he added.
“As people become familiar with the Human Rights approach it is to be hoped that they would come to realize that their rights are not absolute and move to an improved understanding of cultures and views other than their own.
“With the rights approach there are responsibilities as well, duties of toleration, mutual respect and understanding.
“It's all in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People have different interpretations and people are entitled to gave a different view,” he said.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. I might not like what you say, but you have the right to say it - but there are limits as to what you can say
“You can't use hate speech, intimidation or harassment, this is where the boundary of what you can say lies, this is one of the places where a balance must be struck.
“But the boundary, right for one set of conditions, might not be right for another.
“There is no human right not to be offended; the boundary sits differently for different people.
“The premise on which the balance is struck never changes, though the circumstances change and develop over time. Cultures are not static they change, peoples' understanding of their culture changes.
“Claims made under the rights based approach will change over time and will continue to change.
“It is a duty of the state to be responsive to this.
“There is a minimum duty of care, a floor on states respecting right to culture, they cannot deny that culture exists. Holocaust denial is illegal in some countries.
“We would encourage states to reach for the ceiling and protect, promote and recognise as fully as possible people's cultural identity and right to make a claim.
David said that the UK and NI government has recognised Ulster-Scots culture by the setting up the Ulster-Scots Agency and by creating an Ulster-Scots strategy.
He continued: “However the strategy has not been delivered in full, a lot of stuff has not been delivered.”
Some of this, he said, would fall under the remit of the Stormont Department for Communities, but Stormont isn't sitting at the minute.
“We are clear they should deliver the Ulster-Scots strategy,” said David.
“There are treaties the UK has signed up to, and apply to the devolved administration through the NI Act.”
Asked if the same recognition had been conceded by the Irish government, given that the Ulster-Scots Agency is an all Ireland body, Dr Russell said he could not speak for the Irish government.
But added that the ROI had broadly signed up to the same international laws.
“All have the right to their culture,” he said, “Ulster-Scots is a reality for some people. They feel that Ulster-Scots is their culture and the state can't deny people their rights.
“Cultural identity, the historical narrative of a community exists regardless of the state, but the state can help it flourish.
“It is the duty of the state to protect not undermine, suppress or interfere and a flourishing identity adds to the diversity and shared wealth of society as a whole,” he concluded.

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